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Late actor and icon Elizabeth Taylor is known for her style and beauty, her film career, and her love life. But not everyone knows she was also a fierce activist from the outset of the U.S. AIDS epidemic until she died.

At a time when those in power were not prioritizing the virus, Taylor used her platform to compel them to take action. She called presidents out by name and promised to remain “as rowdy as [she had] to be” to make a difference in the fight against AIDS.

Elizabeth Taylor testifies about AIDS before the Senate Labor and Human
Elizabeth Taylor | Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Getty Images

Denialism in the wake of the AIDS outbreak

Being that more than 40 years have passed since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the U.S., some people may forget there was a notion that it was a deadly but isolated virus most individuals wouldn’t need to worry about.

An idea developed that it was killing gay men almost exclusively. For debatable reasons, authorities initially didn’t give much priority to AIDS research or attempt to educate citizens on its spread. Therefore, it was years before researchers determined the virus to be preventable through prophylactic measures.

Even worse, NPR reports studies were published with information known to be devastatingly incorrect. For instance, it was once suggested by a prominent doctor that HIV didn’t cause AIDS. That led to distrust in the medical community when the theory was disproven.

The AIDS-related death of actor Rock Hudson in 1985 brought a new spotlight to the virus. That’s also when his friend and co-star, Taylor, became determined to meet the AIDS epidemic head on with passion.

Elizabeth Taylor wanted to ‘do something’ about AIDS

Also around 1985, Taylor co-founded the Foundation for AIDS Research — or amFAR — in part with a donation Hudson left. According to NPR, she was compelled to get involved by her own resolve to see someone do something.

“I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything,” she said. “And then I realized that I was just like them. I wasn’t doing anything to help.”

In a video shared by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, she promised, “I will remain here as rowdy as I have to be.”

“If you do your bit with all of your heart, and I do my bit with all of my heart, we will make a goddamn difference,” she declared.

Elizabeth Taylor used her platform to spotlight the AIDS epidemic


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Per an amFAR tribute to Taylor, one of the first things she realized in embarking on her crusade was that not many people were talking about AIDS in a factual manner. Fear was spreading about the virus, but very little truthful information.

“The silence was thunderous,” she said, “and the only way to stop that is to speak up.”

So, when many stars were distancing themselves, the Cleopatra star made AIDS activism part of her identity. “It’s my life now and will be until there is a cure,” she promised. She eventually took her fight to Washington and called on presidents and other politicians by name.

And thanks to her work establishing amFar and her own AIDS foundation, that commitment to end AIDS continues in her name more than a decade after her 2011 death.