March 23, 2011
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"I will not be silenced and I will not give up and I will not be ignored." With these words, Elizabeth Taylor lent her voice to the voiceless, her iconic image to those who had previously been invisible, and her compassion and determination to a cause many others had shunned: the fight against HIV/AIDS. Her willingness to speak out against apathy and silence in the early, frightening days of the epidemic and her instinctive sympathy for those in need earned her a place as one of the most influential advocates for people living with HIV in the U.S. and around the world.
When Dame Elizabeth was asked why she decided to become involved with AIDS in the first place, she replied with characteristic bluntness: "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." So she got involved. And when she did, she didn't just help, she changed the landscape forever.
Elizabeth Taylor's involvement with AIDS began in December 1984, when she became a major supporter of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), focusing her efforts on raising the public's awareness and finding the funds needed to fight the disease. Even after months of rejection, she pressed on, working with her good friend and publicist, Chen Sam -- pleading, pressuring, coaxing, making calls and signing letters to influential and wealthy friends. In 1985, Elizabeth Taylor joined the board of directors of the National AIDS Research Foundation (NARF) in Los Angeles. Shortly afterward, NARF merged with the New York-based AIDS Medical Foundation (AMF), founded by Dr. Mathilde Krim, to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). Dame Elizabeth sent word that she was interested in leading a national fundraising effort for the nascent organization. "Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility," she said. "If I can help further a worthwhile cause simply by lending my voice, I feel that it is my place to do so."
As amfAR's founding national (later international) chairman, Dame Elizabeth worked tirelessly to establish the Foundation's name within the U.S. and around the world. Much of her early work with amfAR involved courageously speaking out about the realities of the disease during a time when very little was known about the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). She began lobbying aggressively for increased federal funds for research, education, and direct services to support those affected by the rapidly spreading epidemic, and testified before Congress in support of the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990, which remains a primary source of federal funding for HIV/AIDS programs.
As the most famous advocate for people with HIV/AIDS, Dame Elizabeth maintained a personal connection to those affected while continuing to speak out on their behalf. In 1989, she made headlines when she was photographed shaking hands with an HIV/AIDS patient in a Bangkok, Thailand, hospital. The photograph ran in papers throughout Southeast Asia and, at least in that region, probably did more than any other single event to quell fears about touching people with AIDS. On World AIDS Day 1996, she delivered a fervent appeal to the General Assembly of the United Nations, urging all nations to join together in a worldwide attack on HIV/AIDS. Following this formal appearance, she went down to Manhattan's Lower East Side where she "dropped in" on a local needle exchange program, with little fanfare.Dame Elizabeth always had a comfortable relationship with the AIDS community, their families, and their advocates; she sensed their need for direct support and comfort.
In 1991, she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to help service organizations across the country in their efforts to provide direct care to people with HIV/AIDS, as well as prevention education for the general public.In 2005, amfAR changed its name from the American Foundation for AIDS Research to The Foundation for AIDS Research, to reflect its increasingly international focus. As the Foundation expanded its reach, Dame Elizabeth continued to speak out about the urgent need for more research and to use her consummate skills as a fundraiser to support that effort. Despite a reduced schedule over the past several years, she remained one of the most public faces of amfAR, chairing its Cinema Against AIDS benefits, most recently in Cannes in 2002, and appearing in amfAR Chairman Kenneth Cole's groundbreaking public service ad campaign titled "We All Have AIDS (If One of Us Does)" in 2005.
Several years ago, to honor its founding international chairman on her birthday, amfAR's staff placed an open letter in one of the Foundation's event journals. That birthday message was a fitting tribute then and is a fitting tribute now: "All your life you were known for your beauty. During the past two decades or so, we gradually came to take that beauty for granted, but we were also constantly arrested by your other qualities. We were staggered by your grace under fire. We were inspired by your outspoken honesty in the face of the disbelievers. And we were comforted by your deep compassion for all those living with HIV/AIDS." amfAR will remember and honor Elizabeth Taylor for keeping the faith and for inspiring us year after year to keep going until this devastating epidemic is conquered.