February 27th was the birthday of legendary screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor. She would have turned 89, and Variety.com celebrated by honoring the icon’s decades-long legacy of AIDS activism.
Liz Taylor was one of the few child actors who grew up and successfully transitioned into adulthood as a major Hollywood star. Her beauty was beguiling; raven black hair, those notoriously famous violate eyes. She would become one of the most famous women globally known for her long list of Hollywood film classics and a long list of marriages to match – eight to be exact, though just seven husbands (she married Richard Burton twice.)
More than just a pretty face and radiant beauty, Taylor was one of the greatest actresses of her generation, a 5-time Best Actress nominee who won the award twice. That said, she was also a tabloid target throughout her career. Most people’s recollections of the star include not just her body of work but also a litany of romantic scandals, including a high-profile feud with rival star Debbie Reynolds (Liz stole her husband). Then, there were the addiction issues, weight gain that made her the butt of hurtful jokes by comedians like Joan Rivers, her massive fine jewelry collection, top-selling international fragrances, a close friendship with Michael Jackson, and multiple operations, including brain surgery.
However, what Variety.com so thoughtfully reminds us of is Elizabeth Taylor’s humanity and notable role as a staunch LGBTQ ally, advocate, and HIV/AIDS activist – at a time when it was not a popular stance to take in Hollywood.
At the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, I was a pre-teen. I was also already aware of my sexuality at the time. I remember the national, then world-wide fear as gay men began to die at alarming rates from an unknown virus transmitted through sex. I pondered was that to be my fate as I entered my teenage years and adulthood as a gay man? It was a terrifying time, with no shortage of religious zealots declaring that it was all God’s punishment for living sinful lives. It seemed nobody cared as AIDS ravaged the gay community, and thousands of men died from it. Even the United States President did not even acknowledge the disease’s existence until it was far too late, as History.com outlines,
By the end of 1984, AIDS had already ravaged the United States for a few years, affecting at least 7,700 people and killing more than 3,500. Scientists had identified the cause of AIDS—HIV—and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified all of its major transmission routes. Yet, U.S. leaders had remained largely silent and unresponsive to the health emergency. And it wasn’t until September 1985, four years after the crisis began, that President Ronald Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS.
Elizabeth Taylor was partly responsible for Reagan finally addressing AIDS as she had publicly begun to call him out for doing nothing as men were dying. She had immediately started to advocate for awareness and government assistance in fighting AIDS after her dear friend, Hollywood star Rock Hudson died of the virus. Hudson was a closeted gay man, but Taylor was his confidant. They had been co-stars in the epic, big-screen masterpiece Giant in 1955 and remained friends ever since.
Witnessing the inexplicable deaths of Hudson and countless gay men frustrated Taylor. With little help coming from the government, she was proactive. An early advocacy group emerged at the time called AIDS Project Los Angeles, and Taylor became one of its key supporters,
Variety’s Ted Johnson later interviewed Taylor, and she shared the following,
“I kept seeing all of these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything. And then I realized I was just like them. I wasn’t doing anything to help.”
Taylor became a founding co-chair of amfAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research) in 1985. This was not an endeavor in name only. Taylor actively raised awareness, solicited donations and funds, testified before Congress, and rallied D.C. lawmakers to step up and do more. She used her celebrity for humanity’s good and became the first big Hollywood name person to align themselves with the then-controversial cause.
Elizabeth Taylor, honored at the GLAAD Media Awards, 2000:
AmfAR would become the world’s number-one nonprofit funder of HIV/AIDS cure research, and their work helped pave the way for the development of the first protease inhibitors -a potent new class of drugs administered to treat AIDS in 1995.
In 2009, still recovering from congestive heart failure and pain from other illnesses, Elizabeth Taylor glamorously made a surprise appearance at a major amfAR fundraiser hosted by Sharon Stone. Her commitment to the cause was unwavering, despite her own diminishing health.
Taylor died on March 23, 2011. Though a Hollywood star, she was more like an angel on earth-full of acceptance, empathy and, compassion for others. She understood her ability to use fame as a vessel for change, and she’ll always remain in our hearts for her selfless commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS amid her unconditional close kinship with the LGBTQ community.
We love you, Liz; thank you for everything, all the films, and the fierce fight.
Read more on Elizabeth Taylor’s remarkable life at Variety.