Thursday, March 24, 2011
This is a tribute. One long overdue, and quite sadly too late. It is one of many we as a community owe. Weeks ago I started to write a eulogy. Sadly I’ve written many. Others now write of her movies and the marriages, but this is now a simple love letter to a person who stood up for us when others wouldn’t.
Like so very many before, my generation has seen its share of death. Every crop takes on the world that it’s dealt. In the ’80s and ’90s a generation once again went to war. This time, initially the soldiers were gay people…and this war was not about bullets, bombs or battlefields. In the fall of 1981, doctors began to diagnose otherwise healthy people with pneumocystis pneumonia and within months AIDS joined the global lexicon.
Almost instantly, heroes stepped forward in a petrified grace that history will surely one-day acknowledge was a dramatic example of love…These souls, in total darkness embraced those falling all about in a faithful upholding of the promise of our promised land. This epitomized the legend that was Elizabeth Taylor.
Back then, people were dying in weeks, not years. In a tortured ignorance of muck, our community would comfort those dying all about all the while having to debate health, human rights and tolerance.
It was a time for heroes. Those volunteers shaking, crying, hugging, easing brethren to death and every second trying to comprehend something that was just simply incomprehensible.
It was a terrible time. The walking dead were caring for those who were truly dying. People were really, really sick. For the first time ever, the gay community and all that meant came together. Lesbians became the first caregivers. The early heroes rallied with hotlines and fundraisers for medical care, food and shelter. Very slowly we were raising money and awareness. But damn, AIDS was the stuff of pariahs. Lord, we were an island.
Southern California and Hollywood specifically was the creator of lifestyle and arbiter of taste. Some very smart folks right here in our community knew that if we were going to gain support outside our hamlet, we would need a respected voice to bridge the fear and ignorance…This is a tribute to that voice.
There was never a time she wasn’t famous. The beauty, the roles, and the husbands were legendary. When she floated into a room, she was the only star. It was a small, connected group at AIDS Project Los Angeles led by Bill Misenheimer that got her involved. She had long ago realized the power of her celebrity.
With Rock Hudson’s disclosure in 1985, Elizabeth conceived the amazing benefit Commitment to Life. That first one raised over $1.3 million for APLA. They went on to do eleven of them, most produced by me. Over the years CTL attracted every major star on the planet: Streisand, Springsteen, Elton, Billy, Garth, Hanks, Janet. No one ever turned us down. That was all due to Elizabeth. She made it OK to lend your time and talent to people living with HIV/AIDS. Perhaps others could have led. But they didn’t.
Elizabeth single handedly made the war on HIV/AIDS cool for Hollywood to embrace. She went on to amfAR and dazzled those old goats in Congress to help create the Ryan White Care Act, yet it was right here in Southern California that her personal commitment to life began. And for that, our community owes this incredible woman a debt of gratitude we can most certainly never repay.
Over the years I loved making that drive up to Nimes Road to work on a speech for a benefit or pre-record a moment for a show. She always made you wait, but what a spectacular wait it was, surrounded by her magnificent art collection. When she entered the room, it was always majestic. She was an elegant, bawdy dame with a mouth like a sailor. She would crack me up with wonderful stories sharing the dirt of yesterday and today. We sat and just roared with each other.
Getting her to a venue was always an event handled with precision timing by her amazing staff led by the late Chen Sam and the loyal to the end, Tim Mendelson. Elizabeth traveled with a huge and scary security staff. They always asked the same question: “When do you need her?” I’d say “7:00.” They would say, “You mean 5:00, right?” They knew their boss.
A few years ago I asked her to come out and support a concert we were doing with Elton at the Amphitheater. She was there, dressed to the nines and looking beautiful as ever. Elton and Elizabeth opened the show and when EJ commented on her amazing over-the-top ring, she deadpanned to the crowd, “Yes, we’re going skating on it later.”
Every damn time over the years she hit her mark and was moving, loving, exciting, melodramatic, touching and theatrically effective. Always the superstar. After her short appearance with Elton and back to her wheelchair off-stage, she spent the next hour or so turning the greenroom into the best gay bar on earth. Lord, she loved our community.
Today I hope she is laughing with Rock & Roddy, Richard, Eddie, Mike and the 30 million people we have lost to AIDS. For those of us she has left behind, please whisper a prayer, light a candle, give a chant or whatever it is you do to take just a moment to thank Elizabeth Taylor.
Over the next few months as we write the 30 year history of AIDS, this is a call to honor a lady who not only cradled us in her arms; she made damn sure the world did as well. In 2000, Queen Elizabeth named her a Dame. Go forward knowing to so many of us, this Dame was truly our Queen Elizabeth.
(Cross-posted from Frontiers)