Thursday, March 24, 2011

A hero called Elizabeth

I was saddened to hear of the death of Elizabeth Taylor—not surprised, since she’d been so unwell in recent years, but still saddened. I enjoyed her film performances, but it was her fierce advocacy on HIV/AIDS for which I’m most grateful. In fact, I’d call her a hero.

She raised millions of dollars to fight the disease, but even more importantly, she also spoke out on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS—and she did so at a time when it could easily have ended her career.

It’s hard now, in these more enlightened times, to remember how terrible those early days of the epidemic were. The man acting in the role of US President, Ronald Reagan, refused to talk about the disease until 1985. In that first mention, Reagan talked only about mythological casual infection—even though the CDC had already stated that casual contact infection was not possible.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Taylor was raising millions to fight HIV/AIDS and battling prejudice.

As late as 1987, Reagan didn’t want to spend money on education and instead wanted to spend money on pre-marital testing and mandatory testing of “high risk groups”. At the time, we activists pointed out there was no such thing as a “high risk group,” only high risk behaviours. Reagan said while campaigning in 1980 that gay people were “asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I,” so we weren’t surprised by his boneheaded and homophobic stance, just that it wasn’t even worse (although, he didn’t need to be with Jesse Helms and other Republicans in Congress, together with TV preachers, attacking GLBT people at every opportunity—actually, some things don't change…).

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Taylor was raising millions to fight HIV/AIDS and battling prejudice.

The cold, hard fact is that Elizabeth Taylor was a friend and ally of the GLBT communities, particularly in the fight against HIV/AIDS, at a time when we had very few prominent allies. In those days, Hollywood, and the entertainment industry generally, shunned us out of fear of damaging their careers (or, perhaps, being found out). It was a McCarthy-like time for GLBT America, and Elizabeth Taylor was there when so few were.

Plenty of people are remembering her acting career, or her marriages, but it’s her activism that still touches my heart the most. She was a rare person, the last of the great movie stars, and also a real, caring human being. She will be sorely missed.

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