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 apolitical 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 b 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 towards 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 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 has refused to be broken; she
still calls at mid-night 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
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 this 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.
Mary Fisher Speech
A Whisper of AIDS