Elizabeth Taylor’s war on HIV/AIDS was a public one. It led her to testify before congress and to rally support from both the media and the public. She chaired the first major AIDS benefit on behalf of AIDS Project Los Angeles, co-founded AmfAR to support scientific research about the disease and founded The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to care for those affected.
However, less well known is the private side of Ms. Taylor’s activism. Many of her closest friends in Hollywood – fellow actors and industry associates – were affected by the disease. Yet, much of Hollywood refused to raise their voices because of fear, stigmatism and rampant homophobia. Friends warned Ms. Taylor to stay away from the issue but she refused. She was livid at the industry’s apathy and ready to fight.
“No one really wanted to get into it with me,” Ms. Taylor said as she tried to get her high profile friends to support the APLA benefit, the first of its kind. “I had to take the position, ‘I will not be ignored, so get used to hearing about this from me because you will be, for a long time, or for however long it takes.’ I started noticing that my calls weren’t being returned. I must say, that was a first in my life.”
At the time, Ms. Taylor’s close friend Rock Hudson was undergoing secret treatment for AIDS in Paris and his diagnosis soon became public, devastating Ms. Taylor but increasing her resolve to fight the disease. Despite the tragedy, Hudson coming out as the first celebrity to publicly suffer from AIDS was a turning point for the fight. He humanized the disease and gave it a face. It was what Ms. Taylor needed to get Hollywood’s attention. One of their own – one too famous to ignore – had been stricken and she was able to rally the troops.
Ms. Taylor’s connection to the fight against AIDS grew deeper still when her daughter-in-law Aileen Getty revealed to the woman she called “Mom” that she had contracted HIV in 1984. Far from turning her back on Getty, Taylor grew even more committed to the cause and saving the life of the daughter-in-law she loved and the mother of two of her grandchildren.
“Without the love of Elizabeth Taylor in my life, I would probably be dead — if not physically, most certainly emotionally,” Getty told The Advocate in 2011. “Mom loved me through my shame and held me tight. This can be very difficult: If you do something wrong, sometimes you feel that you want to be scolded or punished for your actions, as opposed to being loved and supported. Mom just loved me.”
Over the years, Ms. Taylor’s passion for eradicating AIDS and caring for those affected never wavered and it lives on through the work of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which strives to give out grants with the same love and compassion as its namesake.