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An Historic Republican Convention Speaker With HIV -- and Her Unexpectedly Long Life

July 15, 2016

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Mary Fisher

Mary Fisher (Credit: Shoan Photography)

At the 1992 U.S. Republican National Convention, Mary Fisher shook the nation, taking the stage as the daughter of a powerful Republican leader, speaking openly about living with HIV and calling for an end to HIV stigma and bias. She's still speaking out as an HIV advocate and artist and has thoughts to share about this year's U.S. presidential campaign. interviewed Fisher about her journey and her life today as a long-term survivor.

Re-watching your 1992 Republican National Convention speech reveals its power as a real, core anti-stigma message that is so deeply relevant today. What was your journey to making that speech and what happened afterwards?

I believe that I was definitely in the right place at the right time, having grown up in a Republican home and worked for a Republican president. And my father was finance chairman for Bush. I knew a lot of people in the White House, and in that world, and on the Hill, and everything.

What led up to my being able to give this speech was that the president did want me to do it. But before it, we had done the platform hearings in Salt Lake City, Utah, sometime in May I think it was -- before August. I think that it was maybe a shock to everyone.

My father allowed me to use his name. He allowed me to use what he meant to the Republican Party in order to go to the platform hearings and to talk about how important it was to put HIV/AIDS (but at that time we just said AIDS) into the platform. That was a fight. It didn't really make it in too well. But it least it gave them something to think about.

It was a very much behind-the-scenes: This is important. But I think that many people believed in those days that I was the only Republican with AIDS. That was a scary thing for me. I mean, that was a scary thought, let alone that it could be possible.

My whole being had felt stigma in a way that I never had felt it before in my life. I knew that I really was in a unique place to do this.

I needed [my children] to know that their mom stood up for what she believed was right. I didn't want them to grow up with the stigma. I didn't expect to be alive five years from then. So for me this was my way of saying to my children, "Your mom is not a victim but is a messenger."


I also knew, because I had been lobbied by so many AIDS activists, that they were looking for someone like me to be out there. And I didn't believe that my story would be as big as it was. I didn't have a clue, actually. I knew Magic Johnson had just gone public. I certainly wasn't Magic Johnson -- maybe the opposite, in some respects. A lot shorter, I'm sorry to say.

I thought maybe they were just being nice. Because what could I do? I was an artist living in Boca Raton with two small children -- a white woman from a Republican family. I'd lost so many friends already. I had been divorced from their father when I was even diagnosed.

So we were going through all of that in our own lives. I know everybody remembers the '90s and the '80s differently when it comes to HIV and AIDS. But for us it was really about family. It was important to stand up for what I believed in. And I wanted my children to be proud of their mom.

Now that you look back, is there anything that you would tell your younger self or that has really surprised you through the years -- beyond, obviously, surviving -- that you wouldn't have expected?

I think that perhaps my older self would have said, "You could even speak out louder. You could have been not so afraid, in some instances, and you could have spoken out louder."

I have a wonderful friend, Larry Kramer. I was so afraid to meet him because he just screams all the time at everybody. And he gets attention. I just never worked like that. I was an always-behind-the-scenes person. So I was never a person who would be out there, screaming. And he was pretty right about that. He said, "It's OK. I'll scream loudly. You can do it your way."

I think if I had had even more courage, I could have screamed louder. I don't know. I can tell myself that now. I'm about to be 68. But you tell that to yourself as a 40-year-old person who's dying and has two small children, and has a family that is concerned -- you do things differently to be honest. They supported me, but there was a lot of concern about what kind of backlash would happen.

I just walked right through it. I don't know how I did it, to be honest. You just do it. And you make the decision. Then you move.

How do your children now reflect on those days? And what have they learned through going through this experience as a family?

They are amazing young men. We're very close, as a mother can be to two sons. They, I think, have great hearts. I do believe they would stand up for what they believe in, as well.

I know that they didn't feel ashamed of their mom or their father. And I know that it meant a lot to them, as they grew up. Quite frankly, I consider my whole world a blessing from all of this. I've met some incredible people. And, along the way, they've met a lot of interesting, wonderful people who have taken them under their wings whenever they needed them. We were in a community of people fighting to stay alive. So they met children, and they met people -- they met families. They got a lot of love from people who cared and understood what they were going through, even if I didn't understand it.

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This article was provided by TheBody.


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