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HIV/AIDS

“I have to show up because it galvanizes people. [They] know . . . I’m not there to sell or gain anything. I’m there for the same reason they are: to get something done.” The discovery of HIV/AIDS not only changed the world forever, but also the life and purpose of Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth was the first person in the entertainment industry to stand up and take charge when few were willing to listen, and even fewer were willing to help. “Elizabeth did something when it required real courage,” said Elton John. Since then she has remained at the forefront of the battle against this disease, a loyalty that has earned her the name the “Joan of Arc of AIDS.”

In the early 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named a new disease called AIDS—acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Although the cancer like symptoms were found in heterosexual hemophiliacs, needle users and recipients of blood transfusion, America and the world were closing their eyes to the AIDS epidemic because the disease had been wrongly portrayed as a gay man’s disease, known in the media as the “gay cancer”. Because of rampant homophobia, there was an instant stigma attached to AIDS. “But when I saw the kind of hypocrisy that was going on, I thought it was terrible,” Elizabeth said. “The industry knew homosexuals were being hit hard, but instead of extending a loving hand and saying, ‘You helped me get to where I am today, without you I wouldn’t have made it,’ they turned their backs.”

“I remember complaining, ‘Why isn’t anybody doing anything? Why isn’t anyone raising money?’” asked Elizabeth. “And it struck me like lightning: ‘Wait a second, I’m not doing anything.’” But she would. Elizabeth Taylor had a plan of action.

“I decided that with my name I could open certain doors, that I was a commodity in myself—and I’m not talking as an actress. I could take the fame I’d resented and tried to get away from for so many years—but you can never get away from it—and use it to do some good. I wanted to retire, but the tabloids wouldn’t let me. So I thought, If you’re going to screw me over, I’ll use you.” Elizabeth’s plan to use the media could only work. They had followed her every move for decades, and by attaching her name to the AIDS crisis, they would have to acknowledge it. Elizabeth Taylor would breakdown the stereotypes associated with the disease and enlighten an ignorant world. AIDS was not a gay man’s disease. AIDS has the potential to affect everyone and no one can hide from it.

Elizabeth Taylor’s first order of business was the AIDS Project Los Angeles’ Commitment to Life dinner. She was approached by APLA to lend her support to the event in January 1985. Not only did Elizabeth agree, but she and her publicist, Chen Sam, also planned the dinner from a small office they rented. “I didn’t want to be honorary. I wanted to actually do the work, make the phone calls, because this was going to be a toughie.” Elizabeth again saw the bigotry surrounding the disease when she tried to recruit longtime friends and peers to lend their support for the dinner. “I have never had so many ‘no’s said to me,” remembered Elizabeth, “They didn’t want to come to the evening, didn’t want to be associated. Some very big names [said no].” Elizabeth also said that “People not only slammed doors in my face and hung up on me, but I received death threats. Something happened to the world, and I think it was massive fear.” However, Elizabeth ignored the senseless threats and pushed forward.

While planning the APLA dinner, the disease became even more personal for Elizabeth. In July 1985, it was revealed that Elizabeth’s friend and two-time costar, Rock Hudson, was dying of AIDS. This only helped to further fuel her desire to overcome the dreaded disease. Elizabeth would discover that AIDS had ravaged his body and mind so much that he didn’t know her when she came to see him. It was during this time that Elizabeth spent time with Dr. Michael Gottleib, Hudson’s doctor. Dr. Gottleib was one of the true heroes in the early days of the AIDS crisis. “He has taken no credit for anything,” said Elizabeth. “He’s remained quiet as a mouse, and he is the one that people should be thanking.” The lack of a medicinal treatment for Hudson was one thing, but the way he was being treated by the press and the public was awful. Elizabeth’s daughter-in-law, Aileen Getty, recalled reading through letters that were sent to the actor saying that he deserved the disease, and it was God’s way of punishing him. But even with the hateful ignorance of public opinion, AIDS finally had an identity. AIDS now had a face.

On September 19, 1985, the inaugural Commitment to Life dinner was finally held. 2,500 people packed the Bonaventure Hotel and although it initially proved difficult, Elizabeth’s peers in the entertainment industry did lend their support. Elizabeth’s old friend Sammy Davis Jr., was among the first to agree, and Burt Reynolds emceed. Other luminaries such as Abigail Van Buren, Cyndi Lauper, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder and Cher all appeared. That night Elizabeth spoke emotionally of a crisis that was dividing a population. “Never has a disease left so many helpless, leaving loved ones and families reaching out only to frustration and fear”. Also read were statements on behalf of Rock Hudson and President Reagan. The evening was a success and one million dollars of desperately needed funds were raised that evening. But it would be too late for Rock Hudson. Less than two weeks later, Hudson was dead.

An important announcement was also made that September. Elizabeth knew that if there was to be any sort of breakthrough, the clout of the entertainment industry would have to align with those in science. The result was amfAR, an amalgamation of Dr. Michael Gottlieb’s National AIDS Research Foundation and Dr. Mathilde Krim’s AIDS Medical Foundation. Elizabeth would be amfAR’s Founding National Chairman. amfAR was also pioneered by Chen Sam, Bill Misenhimer, Dr. Arnold Klein, and David Geffen. The foundation benefited greatly in those early days from a $250,000 windfall left by Rock Hudson. amfAR would prove to be a leader in the fight, and the organization stood tall alongside other heroes like Ryan White, Larry Kramer, and Elizabeth Glaser.

Elizabeth’s participation “was great for the scientists, the people fighting at the lab bench and at the bedside,” said Sally Morrison of amfAR. “It’s very demoralizing work. Then she shows up. It’s very meaningful to them.”

For anyone who has heard Elizabeth Taylor speak on the disease, it is evident how passionate and how driven she is to find a cure. Elizabeth used her down to earth skills to speak to the world on a very human level, whether that was before Congress, or to a room full of children with AIDS. “When you hear her speak in person, she doesn’t rant—she says things very eloquently and in a very human way that’s the opposite of somebody just getting on a platform,” said Elton John. “She came out against the injustice of it all and said it and she kept saying it. But, she was able to convey it in a way that didn’t piss people off. Instead, it forced people [to] sit up and listen and say, ‘This woman is speaking the truth!’”

Elizabeth has been critical of the American government, whom she has felt has not done enough to combat the disease. In July 1991 Elizabeth’s words were heard around the world when she criticized the first President Bush. “I don’t think President Bush is doing anything at all about AIDS,” she told the crowd at the Eighth International AIDS Conference. “In fact, I’m not even sure if he knows how to spell ‘AIDS.’” She has also reprimanded the American government for limiting immigrants with AIDS into the country.

Slowly progress with treatments and medicine were made, and more than ever importance was placed on sex education. “It’s our moral responsibility to educate people about safe sex. People shouldn’t stop having sex—I’d be the last person in the world to advocate that—but safe sex is important.” Elizabeth also demanded that the public be tested regularly. “I feel it is important that people should not be afraid to be tested for AIDS. I have an annual physical and have been tested for the disease, and the test results are negative.”

Just as important as fundraising for Elizabeth, is the alone, face to face time she has spent with those suffering from AIDS. According to former daughter-in-law Aileen Getty, “Right from the beginning she would visit people with AIDS, getting involved with them, talking and listening, making them feel supported and loved. This was always on her own time, and the press never knew that she was actively working with the people.” Said Elizabeth, “If you go in and actually see the people and say to them, ‘What is it I can do to help you?’ and they tell you—that’s what makes your heart bleed real blood.

“I went to a hospice in the Borghese Gardens in Rome, and I said to the guys—there were no women there—’What is it you would really like?’ And one beautiful-looking young man said, ‘I would like someone to come in here and just put his arms around me and make me feel like a human being.’”

Patient care is largely what led Elizabeth to establish The Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation in 1991. Elizabeth has always covered the overhead, making sure that all the money raised goes towards the individuals who need it most. According to Elizabeth, ETAF “researches all the requests. We weed them out, and find out about their overhead. If their overhead is exorbitant, I don’t give them money because I know it’s going into somebody’s pocket. My foundation is for the individual. I want the money to get to the sick who can’t get out of bed,” said Elizabeth. These organizations that ETAF have supported include Caring For Babies With AIDS, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, LIFE, and Mother Saradadevi Social Service Society. The Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation has also given funds to support education, condom giveaways, and needle exchange programs. It must be said that Elizabeth still remains deeply committed to amfAR.

Since Elizabeth became involved in AIDS, the fight has only become more personal, and has hit very close to home. Many friends would die of AIDS or by complications brought on by the horrid disease, including the designer Halston and photographer Herb Ritts. Elizabeth’s secretary Roger Wall took his own life instead of living a life completely taken over by AIDS. But it was when Elizabeth’s former daughter-in-law Aileen Getty discovered she had the disease that proved to be the most heart wrenching. Getty later admitted that her biological family proved to show little compassion, but Elizabeth showed great empathy for the woman who called her Mom. “Without the love of Elizabeth Taylor in my life, I would probably be dead—if not physically, most certainly emotionally.” Getty also stated that Elizabeth’s “instinct to love has given me the power and will to live.”

After AIDS fundraising became more commonplace, Elizabeth would not appear at an event that would bring in less than half a million dollars. “You don’t want to take the Elizabeth Taylor mystique,” said Bill Misenhimer, “and make it commonplace.” It has been estimated that with Elizabeth’s involvement, an event could raise ten times the amount it could raise without her. Friends such as Elton John, Sharon Stone, Brooke Shields, and Magic Johnson became heavily involved in AIDS work around this time, and have all put in long hours trying to combat the dreaded epidemic.

“It’s still out there,” said Elizabeth in 2006. “It is still a pandemic. It has not slowed down. I know people have forgotten. They take things for granted—especially the young people, between 15 and 24.” For Elizabeth, education is still paramount. There is an entire generation of sexually active teenagers who have lived their entire lives in a world where the cocktail of drugs has allowed those with AIDS to live relatively normal lives—but it is this ignorance that is continuing to kill so many around the world. And in developing countries around the world, the people who require these drugs simply cannot afford them. “We have a map at amfAR that blackens out areas of the world where AIDS has killed. If you could see how completely out of control it is in Africa, Asia, and India. It is spreading so rapidly. It’s frightening,” said Elizabeth.

At age 76, and often in poor health, Dame Elizabeth Taylor continues to fight for the cause she believes so strongly in and her courage and dedication amazes so many others and moves them to follow suit. In 2006, she donated a $500,000 mobile medical HIV/AIDS care unit for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and on World AIDS Day in 2007, Elizabeth returned to the stage for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century to raise one million dollars for AIDS. Joined by the great James Earl Jones, Elizabeth’s appearance in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters proved to be a staggering success.

To date, with Elizabeth’s help, amfAR and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation has raised a combined total of over $270 million dollars. She has also been honoured for her AIDS work, from England’s Queen Elizabeth II to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Elizabeth, however, has never been one to pat herself on the back. “I hope with all of my heart that in some way I have made a difference in the lives of people with AIDS. I want that to be my legacy. Better that than for the mole on my cheek.” Elizabeth Taylor has made a difference. Today, 33.2 million individuals live with AIDS worldwide. For Dame Elizabeth Taylor, the fight isn’t over until that number reaches zero.

Please give generously to:
The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation
12400 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 1275
Los Angeles, CA 90025

 

For more information, please visit the following web sites:
amfAR
Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation
Elizabeth Taylor Endowment for the CARE Center at UCLA
Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center of Whitman-Walker Clinic

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