Remembering movie icon and tireless AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor on what would have been her 82nd birthday
When Elizabeth Taylor died nearly three years ago, the world lost one of the greatest movie stars there ever was.
The stunningly beautiful two-time Oscar winner was a star for much of her life as she appeared in such memorable films as A Place in the Sun, Giant, Father of the Bride, National Velvet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Raintree County, Butterfield 8, Cleopatra and, of course, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?
As much as I admired and really adored Miss Taylor as a movie star – and this gay boy worshiped her – it was her tireless work during the last 25 years of her life on behalf of HIV/AIDS that is even more admirable.
Miss Taylor used her great fame to raise millions of dollars for research and care and continued to give even after her death with a percentage of the proceeds from a Christie’s auction of her treasures raising millions more.
She became an expert and made numerous trips to Capitol Hill to push for funding and to testify at hearings.
She really stepped up during the early days of the epidemic and her contributions were detailed by Dr. Michael Gottlieb – he had been Rock Hudson’s physician – in an article published after her death in 2011.
Here is an excerpt:
Elizabeth was very aware of the injustice of homophobia, and instinctively knew that prejudice explained why AIDS was being ignored. Rock’s diagnosis was a pivotal moment in the epidemic; an opportunity to start up a national foundation to raise awareness and press the government for action. Elizabeth took up the cause and stayed with it for 25 years with characteristic tenacity.
It should be noted that she had the courage to take up the cause at a time when AIDS was very unpopular. Young people may not be aware that as late as 1987 there was a California ballot proposition that, among other things, would have prohibited HIV-positive patients from working in restaurants. It was endorsed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian and nearly passed.
Elizabeth was the first celebrity AIDS activist to become a public spokesperson when we founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR). Her involvement was a revolutionary event, a game-changer on par with Rock’s disclosure.
And she was perfect in the role. She was beautiful, eloquent and compassionate in making the case for more federal and private funding for research and care. The adoring public that had followed her career and the ups and downs of her personal life saw how deeply committed she was to justice and compassion for people with HIV/AIDS and started listening.
Prejudice toward people with AIDS slowly began to soften and was replaced with at least some degree of empathy. It was Elizabeth who finally coaxed President Ronald Reagan into finally saying the word “AIDS,” seven years into his presidency.