Defined by Words, Not by a Disease

New York Times | August 23, 2012

In a New York Times article on AIDS activist Mary Fisher, reporter Dan Shaw mentions Elizabeth Glaser's well-known speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1992.

TWENTY years ago this month, Mary Fisher took the stage of the Republican National Convention at the Houston Astrodome and delivered a 13-minute prime-time speech that was seen by many as a sharp rebuke of her party’s negligence in the face of the growing AIDS epidemic.

Ms. Fisher, a mother of two young children who had worked in Gerald Ford’s White House, addressed the delegates as someone who was H.I.V. positive herself. “Tonight, I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society,” she said. “I am one with a black infant struggling with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital.” She added, “I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family’s rejection.”

It was a speech that was both surprising and poignant. Few, including Ms. Fisher herself, expected that she would survive a disease that had already killed more than 150,000 Americans by the summer of 1992.

But Mary Fisher is still alive — and still taking issue with her political party.

Ms. Fisher, now 64, started her improbable career as an advocate at a time when AIDS represented an unequivocal death sentence. As a pretty blonde from a socially prominent Republican family from Michigan, she was a new face of AIDS, beseeching “family values” conservatives to demonstrate compassion. “H.I.V. asks only one thing of those it attacks: Are you human?” she said then. “Because people with H.I.V. have not entered some alien state of being. They are human. They have not earned cruelty, and they do not deserve meanness.”

Norman Mailer, the literary tough guy who was covering the convention for The New Republic, was awed by the “Republican princess” and the magnitude of her appeal. “When Mary Fisher spoke like an angel that night,” he wrote, “the floor was in tears, and conceivably the nation as well.”

The Speech, as it is called by Ms. Fisher’s friends and family, turned her into a global figure. Long before YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the speech reverberated because it was heard simultaneously and in its entirety by 27 million people; the prime-time address was broadcast live by ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and PBS. (The week before her appearance in Houston, she appeared in The New York Times, on the cover of Sunday Styles.)

It was one for the history books as well. Called “A Whisper of AIDS,” the speech is included in “Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches, 1900-1999,” along with other landmark addresses like “I Have a Dream” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Four Freedoms” by Franklin D. Roosevelt and “A Tale of Two Cities” by Mario Cuomo.

“It’s as elegant as any speech in the top 100,” said Stephen Lucas, a professor in the department of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin and co-editor of the book, which polled 137 scholars of rhetoric to establish the list.

“She is dealing with a really gritty subject that revolves around a sexually transmitted disease and people dying horrible deaths, and the language is uplifting,” he said. “And then she delivers it in this pristine, clarion kind of way in which her voice cuts through the convention, cuts through the myths and stereotypes regarding AIDS. She has what she sees as a profound truth, and she wants to bring it to the audience.”

Larry Kramer, the advocate for people with AIDS, remembers it as a revelation: “It took us all by surprise. It was a stunning debut. I adore Mary Fisher. She is one of the most amazing people I know. She’s become one of my dearest friends.”

Ms. Fisher, who had tested positive for H.I.V. in 1991, marvels that the speech endures but said she despaired at its continued relevance. “It’s sad that we are still here,” she said, citing figures from the World Health Organization that counted 34 million people around the world living with H.I.V., 2.7 million new infections and 1.8 million deaths in 2010.

Now living in Sedona, Ariz., whose natural beauty and “healing energy” she fell in love with on vacation six years ago, Ms. Fisher has spent the last 20 years combining advocacy and art-making. She has written six books and served as an ambassador for Unaids, the Joint United Nations Programme on H.I.V./AIDS. While fighting off potentially lethal infections and the side effects of medications, she has raised two H.I.V.-negative sons as a single mother; their father, whom she divorced in 1990 before he tested positive for H.I.V., died in 1993.

Since her initial speech, Ms. Fisher has traveled often to give lectures at places from inner-city churches to the halls of Congress. “People in Washington wouldn’t listen to the chorus of gay men because of homophobia, but people would listen to Mary,” said her friend Michael Iskowitz, who was Senator Ted Kennedy’s chief counsel on AIDS from 1987 to 1997. “She fundamentally shifted things. She was a transcendent figure.”

Ms. Fisher, who at 5 feet 1 inch comes across as a stylish steamroller, was taught how to work the political system by her father, Max M. Fisher, who made his fortune in oil and real estate and advised every Republican president from Nixon to George W. Bush on Israel and Jewish affairs.

Mr. Fisher’s clout as the honorary chairman of the Bush-Quayle ’92 finance committee was part of the reason his daughter was allowed to speak at the 1992 convention. But so was the fact that Republicans needed their counterpart to Elizabeth Glaser, who had spoken movingly about being a mother with AIDS at the Democratic National Convention the previous month.
Although she professes admiration for both President Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ms. Fisher has not switched parties. But she remains even more of a Republican outlier than the woman who stood on that convention stage 20 years ago.

“What does Republican mean anymore?” she said in April, in her airy Sedona living room with its stunning views of the high desert’s otherworldly red rocks. “I’m a Gerry Ford Republican, and my party’s gone someplace else. I feel like I want to stay a Republican because they might listen to me.”

To be more precise, she is a Betty Ford Republican. The outspoken former first lady, who publicly championed the Equal Rights Amendment and praised Roe v. Wade while her husband was president, has long been Ms. Fisher’s role model.

“When I was originally diagnosed with H.I.V., I thought, ‘What would Betty do?’ ” Ms. Fisher said. “She always said you help by talking openly to others. That’s how she was about her cancer and her alcoholism.” Ms. Fisher speaks as a recovering alcoholic who became sober more than 25 years ago at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with the help of Mrs. Ford, who eventually became her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.

Now, like her mentor, she wants to talk openly about breast cancer as well. “I went to a plastic surgeon a few months ago to have a breast reduction,” Ms. Fisher said. “He sent tissue to a pathologist who saw something wrong: a lobular carcinoma. She said, ‘If you are smart, you will have a bilateral mastectomy.’ I’d had a mammogram a few months before, and everything was fine. After all I’ve been through, this was a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me moment.”

As someone who has worn both red and pink ribbons on her lapel, Ms. Fisher said the difference between being a cancer patient and an AIDS patient was stark. “There is shame and stigma attached to your H.I.V. status,” she said. “With AIDS, people come up to me and whisper their stories, but people talk about cancer openly. You can beat cancer, but you can’t beat AIDS. The idea that you can take a pill and be O.K. is bull. It’s frustrating because people stop listening, and then funding dries up.”

It disturbs her that people think AIDS has been cured and don’t realize that the medications that prolong life are too expensive or toxic for millions of people with H.I.V. “The inequities are tremendous,” said Ms. Fisher, who has the best health care money can buy but cannot take the protease inhibitor “cocktail” that has meant survival for so many people who expected to die. “I cannot tolerate the side effects,” she said.

Ms. Fisher has always seen her role as speaking out for those too poor, weak or powerless to have their voices heard, especially women of color. “I’m like my father,” she said. “His greatest motivation was to make sure that a Holocaust never happened again.”

She frequently compares AIDS in Africa, where she has traveled often, to the Holocaust. “It marches across the dusty plains as surely as Hitler’s storm troopers marched across Europe,” she has told synagogue audiences.

While she has served as a special representative for the United Nations’ global task force, she also visits Africa as a private citizen to help her “sisters” with AIDS.

Ms. Fisher has expressed her dismay and hope about AIDS in a wide range of media over the last 20 years: handmade paper, photography, prints, paintings and quilts that tell the stories of the orphans left behind by AIDS. A section of her expansive art studio in Sedona is piled high with beads that she sends to H.I.V.-positive women in Zambia so they can earn a living by making jewelry, which is sold online through the Abataka Foundation as well as places like the Goldenstein Gallery in Sedona.

“We don’t just sell these bracelets,” the gallery owner Linda Goldenstein said. “We explain what they’re about. People don’t talk much about AIDS anymore, but here we do.”

THE title of Ms. Fisher’s sixth book on AIDS is “Messenger: A Self Portrait,” to be published next month. “It’s my second memoir,” she said. “The one I had to write because I did not die.”

Although she approaches AIDS as a humanitarian, she can be as impassioned as any Act Up provocateur. Her outrage is shared by her sons, Zachary, a college student, and Max, a budding filmmaker working on an AIDS documentary.

“It started out as a biopic of my mom, whom I am more proud of than anybody, but it will focus on the next generation of AIDS activists,” said Max Fisher, 24, who worked on Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

He said making the movie was his way of following in his mother’s footsteps. “In a lot of schools, teachers are not allowed to talk about H.I.V. and AIDS,” he said. “It’s not in the curriculum, and a lot of schools teach abstinence in health class. I find it appalling.”

Mr. Fisher has only vague memories of being in a Houston hotel room 20 summers ago when his mother spoke at the Republican convention. “I can’t watch the speech in its entirety,” he said. “I always start crying about three minutes in.”

He will no doubt tear up when his mother gives a speech next month: the toast at his wedding. “Can you believe Max is getting married?” Ms. Fisher said. “I never thought I’d live to see the day.”