by David Waggoner
Commitment to Life
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]obilizing Hollywood three decades ago against the fight against AIDS and the search for a cure, Dame Elizabeth Taylor was a trailblazer in firing up funding, awareness, and compassion. Taylor had been friends with actor Rock Hudson, who, before he died of AIDS-related complications, publicly disclosed that he was positive and became, like many others who were not so famous, a target of America’s stigmatizing fear of the disease. By dedicating her life to fighting AIDS, Taylor reversed some of that animus—AIDS, she seemed to be saying, was not tabloid fodder, a “story” to be dismissed when the media moved onto to the next “scare”; no, AIDS work was deserving of constant attention, constant funding, constant research, constant innovation. Like a true star, she reflected the light of tens of thousands of individuals living with the disease and dying of opportunistic infections.
Among many of her accomplishments in the first decade of AIDS, Taylor organized and appeared at some of the earliest AIDS benefits, such as APLA’s Commitment to Life. Along with Dr. Michael Gottlieb, she helped to found the National AIDS Research Foundation, which would become amfAR. In 1986, she testified before Congress to support the Ryan White bill, legislation that would provide urgently needed funding for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Many more accomplishments were to come. The foundation the activist started in 1991 is still going strong: The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which supports programs dedicated to direct care and prevention education.
[pull_quote_right]according to 2011 numbers, we find thirty-eight percent of the nation’s individuals diagnosed with HIV.[/pull_quote_right]Among many of the grants awarded by the foundation in 2014, some were directed to one of the hardest hit regions in the U.S.—the South. Under the auspices of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, an Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation grant in the amount of $100,000 went to fund AIDS Care Center for Education & Support Services, Norfolk, Virginia; Equality Foundation of Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia; Health Outreach Prevention Education, Tulsa, Oklahoma; My Brother’s Keeper, Ridgeland, Mississippi; and Racial Justice Action Center, Atlanta, Georgia. More help is needed where, across nine states that comprise twenty-two percent of the nation’s population, according to 2011 numbers, we find thirty-eight percent of the nation’s individuals diagnosed with HIV. As Chip Alfred reports in this issue, the AIDS crisis in the South is a crisis of treatment access, aporias in prevention education, and isolating stigma. As the advocates interviewed in the feature suggest, this problem is solvable. Change for the better is possible.
AIDS advocate and this month’s cover story interview Jay Ellis knows this. The actor’s prescription is education: “Humans, for the most part, fear the unknown. It’s our nature. We have to do a better job of reaching out to the youth. HIV/AIDS awareness needs to be discussed in high schools, in youth programs, and at community centers. Everyone must get tested.”
And while celebrities like Jay Ellis can shine a spotlight—or, as Ellis has ridden a motorcycle in Kiehl’s LifeRide, maybe we should say, headlight—on AIDS, one striking difference from the Elizabeth Taylor days and now is that those living with HIV/AIDS are speaking out in perhaps the greatest numbers ever. They have become our best ambassadors, sharing their recommendations for funding increases and policy changes, but also sharing their insights about everyday life as someone living with HIV. Inside this issue you will meet Fabian Quezada-Malkin, who is gearing up for AIDS/LifeCycle; Benjamin Fredrickson, a photographer who creates community through his images; and our newest columnist, Heather Arculeo, an activist and writer who has joined our team to delve into the lived realities of women living with HIV/AIDS. Like Liz, they represent all of us who have made a commitment to life.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.