Honoring Dame Elizabeth Taylor, Larry Kramer and Princess Di
by John Francis Leonard
When we recently lost that great man of letters and prominent activist, Larry Kramer, it got me to thinking. The list of people whom I truly admire in this world is a short one. My heroes may be few, but they’re a part of me. I’ve never expected them to be flawless, my favorite hero in literature is always the flawed protagonist. But each of these three people possessed a moral certainty, a probity, the drive and heart to be early warriors in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Their legacies and their legendary hearts live on even now that they’ve all passed. I had the great honor of meeting two of them in my lifetime, the third was such a part of my childhood that I feel as if I knew her and I was devastated by her untimely death in 1997 and mourned the loss with so many across the world.
No conversation about HIV/AIDS activism can be had without the mention of Dame Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003], my favorite childhood movie star and favorite heroine. I grew up watching her films with both of my grandmothers, who each were huge fans of her work. To me she is still the most beautiful woman in the world, flaws and all. A privileged life was nonetheless filled with battles and strife and that only served to make her more humane, more willing to put her life’s work and reputation on the line. She was certainly the first celebrity to raise the alarm about a disease that just wasn’t spoken of in society, if not merely ignored. Where others looked the other way, she got to work, making an impassioned plea to her community and the world. The death of her close friend Rock Hudson only steeled her mighty resolve. She cofounded amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS research, and raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS causes and grants to researchers across the globe. She later founded The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991 to focus on care and education about HIV prevention and funded every penny of its administrative costs from her own pockets. She gave impassioned speeches across the country and world and, never one to mince words, brought awareness and empathy to so many. When asked why she was so passionate, she replied, “I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and asked myself why no one was doing anything. And then I realized I was just like them, I wasn’t doing anything to help.”
I can’t speak of it in great detail, due to professional confidentiality, and never have, but I had the great pleasure and honor of meeting Ms. Taylor near the end of her life. I was so happy to have the opportunity to thank her for everything she had done. The first thing she said was, “Call me Liz dear, please.” The second was, ”I had no other choice, someone had to do it, and I’ve got a big mouth.” Three words come to mind when I think of her now: beauty, heart, and bravery. As much as she lost and gained in a sometimes tumultuous life, she gave back tenfold.
Never was a great hero so flawed as Mr. Larry Kramer. Not so flawed, I say. He spoke truth when the truth was sometimes difficult to hear. Like Ms. Taylor, Larry was both a great artist and an incredible activist. He redefined activism for a new generation and many calls to awareness and funding in modern medicine owe him a great debt.
Mr. Kramer started as a screenwriter and went on to be a novelist and award-winning playwright. He wasn’t a hero of my childhood, but one of my formative years. I read his 1978 novel Faggots in my early twenties and, to me, it stands as one of the finest portrayals of gay life in the 1970s. But for many in his community, it was seen as a betrayal, something negative and shameful. He cast a clear and realistic eye in a view of gay life in the New York City of that decade and did not pull any punches. Reading it now, it’s easy to surmise that Kramer saw trouble ahead. I’m certain that in hindsight, he’d had no idea just how much and regretted, more than anyone, to be proven right. He went on to write some of the first and finest plays about the AIDS pandemic.
Larry was one of a small group of influential gay men of the arts to found GMHC, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which grew to be the largest HIV/AIDS service organization in the country. For decades it has been a lifeline for those needing its services and is still going strong today. Unfortunately, Kramer’s more radical approach to activism didn’t sit well with the other founding members and he soon parted ways with the organization. He went on to found a more loosely organized group, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) which grew from his impassioned speeches to a younger generation who, like him, had grown frustrated and angry with the heartless indifference to the crisis by the government, the drug companies, and the researchers. If not total indifference, they were stalled by the status quo, the public’s scorn, and endless miles of red tape. It was in ACT UP that Kramer came into his own with his in your face, heads on, ‘lie in the streets’ brand of civil disobedience. They staged protests at drug companies, cathedrals, the mayor’s residence, even the NY stock exchange. This was a civil rights movement, but it didn’t have a civil approach, people were dying, there was no time for civility. In researching a quote from Mr. Kramer to use in this peace, I was most struck by two simple ones delivered at the top of his lungs at his legendary rallies, “WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE?” and the simple, but powerful, “PLAGUE!” Mr. Kramer’s approach may have been caustic at times, but it was just what was needed at the time to call his community to action. He was never afraid to speak the truth, even if it wasn’t always welcomed.
I met Mr. Kramer briefly at an ACT UP benefit held by a friend who was active in his movement. I simply shook his hand and thanked him briefly for the work he was doing. I can’t remember his exact words, it was decades ago, and I’d probably had a few, but he he said that he recognized me from the East Village bar where I worked. He went on to express that a young guy who looked like me probably saw a lot of play and he reminded me to take care of myself and always use a condom. It was blunt, but heartfelt advice and I assured him that I did just that. I admit that I was a bit nervous and intimidated, but this interaction, albeit brief, meant the world to me and I’ve thought a lot about it since his recent death. I’ve often regretted not doing more at that time, but with school, tending bar for a living, and supporting my three dearest friends who were rapidly getting sicker with the disease, I didn’t have much time to commit, but I helped in my own way.
I remember the morning of July 29, 1981, more vividly than most of my difficult childhood. I was eleven years old and fascinated by the romance of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. This was the morning of their wedding, and I hardly slept and was downstairs with the television on at an ungodly hour, probably the only eleven year old boy for miles doing so. A handsome prince and his beautiful bride; it was like a fairytale! I was over the moon.
Five years later and another television sighting of that same Princess is etched in my heart and mind, perhaps even more poignantly. It is news footage of that same beautiful and gracious Princess crouching next to the bed of an emaciated patient with AIDS in a London hospital with her hand on his shoulder, listening to him with intention and heart, smiling sweetly and nodding with understanding. It was as if the television cameras and reporters, hospital staff, nor anyone else existed for her in that moment than that critically ill man. This is was she did so well and with such heart. At a time when people were afraid of someone dying of AIDS-related causes, she wasn’t afraid. She once said, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hand and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it.” Her greatest achievement was in battling the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. As many of us in HIV/AIDS advocacy know, stigma is still our biggest enemy and to fight it so early from such an exhalted position, was a beautiful thing. She did even more, opening dedicated AIDS wards all over the world, giving speeches, raising awareness, erasing fear. She provided comfort to so many with her hands on approach. She had many causes where she made so much impact, but it was her early and ongoing efforts with HIV/AIDS that are her greatest. Her greatest legacy is probably her sons, however, who’ve each carried on her work. Particularly Prince Harry, who was lauded for his efforts at the International AIDS Conference in 2018. So her work continues years after her tragic death in 1997. He said in his speech at the conference, speaking of his late mother, “She wanted to get to know those who were dying, not as statistics or patients, but as people.” There is a third television moment concerning her life that touched me deeply and that was the news of her auto accident in Paris and her subsequent death. I was again glued to the set, this time in tears as the news unfolded. I shed many a tear that night as did all my friends as well as millions worldwide. It seemed surreal.
When I think of heroes, I think of those three. They all had a direct impact on my quality of life today as an HIV positive individual. Without Larry pushing for the development of effective drugs, without Liz’s exhaustive fundraising to bankroll so much of it , and without both her and Diana’s staking so much of their reputations to crush stigma, millions of us would lead very different lives. That is the definition of a hero to me. God keep them and bless their memory.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.