March 23, 2011
By Adam Bink
I’m a little too young to really know Elizabeth Taylor and what she represented in the entertainment and celebrity world. I knew about her husbands and her acting career, but it didn’t interest me. All I really know about her is what I first read in Randy Shilts’ magnum opus chronicling the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, titled And the Band Played On (excerpt hand-typed here):
Just a few days from now would mark the sixth anniversary of the publication of Michael Gottlieb’s article on the mysterious cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in five Los Angeles gay men. Six years ago, Gottlieb had been an eager young immunologist in his first months at UCLA. Now, he was a co-chair of a foundation hosting a dinner at which the President and First Lady were the guests of honor. On Gottlieb’s arm was a famous movie star, and senators and congressmen crowded the restaurant, enjoying cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. AIDS was so respectable, Gottlieb could scarcely believe it.
Gottlieb knew that much of the success of both the evening and the foundation was the work of his escort, actress Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor’s interest in AIDS had been building before it became a fashionable Hollywood cause, back when Gottlieb was discussing his plans for a national fund-raising AIDS group with Dr. Mathilde Krim of the AIDS Medical Foundation in New York City. In the last months of his life, Gottlieb’s most famous patient, Rock Hudson, had launched the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or AmFAR, with a $250,000 contribution, and Taylor had agreed to become the group’s national chair, giving the epidemic the star power it had long lacked.
Frankly, it was all I needed to know. Taylor did this back when AIDS was still known as “gay cancer” and no one would touch it. Her fundraising work continued long after that Georgetown event. The Whitman-Walker Clinic here in DC, which provides AIDS counseling and free HIV testing — which I, as a young gay man, had taken advantage of personally — probably would not exist without Elizabeth Taylor’s pioneering. In fact, the Center around the corner from my apartment is named “The Elizabeth Taylor Center”.
I never knew the other side of Elizabeth Taylor’s life, but from what I did know about her, if we had a hundred Elizabeth Taylors and their courage back in the early 1980s, a lot more people would still be alive today.
More coverage from P8TT friend and longtime reporter on the epidemic, Karen Ocamb, can found here.
Update: Jeremy found a great news clip from that era.