|Elizabeth Taylor Rose|
I remember. So many dead, so many lost, and so much fear. It was the mid-1980’s and people were dying all over the world from complications of AIDS.
The disease had many in a near panic. Even after it was found that HIV could only be spread through specific sexual conduct or blood transfusions, many did not wish to be near an infected person. When I was in graduate school I remember overhearing a very talented professor, who should have known better, say that she wanted a secretary removed from his position due to his illness. Thankfully, he was not removed, and he was able to work until his death.
While there was support from the medical field through research and care, there was scant political leadership at the federal level during the 1980’s. The president did not say the word AIDS until the magnitude of the disease was way too big to ignore. In addition, congress passed a law to prevent individuals with HIV from entering the country. Some spoke of quarantines and criminalization. It was a dark time for our country and for the world. There was a great deal of community activism, but there was no national voice that captured the attention of our country.
And the disease spread, thousands died, and there was no political leadership to deal with the issue in a thoughtful way.
In the midst of this, one person spoke up loud and clear: Elizabeth Taylor. No one could have predicted this development.
Taylor was a glamour icon, a great movie star, and a talented performer. She was also flawed in a way that many understood. She liked men, jewelry, and a good time. She was deeply empathetic and understood the plight of those who were sick. She was disgusted by the fear and the moralistic finger pointing associated with AIDS in the 1980’s.
What did she do? She spoke and raised money. She was empathetic. She changed culture. She transformed our country nearly overnight from one that was fearful to one that began the long path toward understanding the disease and developing sound research and treatment.
She helped a great deal. She shamed politicians for their lack of action. She was the first major celebrity to touch someone (Rock Hudson) with AIDS publicly and to raise money for AIDS research. When Ryan White, a 13-year old student with HIV, was expelled from school because of the disease, she spoke out against ignorance. She spoke before congress to try to gain federal funding for AIDS research. She started a foundation to raise money to support clinics, research, and individuals suffering with the disease.
Today, HIV is a manageable illness for many around the world. Efforts continue to conduct research, reduce stigma, and provide care. Elizabeth Taylor was the unlikely person who lit the spark to make it all happen.