Responses to the death of Elizabeth Taylor have been varied. Some people are bowled over by her physical beauty and acting talent. Others view her as tabloid fodder, famous for being famous.
I first encountered the work of Ms Taylor as a horse-mad tween. My late night sleepover TV fare usually consisted of scratchy local station prints of The Thin Man series, Hammer Horror movies and the sublime delights of Godzilla and his pantheon of clumsily destructive but sadly misunderstood monsters. One night whoever was at the switch at the Lubbock UHF station gave everyone a break from the usual silliness and ran "National Velvet".
I was enchanted. Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown was pretty. She was smart and she was spunky. She rode horses. And best of all, she had the same color eyes as me. No "freaky devil blue eyes" as the fundamentalist crotch fruit loved to call my own dark blue orbs.* Miss Taylor's eyes? They were violet. I wanted to be Velvet Brown and race horses and have an adorable, crushworthy red-haired guy sidekick.**
I'm sure I saw her in movies over the years that followed but the next time she would impress me would be a little over ten years later. While working as a volunteer stitcher for those who needed help with memorial panels for The AIDS Quilt, I would often see the men seated around me stop what they were doing and glare at images of Ronald Reagan on the evening newscasts.
"Say it," someone would mutter.
"He won't," responded another volunteer, "He never does. He never will."
Everyone would shake their heads and get back to work as the list of the dead lengthened and Ronald W. Reagan refused to ever publicly utter the the words "GRIDS", "AIDS" or even "homosexual" while he was in office. All of this went on as many people who made his career in Hollywood possible fell to the strange virus that was cutting a swath through the LGBT community.
Not everyone would be so afraid to put themselves out there in order to help their friends. One night another famous face appeared on the news. It was Elizabeth Taylor, older, thicker, but still possessed of those blue/violet eyes and whatever personal reserve of courage she pulled from to breathe life into Velvet Brown. Ms Taylor spoke up for the people who were abandoned by individuals who once declared their love but who now ran scared in the face of men and women who thought nothing of declaring the purple, bruise like marks of Kaposi's Sarcoma to be modern-day Marks of Cain. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first people to lend her face and name to the cause of AIDS awareness, of extending mercy to people who were being subjected to what amounted to a witch hunt. She named the disease and she named the sufferers and she asked all of us not to forget them.
To be honest, I hadn't thought much about her lately, but in considering her very long, very storied life, her activism is the first thing I think of now. Whenever someone tells me that causes x, y, or z aren't my fights. I remember that living in the comfort of being part of the majority culture as a straight, white, heterosexual theist doesn't necessarily give me the automatic privilege of happy obliviousness of the lives of others. I will also remember that for may in my generation, this ethos was explicitly demonstrated and prescribed when Elizabeth Taylor did not turn her back on her friends.
Godspeed, Ms Taylor! I hope your heaven is a place full of glamour, cute lap dogs, comfort and all of the friends you had to say goodbye to way too soon.
*Okay, the fact that I used to do a very good impression of Linda Blair as Regan and that this was the late seventies did not help matters. I offer this bit of data in the interest of fairness.
**My parents mercifully let me keep my crush on that movie; so for many years I had no idea that Taylor would grow up to change husbands the way John Mayall changed bands and that Mickey Rooney would grow up to be, uh, Mickey Rooney.