Sunday, April 10, 2011

Via AmericaBlogGay: Hero of the Month: Dame Elizabeth Taylor

In 1987, a man with AIDS went for a swim in a public pool in West Virginia. Although the state health department advised that he posed no threat, the mayor of the town closed the pool and alerted the media so that “everybody in the community [would know] there was an AIDS patient in the pool.”

In 1985, Ryan White, a thirteen year old hemophiliac with AIDS was kicked out of school even though authorities had advised that he, too, posed no risk to his fellow students. When the boy was readmitted a year later, his family received death threats and people on the street would taunt him by yelling "we know you're queer."

In 1986 and again in 1988, hundreds of thousands of Californians signed petitions to place initiatives on the ballot that would have mandated the quarantine of AIDS patients.

Such was the homophobic hysteria surrounding AIDS when Elizabeth Taylor began planning her first AIDS fundraiser. Taylor remembered the reactions:
People … slammed doors in my face and hung up on me . . . [P]eople would say, 'No, I'm not getting mixed up in that!' And, 'You have to get out of this, Elizabeth. It's going to ruin your career.'
These reactions only seemed to strengthen Taylor’s resolve. Indeed, the vitriolic homophobia surrounding AIDS motivated her to become involved in the first place. She was quoted as saying
Worse than the virus there was the terrible discrimination and prejudice it left in its wake. Suddenly it made gay people stop being human beings and start becoming the enemy. I knew somebody had to do something. For God's sake, our president didn't even utter the word for years into the epidemic.
If it weren't for homosexuals there would be no culture. We can trace that back thousands of years. So many of the great musicians, the great painters were homosexual. Without their input it would be an entirely different, flat world. To see their heritage, what they had given the world, be desecrated with people saying, 'Oh, AIDS is probably what they deserve' or 'it's probably God's way of weeding the dreadful people out,' made me so irate.
I’ve always associated Taylor with AIDS activism. However, I did not realize the magnitude of her impact until I began to research this piece. Taylor made AIDS her life’s cause. At a time when the disease was called "the gay plague" and others were afraid to even touch people with HIV, Taylor employed her star power to help humanize those living with the disease. She made headlines throughout the world when she was photographed shaking hands with HIV/AIDS patients in a Thai hospital. She helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR) in 1985, and later, in 1991, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF).

Taylor was a prodigious fundraiser and made large personal contributions to the cause. ETAF operated at zero overhead cost because Taylor personally underwrote the organization’s expenses for raising and administering funds. Over the course of her lifetime, she is said to have raised $270 million for HIV/AIDS. Last month, it was reported that she had donated the bulk of her estate to her AIDS charities.

An impassioned lobbyist, Taylor was not afraid of taking a swipe at leaders for their inaction. At an international AIDS conference, she criticized the first president Bush, remarking, “I don't think [he] is doing anything at all about AIDS. In fact I'm not even sure if he knows how to spell AIDS.” She testified before Congress in 1986 in support of the Ryan White Act, and then again in 1990, when it finally passed. She also spoke at the United Nations, imploring its members to join in the fight against the disease.

Taylor carried on her work despite her own declining health. Toward the end of her life she said, "There's still so much more to do. I can't sit back and be complacent, and none of us should be. I get around now in a wheelchair, but I get around."

Now that I have learned more about Taylor's contributions, my respect for her has turned into awe. Rest in peace, Dame Elizabeth.