Elizabeth Taylor, the “Joan of Arc of AIDS” – LGBT History Month 2022


Liz Taylor and her lifestyle are not particularly aligned to my personal values and moral code. I’m not seduced by men, diamonds or money. I’m not impressed by synthetic opulence or social climbing, and I have no desire for fame or fortune.

So why am I writing my piece for LGBT History month on Elizabeth Taylor? I can’t say she’s an inspiration for me, but I’m intrigued by her story.

Liz Taylor was born in 1932 in London, her parents were in what was known at the time as a lavender marriage: her father was gay, and her mother was a lesbian. Their marriage was a conformist façade, although Elizabeth’s parents did love her – she was nurtured and wanted for little as a child, being showered with gifts at an early age. Her mother Sarah heavily encouraged Liz to pursue acting. From age 16 onwards Liz was sexualised, styled and packaged in a way deemed aesthetically pleasing to men, who were drawn to her physicality.

Liz felt comfortable around gay men, and it has been suggested that this was because these men did not view Liz as “prey” or something to conquer. She could be completely herself and relax in their company. Some biographies of Liz say she naturally moved into a maternal and caring role for some of her male co-stars, and during her early career in the 1950s she counted Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson and James Dean as some of her closest gay friends.

In the early 1980s, America was under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. His tenure was an institutionally homophobic one – refusing to speak publicly about AIDS or even acknowledge the existence of the public health crisis it caused, and it certainly was not a priority for the Republic. HIV and AIDS were still taboo topics, and there was widespread fear and intolerance of LGBT communities. Liz was one of the first people to speak out in support of the LGBT community and tackled stigma and homophobia – risking her own reputation and career in doing so – largely motivated by witnessing first-hand the death of her close friend Rock Hudson, who died from AIDS in 1985.

Liz used her fame and star power as leverage to fundraise and call for action. She lobbied Congress to pressure them into increasing federal spending on treatments and research, and was one of the founders of amfAR (the American Foundation for Aids research). As early as 1984, she organised and hosted the first fundraiser for the AIDS Project Los Angeles. In 1991, she set up The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation which has raised millions to provide support services and prevention globally.

She got involved at a grassroots level, participating in marches and vigils. She spoke to hundreds of activists at the Lincoln Memorial, becoming known as the ‘Joan of Arc of AIDS’. Taylor made a $50,000 donation to the Whitman Walker Clinic in Washington DC, which was renamed in 1993 to the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Centre.

I think part of what intrigues me about her story is that Liz was not the archetypal LGBTQ AIDS activist/advocate. She was an incredibly wealthy white heterosexual woman. She was not considered to be from an ‘at risk’ group for contracting the virus. She could have very easily paid lip service to the cause or made a tokenistic nod of support, while ultimately turning the other cheek. But that’s not what she did. She did not appoint herself to the position of gay icon – she gets this accolade because of her genuine affection for her gay friends and co-stars, her kind spirit and genuine compassion, and the love she received from many gay men through the generations.


— Jake McGee, Sexual Health Team Leader

This blog is part of a series for LGBT History Month 2022, where members of the Birmingham LGBT Team write about the LGBT people whose lives have influenced and inspired them.

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