Elizabeth Taylor, HIV/AIDS activist, 1932-2011

I’ve only seen one or two Elizabeth Taylor movies. I can only identify a few of her eight husbands, and that’s double-counting Richard Burton. I do know that Elizabeth Taylor did a lot for gay rights and for honoring the humanity of people living with HIV and AIDS. She is missed.

Taylor caught some criticism and resentment from segments of the gay and HIV/AIDS activist communities who deserved more of the limelight that she immediately received because of who she was. There was no way she was going to match the intensity or the boldness of (say) many ACT-UP participants and supporters. Desperate, abandoned, often fatally ill, these men (and some women, too) lacked the time for some usual niceties of coalition politics. I can’t blame them for that. They also lacked the recognition and the social acceptance they deserved. In different ways, both ACT-UP and people like Liz Taylor did much good.

Taylor also provides a chastening reminder of something else. She could have followed the path of most other self-indulgent celebrities: being quietly decent to affected friends, otherwise keeping her head down about the epidemic. She did a lot more than that.

I myself was in my early 20s when Elizabeth Taylor really stepped forward on this issue to lead amfAR. Like most people at some remove from this epidemic, I watched passively, saddened by the scale of the catastrophe, but having a million reasons for doing…not much to help out. Elizabeth Taylor’s contributions stand as a rebuke to those of us who could have done more when it most mattered, especially in those early days when HIV advocacy was a politically marginal cause.

Phoebe Connelly has a nice piece in the Awl with more.

Postscript: This Frontline piece is great, too (h/t Andrew Golis).

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Taylor, HIV/AIDS activist, 1932-2011”

  1. The Westboro Baptist Church was all set to stage a protest at her funeral, but she is being laid to rest this afternoon. Maybe Phelps got beaten to the punch this time.

  2. She certainly stands a reproach to her fellow movie star, Ronald Reagan, who must have had gay friends when he worked in Hollywood. But a man who made his name condemning hippie orgies “so vile that I cannot describe them” could hardly afford to lose the anti-gay vote by expressing sympathy (or even Christian mercy) for people dying a horrible death. I am sure Ron went through his Hollywood years as a completely faithful monogamist (well, almost), and never heard anything about those famous “Hollywood parties”.

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