Thirty Years and Counting
Thirty years ago today — August 19, 1992 — I spoke for 13 minutes to the Republican National Convention in Houston, and to audiences around the world. Most of the themes tucked into that speech (“A Whisper of AIDS”) still resonate today: compassion, courage, integrity and honor.
Brent Staples, later known for his brilliant memoir, Parallel Times, was then writing editorials for The New York Times. The piece he filed on my speech was entitled “Teaching Mercy to Republicans.” I still love that title.
“Ms. Fisher took the crusade for decency and compassion into the lion’s den,” wrote Brent. “She spoke the message to the people who were most in need of hearing it. For that she has earned our gratitude.”
Three decades on, the lion’s den has become meaner. The crusade for decency and compassion amid Republicans has become ever-more absent and necessary. I spoke then as one dying of AIDS. Today, I’d speak as an activist grandmother disgusted by a Party that bows to evil.
But you may judge for yourself. Here’s what I said that hot and humid Wednesday night in the Astrodome:
“A Whisper of ‘AIDS’”
Mary D. Fisher
The Republican National Convention
Wednesday, August 19, 1992
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/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 good purpose, and so 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, or 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 — despite it all, it’s 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 the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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; 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. 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 policy maker, 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 to guarding against another holocaust. He is part of the generation who heard Pastor Niemoeller 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. 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.”
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. 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 eighty-four-year-old father, who has pursued the healing of the nations, will not accept the premise that he cannot heal his daughter. My mother has refused 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 have been so blessed. You are HIV-positive but dare not say it. You have lost loved ones, but you dared 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.
Some day 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 comfort.
To the millions who are strong I issue the plea: Set aside prejudice and politics to make room for compassion and sound policy.
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 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 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 bless us all — and good night.