By Sandy Cohen
March 23, 2011
LOS ANGELES — Elizabeth Taylor was as well known for her AIDS advocacy as she was for her acting.
She was the first celebrity to speak out on the mysterious and socially divisive disease in the 1980s, calling for research, compassionate care and an end to discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS.
"I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything," Taylor once recalled. "And then I realized that I was just like them. I wasn't doing anything to help."
She got involved with AIDS activism in 1985 and worked tirelessly to raise money and awareness for the rest of her life, said Craig Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, where Taylor held early fundraisers for AIDS research.
"There have been a lot of incredible warriors in the fight, but she will stand for history on a podium above everyone else," he said, adding that Taylor had seen firsthand how her friend, Rock Hudson, had lost his battle with AIDS.
In 1985, when the government had done little to educate people about the disease and nurses were afraid to deliver food trays to AIDS patients in hospitals, Taylor, along with a group of physicians, helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).
"This was long before celebrities routinely performed or worked with charities... and the cause she selected was a disease Americans were frightened about," Thompson said. "It wasn't just as if she took the risk of attaching her celebrity status to a cause. She picked the most controversial cause at the time. But she was like, 'I have friends who are dying and I have to do something, and what I can do is help raise money and help raise awareness."
Taylor, as chairwoman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, visited Capitol Hill to demand that the government live up to its promise to spend nearly $1 billion a year to help people with AIDS with the Ryan White Care Act. She and other stars befriended Ryan White, a teenager from Indiana who, as a hemophiliac, got HIV through a contaminated blood transfusion, was expelled from school because of his infection and became one of the disease's most prominent early victims.
AmfAR leaders on Wednesday called Taylor "one of the most inspirational figures in the fight against AIDS."
"She was profoundly instrumental in helping us identify the resources which have led to the research that has improved and extended the lives of those with HIV and AIDS," said Kevin Robert Frost, chief executive of amfAR, which has invested more than $300 million towards AIDS research. "She served actively on our board up until the day she died," Frost said.
Taylor testified on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s and convinced legislators to care about the disease, Thompson said.
"Every senator showed up. The rooms were packed and people were spellbound," he said. "She connected HIV and AIDS to a generation that felt itself immune, the over-50 folks. Because Elizabeth Taylor was talking about it, people like my mother were reading about HIV and AIDS."
Taylor put a public – and beloved – face on the disease.
"At a time when most Americans thought of HIV/AIDS as something that didn't affect them, her commitment to the issue and considerable star power helped to take the fight against HIV/AIDS right into the mainstream of American society," said Don Blanchon, who oversees the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., which named its main facility after Taylor in 1993.
Magic Johnson, who put his own face on the disease when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, tweeted his gratitude to Taylor on Wednesday.
"Elizabeth, thank you for all your help in the battle for HIV and AIDS," he wrote. "You will be missed by the world."
In 1991, the actress founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which has given more than $12 million to organizations across the country that provide direct care and services to people living with the disease.
Elton John praised his fellow AIDS advocate and entertainer as "a Hollywood giant ... and an incredible human being."
"She earned our adoration for her stunning beauty and for being the very essence of glamorous movie stardom," John said in a statement Wednesday. "And she earned our enduring love and respect for her compassion and her courage in standing up and speaking out about AIDS when others preferred to bury their heads in the sand."
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Human Rights Campaign said Taylor didn't just fight for those with HIV and AIDS; she fought for equality for all.
"At a time when so many living with HIV/AIDS were invisible, Dame Taylor fearlessly raised her voice to speak out against injustice," said GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios. "Dame Taylor was an icon not only in Hollywood, but in the LGBT community where she worked to ensure that everyone was treated with the respect and dignity we all deserve."
The group recognized Taylor with its Vanguard Award in 2000. "What it comes down to, ultimately, is love," she said in accepting the honor. "How can anything bad come out of love? The bad stuff comes out of mistrust, misunderstanding and, God knows, from hate and from ignorance."
Taylor died Wednesday from congestive heart failure. She was 79.
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