One night in 1985, my gay friend John, his boyfriend David and I ate Chinese takeout, as we watched TV. We were far more terrified than hungry. David had just learned that he had AIDS, then a fatal illness shrouded in stigma. John agonized over how to care for his partner. Though queer, I had to keep telling myself that you couldn’t get AIDS by sitting next to someone with HIV. (At the time, many feared that AIDS was spread through the air.) In the midst of our despair, we saw Elizabeth Taylor on TV. She was speaking in support of her good friend Rock Hudson who had died from AIDS and on behalf of everyone with the illness. For the first time during that terrible period, we smiled. If Liz with those great violet eyes was on our side, there was hope.
That is one of the memories that came to my mind when I learned that Elizabeth Taylor died at age 79 on March 23. In this age of instant celebs and reality TV clones, there aren’t many unique stars. But, with the passing of Taylor, it’s not hyperbolic to say that a star has gone. Whether you remember laughing and crying as Taylor became Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”; the witty, steamy romance of LizandDick; or Taylor hugging someone with AIDS (when people feared touching anyone with HIV), life without Liz is as unthinkable as Manhattan without the skyline or the U.S. Capitol without its dome.
It’s breathtaking to recall how brave Elizabeth Taylor was when she spoke out during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Now, everyone from TV talk show hosts to clergy talk informatively and empathetically about people with HIV. Your straight grandmother has a queer BFF and it’s not newsworthy that “Modern Family,” the hit ABC sitcom has gay characters. But in the mid-1980s, the word AIDS was rarely mentioned in mainstream society. In New York Times obituaries, people with AIDS were often reported as having died from a “long illness.” Then, LGBTQ people were much less visible than now and homophobia was far more prevalent.
“People were telling me not to get involved,” Taylor told a reporter speaking of that time, “I got death threats. I got angrier and angrier. So I put myself out there.”
All sentient beings on this planet, hetero or queer, will remember Taylor’s ravishing, indescribable beauty both on and off screen. A gay male friend of mine saw her speak on AIDS research at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
“She was the most incredibly beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he e-mailed me, “I’ve seen a number of Hollywood stars over the years, and she is the only one who literally looked as if she’d just stepped off the screen.”
Taylor’s cinematic presence was mesmerizing. Whether you’re watching Taylor in her best films “National Velvet,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or in schlock like “The Flintstones,” you can’t take your eyes off her. Yet, we who are queer, will most remember Taylor for her loyalty to and comfort with our community (decades before it was fashionable for straight women to have a gay “plus one”); her AIDS advocacy (prior to when red ribbons became ubiquitous); her embodiment of camp and her honesty.
As William J. Mann reports in “How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood” (one of the most illuminating of the more than 50 books written about Taylor), Elizabeth from her youth onward had queer friends, including gay actor Montgomery Clift. Taylor saved Clift’s life when he was in a car accident. “He was my best friend,” Taylor said of Clift, “… I loved Monty with all my heart and … knew that he was meant to be with a man and not a woman, and I discussed it with him.”
The term brave is so often overused that it’s become almost meaningless. Yet, Taylor who didn’t flinch when the Vatican denounced her love for Richard Burton or the right wing deplored her support for queers, truly was courageous. “I’m Mother Courage,” she so rightly called herself. R.I.P. Elizabeth.