The world mourns the loss of a movie legend, an icon. Unlike my parents’ generation, I did not grow up watching Elizabeth Taylor on the big screen. I wasn’t yet born when she blossomed into a superstar on and off screen during Hollywood’s Golden Age. I have seen only a few of her movies and know little detail of her many romances other than she was married multiple times. Her brief appearance on General Hospital was big news just as I began my freshman year in college in 1981 (the same year AIDS was officially recognized by the CDC). And at that time, I remember the publicity surrounding her as more the price she paid for her fame, her life splashed across the tabloids at every grocery store checkstand. I would just look away, my heart uncomfortable with such ugliness.
More than a movie star, Elizabeth Taylor brought power and grace to the fight against HIV and AIDS in the early 1980s. She was among the first to take a stand in a climate wrought with fear and hostility. When asked about her decision to become involved, she responded, “Well, I kept seeing all 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.” No doubt her involvement changed the course of battle against HIV and AIDS forever. Here is a brief overview of her work as appears on her foundation’s website:
- Miss Taylor’s work began with fundraising for an AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) dinner, the first major AIDS benefit ever held. This support marked the debut of her public commitment to raising funds and awareness for AIDS.
- In 1985, she joined with Dr. Mathilde Krim and a small group of physicians and scientists to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). As amfAR’s Founding National Chairman, she used her celebrity to take the issue of HIV/AIDS to the mainstream media.
- Miss Taylor became a potent force in mobilizing the entertainment, arts and fashion communities to step up their initiatives in connection with AIDS, traveling extensively to speak at conferences, concert venues and benefit events around the globe. She testified before Congress to ensure Senate support for the Ryan White CARE Act, spoke before the National Press Club, and addressed the General Assembly at the United Nations on World AIDS Day.
- In October 1991, Miss Taylor established The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). With a focus on direct services for people living with AIDS, ETAF provides funding to AIDS service organizations throughout the world to assist those living with HIV and AIDS.
In 1993, after nearly a decade of tireless activism and advocacy, she received an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in recognition of her global work raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS. Circulated widely on the internet on the day of her death, this powerful statement is from her acceptance speech: “I call upon you to draw from the depths of your being to prove that we are a human race. To prove that our love outweighs our need to hate. That our compassion is more compelling than our need to blame. That our sensitivity to those in need is stronger than our greed. That our ability to reason overcomes our fear. And that at the end of each of our lives, we can look back and be proud that we have treated others with the kindness, dignity and respect that every human being deserves.” (Read the speech in its entirety) This is how I will remember Elizabeth Taylor: humanitarian and AIDS activist.
Elizabeth Taylor was truly one of a kind. Only one human being possessed her unique blend of beauty, power, grace and courage. And there is only one of each of us. We each have fame in our own circles, power in our own communities, icon-like clout within our own families. And each of us can affect change in the world around us; it doesn’t take superstar fame or fortune to make a difference in the lives of others. The question is, do we have the courage to live such a life?