Mary Fisher was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 and came to prominence through a riveting speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention (RNC) in which she decried HIV stigma.
Now, the 67-year-old author, activist, advocate and entrepreneur is speaking out against the politics of blame and shame in the current U.S. presidential campaign.
"Of late, I've noticed that my optimism is struggling with my culture. It isn't easy to find joy or high expectations in the context of uncouth politicians speaking half-truths to their mobs of angry supporters," she said in a March 16 lecture at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA, entitled "Freeing the Entrepreneur for the Global Good."
"We come into a political season hoping for some inspiration, some encouragement, some call to a higher vision and a broader purpose. Instead, we've been invited to look down the pants of our candidates -- an unfolding spectacle we don't want the children to watch."
"I reject the idea that such behavior and language is 'just politics,'" she added, "defensible on the grounds that 'that's how the game is played.' It is not just politics, and it is not a game."
In her remarks, Fisher cited the role of rhetoric in the rise of fascism leading to the Holocaust, saying "If you'll forgive a brief sermon: It was rhetoric that gave Hitler his mounting power. Eventually, his words were on the lips of those who goose-stepped across Europe, and his name was on the lips of every man, woman and child in the showers of Auschwitz.
"What we say, and how we say it, matters," she noted. "Words are the billboards of our souls. They will, in the words of the ancient scribe, become flesh and dwell among us. If we speak evil, we will soon do evil; if we speak righteousness, we will pursue it."
Fisher will receive the 2016 Larry Kramer Activism Award from GMHC on March 21.
Her 1992 RNC speech, "A Whisper of AIDS," was included in Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900-1999 (Oxford University Press).
The same year, the Democratic National Convention featured two speakers with HIV, Elizabeth Glaser and Bob Hattoy. It was a first for both parties.
At the RNC, Fisher, whose father was one of the largest fundraisers for the Republican Party, resolutely placed herself in solidarity with all people who have HIV:
"I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society. Though I am white and a mother, I am one with a black infant struggling with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital. Though I am female and contracted this disease in marriage, and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family's rejection."
In her recent remarks, she spoke of "a rising American desire for order coupled with a deep fear of outsiders. We want order, not chaos, and we fear The Other, whoever The Other may be."
"It is not uncommon in American history to find outsiders and immigrants being blamed for whatever is troubling us," she explained.
"The Catholics took a turn, as did the Baptists. The Irish, the Germans, the Japanese and the African Americans -- all have been blamed for whatever ails us, so long as all have been the outsider, The Other. Today, our monetary system is at risk because of the Chinese, our workforce because of the Mexicans. We would be safe were it not for rapsters who are Black and terrorists who are Muslim. What makes this work is that none of these groups are Us. They are the outsiders; they are The Others."
Fisher noted that a poll after the South Carolina primary found that 75% of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States, and a that a separate poll found that "a third of one candidate's voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country, and twenty percent said Lincoln shouldn't have freed the slaves."
In her speech, Fisher detailed her belief that entrepreneurialism is a driving force for hope and change, overcoming issues like poverty and violence around the globe. However, she said, structural barriers can prevent African Americans from accessing these opportunities, explaining, "There are more African-American men incarcerated in the United States than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined. A generation of Black American entrepreneurs are, literally, behind walls. They, too, are The Other."
At Wilkes College, Fisher explained she is resolute in her decades-long journey against the politics of "the Other," as informed by her experience of HIV stigma and bias:
"When I was first diagnosed with AIDS, I went from being the woman who'd worked in the White House to the mother whose children were taboo. My sons weren't allowed to play with their friends, or even their friends' teddy bears. We were treated as outcasts, as The Other, in the community where we once we had belonged. It was that stigma, that bias, that ignorance which convinced me to mount the stadium steps at the 1992 Republican Convention and call for courage instead of stigma. I had learned what it means to be The Other, and that stigma destroys us before the virus kills us."
JD Davids is the managing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.