More than Two Decades After a Speech that Changed the Face of AIDS in America, Mary Fisher is Still Delivering
by Chip Alfred
It was the summer of 1992. A beautiful blonde woman stepped up to the podium at the Republican National Convention and twenty seven million viewers watched in stunned silence as she spoke. Mary Fisher delivered a thirteen-minute oration that, according to the New York Times, “brought AIDS home to America.” For most people, Fisher didn’t look like their perception of a person living with HIV—which made her remarks that much more powerful. “I have come tonight to bring our silence to an end,” she said. And so she did.
Fisher grew up in Detroit, the product of a prominent, privileged Republican family. In private school, she nurtured her passion for art, but didn’t seriously pursue it until later in life. “In those days, being an artist was not something you worked at,” she recalls. “It wasn’t what my father would say was a good vocation.” She attended University of Michigan, but left to pursue her first career as a television producer. Fisher worked in broadcasting until the mid-1970s, when she was offered an opportunity to join President Gerald Ford’s advance team—the first woman to hold such a position. After a short-lived first marriage, she moved to New York City and met Brian Campbell. The couple married in 1987, gave birth to a son, Max, and a few years later adopted a second child, Zach. In 1990, Campbell asked for a divorce. A year later he told his ex-wife he was HIV-positive.
At first, Mary’s focus was on Brian. “I found myself just being there for him. I didn’t think I was at risk. I really didn’t understand.” But her biggest concern was for Max, then two years old, who tested negative. After she tested positive, “that’s when my life changed really. The world started spinning. I just almost couldn’t believe that it would be true.” And the inevitable self-questioning began. “Why me? Am I going to die?” Fisher went public with her diagnosis in a front-page story in the Detroit Free Press, then she persuaded GOP leaders to allow her to speak at the national convention in Houston. Her speech, “A Whisper of AIDS,” has been recognized as one of the greatest of the twentieth century. It is included in Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900–1999, along with other monumental addresses like “I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not only was Fisher’s an eloquent, stirring plea for compassion and public attention to AIDS, it was a game-changing moment in history—especially for women. On the heels of Elizabeth Glaser speaking about AIDS at the Democratic National Convention, Fisher’s comments made it clear to the American public this wasn’t a gay men’s disease and that everyone needed to join the fight.
In “A Whisper of AIDS,” she said: “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.”
Nobody—especially Fisher—anticipated the impact her remarks would have or the doors it would open. Speaking invitations and media interview requests came pouring in from all over the world. “It changed the way people looked at the disease and gave me an opportunity to speak to people in power,” she remembers. “I talked to many groups of women that looked just like me. Maybe they would never have heard that message.” That same year, Fisher founded the Family AIDS Network, a support and advocacy group which later evolved into a research foundation at the University of Alabama, the Mary Fisher CARE (Clinical AIDS Research and Education) Fund. Fisher has served on the Leadership Council of the
Global Coalition on Women and AIDS and as an ambassador for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). She has authored six books, from My Name is Mary in 1996 to her most recent autobiographical tome released in 2012, Messenger: A Self Portrait. She describes the first book as a last will and testament to her sons—believing at the time her children would soon be orphaned. (Brian Campbell died from AIDS-related complications in 1993.) The author refers to her latest book as the one she had to write because she didn’t die. Messenger chronicles Fisher’s journey as “a pilgrim on the road to AIDS” with humor and hope, as she becomes a courageous, savvy survivor. Her story is one of an individual who’s been a source of inspiration and strength for women across the globe. In a candid memoir, she shares her struggles with alcoholism, AIDS and breast cancer, and how she learned to heal with dignity and faith.
Still an in-demand public speaker, Fisher, sixty-five, is now an internationally-exhibited artist living in Sedona, Arizona. Her collections include quilts, sketches, jewelry and prints. “My art has always been part of my life,” she explains. “A lot of it is using art to get out my message.” She founded the ABATAKA (a pan-African term for “community”) Project, after several trips to Africa meeting with HIV-positive women. “I saw the need to create for them empowerment,” she discloses, “to give them skills so they would be able to perhaps get a job, finish school, send their children to school, buy food.” She taught them the art of hand-beading and began incorporating their work into the jewelry she designs and sells on-line. Proceeds from the collection benefit African women affected by HIV and the ABATAKA Foundation.
Amazed that the famous speech she made twenty years ago is relevant to a new generation, Fisher says, “I am grateful that it lives on.” At the same time she’s saddened that we continue to face some of these obstacles today—stigma, shame and stereotypes. She acknowledges the strides we’ve made in AIDS awareness and prevention, but emphasizes we still have our work cut out for us. “We are not talking about it enough and letting people know it’s still an issue,” she asserts. “We’re not doing the education, so we’re not doing what it takes to keep the epidemic from growing.” As an HIV-positive parent, her greatest wish is this: “I want my children to know that their mother was not a victim. She was a messenger.” The message? “Stand up for what you believe in…and try to inspire people to love and to serve others.”
Watch “A Whisper of AIDS” at www.youtube.com/user/maryfisherart. Visit www.maryfisher.com for more information about Mary Fisher’s art and advocacy. To purchase any of Mary Fisher’s books, log onto www.maryfisher.com/advocacy/books-publications.
Chip Alfred is an Editor at Large for A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.
Read this article in the May 2013 digital issue by clicking here.