Commentary: Elizabeth Taylor's AIDS activism is worth emulating

The Lexington Herald-LeaderMarch 24, 2011 

True enough, the late Elizabeth Taylor was a woman who was so beautiful some women would try to mimic her with violet-colored contact lenses and dark brown hair dye.

She was talented and beautiful, no doubt. But I never entertained an urge to copy her looks, probably because I could never imagine seeing her face when I looked at mine in the mirror.

But when she risked her fame and status by speaking out against America's treatment of people with AIDS, I found something in her I could try to emulate.

She defied the common thinking of the masses at the start of the AIDS/HIV scare and urged us all to find the humanity in ourselves that had been clouded, if not suffocated, by fear.

The first cases of the disease in the U.S. were discovered in 1981. Three years later, when most AIDS patients knew better than to tell anyone they had the disease, Taylor organized a fund-raiser for the AIDS Project in Los Angeles. She also became the national chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

"As I recall, she made a big difference," said Terry Mullins, director of Moveable Feast, a local program that has provided meals to HIV/AIDS patients since 1998 and to hospice patients since 2003.

Mullins recalled that Taylor's friend and co-star Rock Hudson announced he had AIDS. Hudson died from the disease in 1985, putting a public face on the disease.

But before he did, Taylor held his hand publicly, shocking the world.

A few months before Hudson died, Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac, was diagnosed with the virus, which he contracted from a blood transfusion. He soon was expelled from his school because of the infection.

Taylor fought that fear and ostracism, and even addressed Congress, asking for more funding for research.

"It's bad enough that people are dying of AIDS," she told Congress, "but no one should die of ignorance."

That pressure helped President Ronald Reagan speak out for more AIDS research after years of never saying the word.

Her passion and her courage, not her physical beauty or acting talent, are what I wanted to copy.

When the government response proved too slow, Taylor set up the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1993 to support clinics, school health programs, family counseling and research.

"I could no longer take a passive role as I watched several people I knew and loved die a painful, slow and lonely death," Taylor said in an interview with Ability Magazine 17 years ago. "This allows me to put money where it's truly needed, to those organizations serving people with HIV/AIDS or preventive education. I won't stop until that hideous disease is conquered."

That's the woman I remember. Mullins does, too.

"She had general acceptance of everybody," Mullins said. "Most of us have problems with that."

So, in addition to leaving remembrances on Facebook or talking with friends about the woman who was married and divorced more times than I can remember, why don't we do what she was doing before she became so ill? Why don't we touch someone with AIDS, show compassion and put an end to ignorance?

Mullins said Moveable Feast needs drivers to deliver some of the 114 free, hot, freshly cooked meals the program serves five days a week. Some clients also receive a cold lunch to tide them over.

Donations of your time or money to local programs such as Moveable Feast or AIDS Volunteers, Inc. (AVOL) would be an excellent tribute to Taylor.

Those efforts would help all of us look as beautiful as she did, and we won't have to dye our hair.

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