Max Fisher was four years old when his mother spoke out about AIDS at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Her words legitimized the fight against the disease at a time when it was considered to be “gay cancer,” and something that should not be talked about. Fischer was the all-American mom, from a family tied to business and political powers, when she transacted the disease from her first husband. The speech she gave forced the public to look at AIDS differently, and her family became a spokes-family for the cause.
Max Fischer is now all grown up, and running his own film company called Fish Soup Films. He came to Michigan last Wednesday as the keynote speaker for a luncheon at Michigan AIDS Coalition to help attract attention and funding to the cause. He shared news of a documentary that he has been working on for the past year, his way of carrying his mother’s work forward.
He also spoke about growing up with an activist mom and with the knowledge that his parents were destined for an early death. His father passed away because of the infection, and his mother is only alive because medicines have been created that are able to help in her case. Max grew up always aware that the end could be imminent.
“She told me that people die all the time,” he said. “I don’t think I told her how much that idea troubled me… She worked on her funeral. She arranged her estate. She made plans for my brother and for me, who would raise us and how our lives would be structured as orphans. She did this out of love and full understanding. To say the obvious, this has some impact on a child.
“I remember, for example, a warm evening in Washington DC in 1996 when the Names Project was last displayed in its entirety. Our family was there throughout the day. We found the panels for my father and others we had known. And that evening we carried candles with thousands of people with HIV and AIDS and those who loved them. We walked quietly by the light of the flickering candles from the Senate building to the Lincoln Memorial where they were going to have speakers.
As I walked holding my candle in one hand and my mother’s fingers in the other, I could hear a chorus of voices ahead. People standing on the sidewalk not far from our destination were signing and chanting something.
‘I thought it was neat.
‘Until I got closer. And even in the twilight darkness I could see the look that crossed my mother’s face as the voices grew louder and we could hear what they were saying. ‘Die. Die. Die,’ they screamed as those with AIDS walked past them. These were people from some strange church where injustice and hatred were somehow contorted into grace. As we reached their street corner they changed their chant. ‘God hates fags. God hates fags.
‘I saw my mother’s cheeks as a tear streamed down. I did not ask why. …It was not hatred that produced her grief. It was because her sons were there with her and the fury and the prejudice were raining down on them.”
In addition to Max’s speech, attendees watched the video from the 1992 GOP Convention which epitomized Mary’s struggle and brought AIDS to the political arena and the living rooms of mainstream America.
Michael Bartus, a member of the LGBT Aging Coalition, was among those who attended the luncheon. “What really moved me is that he experienced death of a parent from AIDS, suffered ridicule and harassment and he could have been broken by his experience, and he was not. He’s turned it around and is using it to move forward.”
Pam Wong of the Greater Detroit Area Health Council was also moved. “I thought it was very compelling. You can’t be tacit. You have to speak out on things. To hear firsthand the hatred, it’s terrible. And it’s just ignorance,” she said.
Max hopes to change that ignorance with his work. “I want to reach all generations with the evidence that this epidemic has not ended and we are all responsible to respond. It is up to us to call for life protecting education in our schools, in our homes and in our congregations. We all, all of us individually and together, are able to make a difference.”
The luncheon was a benefit for Michigan AIDS Coalition, with food donated by the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group. The generosity of donors at events like the luncheon helps MAC with their work doing HIV testing, counseling and education. A $5,000 donation can underwrite an AmeriCorp volunteer for a year. A $2,500 gift can secure a development assistant. And $1,000 can cover printing for a major prevention brochure.
To find out more about MAC, go to http://michiganaidscoalition.org.