Elizabeth Taylor's Legacy: AIDS' First Famous Advocate

Rock Hudson's death led Elizabeth Taylor to her true calling.

BySheila Marikar
March 23, 2011, 5:48 PM

March 24, 2011 — -- The movies, the husbands, the jewels: Elizabeth Taylor will be remembered for all of these, but her most enduring legacy lies in the cause she devoted millions of dollars and countless hours to: AIDS advocacy.

Taylor publicized the need to find a cure for AIDS when few people in the public eye -- let alone Hollywood celebrities -- would utter the disease's name. In a 2003 interview on "Larry King Live," Taylor said she became passionate about AIDS in the early 1980s.

"We all heard of it and nobody was doing anything about it," she said. "And it made me so angry that we all sat around the dining room table, 'Isn't this awful, isn't this tragic? Oh, my god.' But nobody was doing anything. And that really angered me so much. This is before we heard about Rock."

"Rock" was Rock Hudson, Taylor's friend and fellow star who died in 1985 of complications from AIDS. That year, she helped found amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, now one of the world's leading AIDS research organizations with $325 million invested in its programs. Taylor served as its founding international chairman.

Wednesday, following Taylor's death, amfAR made clear its debt to the star crusader.

"Dame Elizabeth was without doubt one of the most inspirational figures in the fight against AIDS," amfAR said in a statement. "She was among the first to speak out on behalf of people living with HIV when others reacted with fear and often outright hostility. For 25 years, Dame Elizabeth has been a passionate advocate of AIDS research, treatment and care. She has testified eloquently on Capitol Hill, while raising millions of dollars for amfAR. Dame Elizabeth's compassion, radiance, and generosity of spirit will be greatly missed by us all."

For her work, GLAAD, the Gay andLesbian Alliance Against Defamation, called Taylor an ally.

"Today, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community lost an extraordinary ally in the movement for full equality," GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios said in a statement released Wednesday. "At a time when so many living with HIV/AIDS were invisible, Dame Taylor fearlessly raised her voice to speak out against injustice. 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."

GLAAD honored Taylor with a Vanguard Award in 2000.

"There is no gay agenda; it's a human agenda," Taylor said in her acceptance speech. "Why shouldn't gay people be able to live as open and freely as everybody else? What it comes down to, ultimately, is love. How can anything bad come out of love? The bad stuff comes out of mistrust, misunderstanding and, God knows, from hate and from ignorance."

Gay rights was also a cause Taylor never hesitated to trumpet. In a 2007 interview with Interview magazine, she slammed those who say the homosexual community asked for AIDS, and said their vitriol motivated her to get involved.

"If it weren't for homosexuals there would be no culture," she said. "We can trace that back thousands of years. So many of the great musicians, the great painters were homosexual. Without their input it would be an entirely different, flat world. To see their heritage, what they had given the world, be desecrated with people saying, 'Oh, AIDS is probably what they deserve' or 'it's probably God's way of weeding the dreadful people out,' made me so irate."

The organization, amfAR, wasn't the only way Taylor sought to stop the spread of AIDS. In 1991, she established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. (Prior to her death, the foundation had raised more than $12 million.) In 1992, at the Eighth International Conference on AIDS, Taylor took a swipe at then-president George Bush for not making the disease part of his agenda.

"I don't think President Bush is doing anything at all about AIDS," she said. "In fact I'm not even sure if he knows how to spell AIDS."

As Taylor's health faltered, AIDS events were often the few occasions that found her out in public.

"Acting is, to me now, artificial," she told The Associated Press at the dedication of UCLA's AIDS Research and Education Center in 1995. "Seeing people suffer is real. It couldn't be more real. Some people don't like to look at it in the face because it's painful. But if nobody does, then nothing gets done."

She added a signature quip:

"There's still so much more to do. I can't sit back and be complacent, and none of us should be. I get around now in a wheelchair, but I get around."

Taylor attached herself to AIDS before it was trendy for celebrities to take up causes. She risked her career and her life because of it.

"People not only slammed doors in my face and hung up on me, but I received death threats," she told Interview magazine in 2007. "When I tried to put the first fundraiser together, people would say, 'No, I'm not getting mixed up in that!' And, 'You have to get out of this, Elizabeth. It's going to ruin your career.'"

Of course, that didn't happen. And yet, despite her numerous accolades (two Oscars included), on Wednesday, many of those close to Taylor called her memorable because of her AIDS advocacy, because of the work she did that set her apart from the pack.

"It wasn't just her beauty or her stardom," Barbra Streisand said in a statement released Wednesday. "It was her humanitarianism. She put a face on HIV/AIDS."

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