Elizabeth Taylor was an icon—a diva—a goddess. She was a screen legend, with shocking violet eyes. She was an adolescent star who remained a luminary across decades of Hollywood transitions. From Lassie Come Home to Black Beauty, from Giant to A Little Night Music and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she was film.
And then there was television (yes, she was on General Hospital; yes she was on The Simpsons) and stage. If the United States’ civil religion has darshan, or blessing conferred by simply being in the presence of divinity, it may have been focused on Elizabeth Taylor. Or at least this was the case for the gay community insofar as we are or were ever a single community. A mythic community of course—a community made real in our imaginations, populated—or at least represented—by symbols that made us who “we” were or could be.
More than celebrity worship in a trivial sense, our community’s relation to Taylor stood for much. It stood for glamour and generosity, for tragedy and triumph—for like most symbols Taylor had many meanings.
A symbol—but more importantly a very real person—died on March 23, 2011. Elizabeth Taylor was a supporter of gay rights—and an early and frequent supporter of people with AIDS. Beginning in the early 1980s, she gave a public face to the then mysterious disease and across the decades Taylor raised at least $100 million to fight AIDS. Taylor helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research subsequent to Rock Hudson’s death. She was Amfar’s founding International Chairperson.
As they say on their memorial page:
“I will not be silenced and I will not give up and I will not be ignored.” With these words, Elizabeth Taylor lent her voice to the voiceless, her iconic image to those who had previously been invisible, and her compassion and determination to a cause many others had shunned: the fight against HIV/AIDS. Her willingness to speak out against apathy and silence in the early, frightening days of the epidemic and her instinctive sympathy for those in need earned her a place as one of the most influential advocates for people living with HIV in the U.S. and around the world.
Her eponymous foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation was established in 1991 and focuses its mission on direct services to people with AIDS. Taylor was, of course, about much more than AIDS and gay rights. She stood up against the Iraq war, for example. In this she reminded us all of the relation between war and much else we need to fix about the world in which we live.
And, of course, Elizabeth Taylor took with good humor the many drag versions of “Liz” that stood up alongside Carol Channing and Ethel Merman and Judy Garland and Liza Minneli — and later Celine Dion and others, in shows across the nation (and perhaps beyond). The many jokes about her many marriages. And if she could see the poignant Elizabeth Taylor shrine at her “favorite gay bar in West Hollywood” perhaps she would smile.
We will mourn her.