25 Years After Elizabeth Taylor Wore the AIDS Ribbon to the 1992 Oscars, Her Grandchildren Carry on Her Fight

"She wore it proudly and and she wore it the rest of her life," says Elizabeth Taylor's granddaughter, Laela Wilding

Courtesy Wilding Family
Photo: Courtesy Wilding Family

It’s been 25 years since Elizabeth Taylor appeared at the 1992 Oscars, wearing a small accessory that made a very large impact.

That night, as she presented the award for Best Picture with her Cat on a Hot Tin Roof co-star Paul Newman, it wasn’t her fabulous jewelry, her legendary décolletage or those violet eyes that had people talking, but the red ribbon she wore on her white gown, bringing the world’s attention to the fight against AIDS.

“She wore it proudly and and she wore it the rest of her life,” says her granddaughter Laela Wilding, 45, the eldest daughter of Taylor’s son, Michael Wilding. “She took what became an important symbol and helped created a bigger movement around it because she had the ability to reach so many people.”

“For our grandmother, the importance of it, was to show the fight against AIDS was — and is — really about educating people and destigmatizing [the disease],” adds Laela’s sister Naomi Wilding, 42. “It was especially important because anybody who wore the ribbon wore it with a great deal of pride and solidarity.”

Jim Smeal/WireImage
Jim Smeal/WireImage

Now, the star’s grandchildren carry on her activism with her foundation, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

“The disease isn’t over,” Laela says. “We have new infections every day, and for the most part, these are young people from ages 14 to 29 years old.”

And with the Affordable Care Act under threat, she says, “there are people who are really afraid for their lives now, with the potential loss of their medical care.”

“We need to understand the effect that losing the Affordable Care Act would have on the HIV population,” Naomi adds. “We need to understand that changes in our education system threaten comprehensive sex education which is an important element in terms of fighting HIV.”

“Combating the virus and preventing the spread are also bound in access to testing and access to medication. It’s not just about treating people who are sick now, but about keeping other people from getting sick.”

Courtesy Wilding Family
Courtesy Wilding Family

That’s why ETAF has partnered with The Sero Project to take on HIV criminalization laws.

“When people know the truth about how HIV is spread and what the risk factors are, most realize how antiquated these laws are, how unfair they are, and how they can undermine rather than actually protect people,” Laela explains.

“The real problem is not only can one’s positive status be used against them, but these laws also undermine what their original intent was — which was to stop the spread of HIV.”

RELATED VIDEO: Flashback to When Elizabeth Taylor Won an Honorary Oscar

She continues, “Many countries around the world and many states have laws, most of them started in the eighties, which we assume were an attempt to protect people from new infections of HIV. Most HIV criminalization laws are not about HIV transmission, but are about whether the person living with HIV can prove they disclosed their HIV status prior to engaging in sex, even if they use condoms, have an undetectable viral load (and therefore can’t transmit HIV) or the sexual behaviors they engaged in pose no risk of HIV transmission.”

Conversely, she adds, “If you know you might be at risk of being HIV-positive, and there are laws that will not protect you but could work against you, you may be less likely to find out your status. And that would be more of a heath risk, if you were positive and didn’t know.”

Jesse Grant/Getty
Jesse Grant/Getty

This is especially poignant for a younger generation. “When you look at the statistics of how people are becoming infected, approximately 92 percent of new infections come from somebody who didn’t know they had it,” says Naomi.

“People who didn’t experience it during the first epidemic when there was a lot of fear around it, some young people are coming into the world without any real knowledge of what the risks are, and how easily those risks can be avoided.”

Courtesy Wilding Family
Courtesy Wilding Family

“We used to call it a death sentence and it’s not a death sentence anymore,” says Laela. “We don’t need to be afraid of it in the same way but we need young people to be aware, not to be afraid of finding their status but to empower themselves.”

After all, empowerment is one of their grandmother’s lasting lessons. “Our grandmother was relatively ambivalent about fame and celebrity,” says Laela. “It was not always something she would have chosen but later on, when looking back, she realized her life had led her up to this point.”

“All the trials which came before gave her the strength and determination to carry on her life and she used that on behalf of others. Her activism gave her a sense of purpose and gave a sense of purpose to everything that came before.”

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