June 12 2019

Elizabeth Taylor was in the Trenches when it came to HIV/AIDS

Los Angeles
Kicking off Los Angeles Pride Week on Thursday June 6th, The Standard, Hollywood hosted The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation on the pool deck for a Pride Movie Night fundraiser featuring “Suddenly, Last Summer.” We caught up with a trio of officers from the Foundation—Taylor’s longtime lawyer, Barbara Berkowitz; personal assistant, Tim Mendelson; and grandson Quinn Tivey—who discussed their programs to increase prevention, treatment, and education of HIV/AIDS, along with Taylor’s legacy as an iconic ally and advocate.

“I worked for Miss Taylor since 1990, and she founded The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991, so I was there at the beginning,” explained Mendelson. “She started the Foundation with very little overhead, all of which came out of her own pocket.” Berkowitz agreed: “We were very lean when she was still alive, and we still are. Everything I had to do was pro-bono. She insisted on it. She didn’t want donations going for staff.”

“She was thought of as a very luxurious person, but really got into the trenches on this issue.” - Barbara Berkowitz

Taylor was one of the stars of the Twentieth century who cast the mold for using celebrity as a platform for marginalized causes. “She was thought of as a very luxurious person, but really got into the trenches on this issue,” Berkowitz continued. “I think a lot of people remember her more as an activist than an actress. She was the one who kept insisting that Ronald Reagan use the word AIDS, which was not politically friendly. This country was terrified. There were rumors that postmen who had to deliver mail to people, if they found out they were HIV positive they would burn their uniforms.”

“She realized at that point in time that she had a unique power and privilege that not many people had. She was able to use her power and privilege, as a celebrity and a business woman, to put that spotlight where she knew it was most needed,” Tivey chimed in. “The relationship that I had to her was as a grandma, but she is always continuing to impart wisdom to me. Every time that I open a book or a magazine article or something and I think, wow, she did that? she said that?”

But Berkowitz pointed out that much of what Taylor did for those in need behind the scenes will never be widely known to its full extent. “She wanted to use her celebrity in any way that mattered, but they didn’t want to publicize a person’s suffering. So, she visited patients, she touched them, she held them, but didn’t do it for the cameras.”

Barbara Berkowitz, Quinn Tivey, Tim Mendelson and Omar Sharif Jr.
Barbara Berkowitz, Quinn Tivey, Tim Mendelson and Omar Sharif Jr.
Barbara Berkowitz, Quinn Tivey, Tim Mendelson and Omar Sharif Jr.
Barbara Berkowitz, Quinn Tivey, Tim Mendelson and Omar Sharif Jr.
Barbara Berkowitz, Quinn Tivey, Tim Mendelson and Omar Sharif Jr.

Much of the Foundation’s work is centered on grants to other AIDS organizations, but their own programs such as mobile clinics were initiated by Taylor. “Miss Taylor first started this van program in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” explained Mendelson, “she was worried about all the people who had HIV and AIDS there. Everyone in the city was suffering, but she was like, how are all the patients going to get their medicines? How are they going to get their needs met? After that, she wanted to do mobile clinics that would go into places with the most poverty, highest HIV rates, and least access to resources. So, she started these vans in southern, rural Africa, in Malawi.”

The evening’s hosts were actor Omar Sharif Jr. and comedian Arisce Wanzer, both of whom were thrilled to be onboard. Wanzer shared a bit about her work, “I’m hosting LA Pride this year, I host two shows for Grindr—I host things—but this is one I can tell my mom about, and she’s like oh thank GOD… Elizabeth Taylor, I’m moving up. White Diamond realness, that’s what I’m serving right now.”

“HIV and AIDS go very much unspoken in the Middle East and North Africa, where I’m from,” Sharif shared, “The Foundation needed someone who would speak about it and speak about it in Arabic as well, so I was more than happy to do it.”

“Things like ‘I’m clean’ is a really screwed up thing to say. If I’m allowed to say fucked up, it’s a really fucked up thing to say." - Arisce Wanzer

Much of the Foundation’s upcoming work centers on eroding the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS. “I have a lot of friends who are HIV positive and stigma hurts the entire community,” Wanzer began. “Things like ‘I’m clean’ is a really screwed up thing to say. If I’m allowed to say fucked up, it’s a really fucked up thing to say. Because it’s insinuating that you’re better or more than someone else, when everyone just wants love, everyone wants to make a connection with someone. I know what it feels like to be marginalized, I’m a black trans woman. I joke about it all the time: straight cis people have an ocean of people they can date; gay people have like a pond; trans people have like a fish tank, and it’s murky, honey. So the ocean of people you can date gets smaller and smaller and smaller with every notch that you mark,” such as HIV status, “narrowing down these categories of who is going to love you.”

“We were gay men, who were dying, no one was doing anything, the government didn’t want to do anything, the public didn’t want to talk about it, her friends didn’t want to talk about it, nobody talked about it,” Mendelson said of the 1980s, “Hollywood would not deal with the disease either... She was probably the most famous woman in the world at that time, and she said, look, I’ve got to do something.” 

“She started working on the first AIDS fundraiser with APLA Commitment to Life, and she called everyone and they didn’t want to get involved. Now Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t someone who heard no in her lifetime, and she was hearing no. It wasn’t until the public found out Rock Hudson had AIDS that Hollywood woke up. Elizabeth was pissed, she said without gay men, you wouldn’t be able to make movies, and those gay men had already been dying.”

“If people aren’t speaking about it, they’re not learning about it, they’re not getting tested, they’re not getting treated—and right now we know that once you’re treated, it’s impossible to pass on the infection as well. So that’s going to be the quickest and easiest way to stop it." - Omar Sharif Jr.

Wanzer put a reality TV-era spin on Taylor’s exemplary courage. “For her to put her name on it, back at a time when it was not cool to talk about it, to show up for her people—the gays love Elizabeth Taylor—that speaks volumes to who she was as a person. I mean, what are the Kardashian’s doing? I won’t pick on Kim because she’s working on prison reform, I’ll let her slide. But the other ones are just selling lipstick and teaching us to hate our bodies. Whereas Elizabeth Taylor, she was stunning but she was also like, I have causes, and I’m going to be there for the people who are there for me. Those are the only kinds of celebrities I can get behind. I can’t get behind some shallow, vapid crap hole that’s trying to make themselves rich for no reason. What are you here for? What is your purpose on this Earth?”

Simply put by Sharif: “If people aren’t speaking about it, they’re not learning about it, they’re not getting tested, they’re not getting treated—and right now we know that once you’re treated, it’s impossible to pass on the infection as well. So that’s going to be the quickest and easiest way to stop it. Just by ending the stigma around HIV and getting people the information that number one it’s not a death sentence, number two you live a full life if you’re treated, and number three, that you’re not a threat to others if you’re treated—it’s a game changer. We’ll find the cure, but let’s find the stigma first.”

Writer
Kevin McGarry