Mary Fisher (1948-) is an American political activist, artist and author. After contracting HIV from her second husband, who has since died, she has become an outspoken advocate for AIDS prevention and education and for the compassionate treatment of people with HIV and AIDS. She is particularly noted for two speeches before the Republican Convention in Houston in 1992, and in San Diego in 1996.
She is founder of a non-profit organization to fund HIV/AIDS research and education, the Mary Fisher Clinical AIDS Research and Education (CARE) Fund. Since May 2006 she has been a global emissary for UNAIDS, the United Nations’ program to fight HIV/AIDS.
Defined by Words, Not by a Disease
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Published: August 22, 2012
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.”
The folloeing speech is ranked #52 in 100 most significant American political speeches of the 20th century
[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]
Republican National Convention Address, 19 August 1992, Houston, TX
Less than three months ago at platform hearings in Salt Lake City, I asked the Republican Party to lift the shroud of silence which has been draped over the issue of HIV and AIDS. I have come tonight to bring our silence to an end. I bear a message of challenge, not self-congratulation. I want your attention, not your applause.
I would never have asked to be HIV positive, but I believe that in all things there is a purpose; and I stand before you and before the nation gladly. The reality of AIDS is brutally clear. Two hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying. A million more are infected. Worldwide, forty million, sixty million, or a hundred million infections will be counted in the coming few years. But despite science and research, White House meetings and congressional hearings, despite good intentions and bold initiatives, campaign slogans, and hopeful promises, it is – despite it all – the epidemic which is winning tonight.
In the context of an election year, I ask you, here in this great hall, or listening in the quiet of your home, to recognize that AIDS virus is not a political creature. It does not care whether you are Democrat or Republican; it does not ask whether you are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, young or old. [applause]
Tonight, I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society. Though I am white and a mother, I am one with a black infant struggling with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital. Though I am female and contracted this disease in marriage and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family’s rejection. [applause]
This is not a distant threat. It is a present danger. The rate of infection is increasing fastest among women and children. Largely unknown a decade ago, AIDS is the third leading killer of young adult Americans today. But it won’t be third for long, because unlike other diseases, this one travels. Adolescents don’t give each other cancer or heart disease because they believe they are in love, but HIV is different; and we have helped it along. We have killed each other with our ignorance, our prejudice, and our silence. [applause]
We may take refuge in our stereotypes, but we cannot hide there long, because HIV asks only one thing of those it attacks. Are you human? And this is the right question. Are you human? Because people with HIV have not entered some alien state of being. They are human. They have not earned cruelty, and they do not deserve meanness. They don’t benefit from being isolated or treated as outcasts. Each of them is exactly what God made: a person; not evil, deserving of our judgment; not victims, longing for our pity – people, ready for support and worthy of compassion. [applause]
My call to you, my Party, is to take a public stand, no less compassionate than that of the President and Mrs. Bush. They have embraced me and my family in memorable ways. In the place of judgment, they have shown affection. In difficult moments, they have raised our spirits. In the darkest hours, I have seen them reaching not only to me, but also to my parents, armed with that stunning grief and special grace that comes only to parents who have themselves leaned too long over the bedside of a dying child.
With the President’s leadership, much good has been done. Much of the good has gone unheralded, and as the President has insisted, much remains to be done. But we do the President’s cause no good if we praise the American family but ignore a virus that destroys it. [long applause]
We must be consistent if we are to be believed. We cannot love justice and ignore prejudice, love our children and fear to teach them. Whatever our role as parent or policymaker, we must act as eloquently as we speak – else we have no integrity. My call to the nation is a plea for awareness. If you believe you are safe, you are in danger. Because I was not hemophiliac, I was not at risk. Because I was not gay, I was not at risk. Because I did not inject drugs, I was not at risk.
My father has devoted much of his lifetime guarding against another holocaust. He is part of the generation who heard Pastor Nemoellor come out of the Nazi death camps to say,
“They came after the Jews, and I was not a Jew, so, I did not protest. They came after the trade unionists, and I was not a trade unionist, so, I did not protest. Then they came after the Roman Catholics, and I was not a Roman Catholic, so, I did not protest. Then they came after me, and there was no one left to protest.” [applause and whistles]
The – The lesson history teaches is this: If you believe you are safe, you are at risk. If you do not see this killer stalking your children, look again. There is no family or community, no race or religion, no place left in America that is safe. Until we genuinely embrace this message, we are a nation at risk.
Tonight, HIV marches resolutely toward AIDS in more than a million American homes, littering its pathway with the bodies of the young – young men, young women, young parents, and young children. One of the families is mine. If it is true that HIV inevitably turns to AIDS, then my children will inevitably turn to orphans.
My family has been a rock of support. My 84-year-old father, who has pursued the healing of the nations, will not accept the premise that he cannot heal his daughter. My mother refuses to be broken. She still calls at midnight to tell wonderful jokes that make me laugh. Sisters and friends, and my brother Phillip, whose birthday is today, all have helped carry me over the hardest places. I am blessed, richly and deeply blessed, to have such a family.
But not all of you [applause] – But not all of you have been so blessed. You are HIV positive, but dare not say it. You have lost loved ones, but you dare not whisper the word AIDS. You weep silently. You grieve alone. I have a message for you. It is not you who should feel shame. It is we – we who tolerate ignorance and practice prejudice, we who have taught you to fear. We must lift our shroud of silence, making it safe for you to reach out for compassion. It is our task to seek safety for our children, not in quiet denial, but in effective action.
Someday our children will be grown. My son Max, now four, will take the measure of his mother. My son Zachary, now two, will sort through his memories. I may not be here to hear their judgments, but I know already what I hope they are. I want my children to know that their mother was not a victim. She was a messenger. I do not want them to think, as I once did, that courage is the absence of fear. I want them to know that courage is the strength to act wisely when most we are afraid. I want them to have the courage to step forward when called by their nation or their Party and give leadership, no matter what the personal cost.
I ask no more of you than I ask of myself or of my children. To the millions of you who are grieving, who are frightened, who have suffered the ravages of AIDS firsthand: Have courage, and you will find support. To the millions who are strong, I issue the plea: Set aside prejudice and politics to make room for compassion and sound policy. [applause]
To my children, I make this pledge: I will not give in, Zachary, because I draw my courage from you. Your silly giggle gives me hope; your gentle prayers give me strength; and you, my child, give me the reason to say to America, “You are at risk.” And I will not rest, Max, until I have done all I can to make your world safe. I will seek a place where intimacy is not the prelude to suffering. I will not hurry to leave you, my children, but when I go, I pray that you will not suffer shame on my account.
To all within the sound of my voice, I appeal: Learn with me the lessons of history and of grace, so my children will not be afraid to say the word “AIDS” when I am gone. Then, their children and yours may not need to whisper it at all.
God bless the children, and God bless us all.