By Jeff Berry
Many know Kate Burton as an actress, most recently portraying the right-wing Vice President Sally Langston in the hit TV show Scandal, and in Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Ellis Grey, the former surgeon and mother of lead character Dr. Meredith Grey, who dies of Alzheimer’s.
But what some people may not realize is that Burton, daughter of actor Richard Burton, also serves as an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF), which her stepmother founded. “People know, and people knew, my stepmom as a famous movie actress,” said Burton in a 2014 interview, “but at her fundamental core, she was a caring, compassionate person who advocated for the neediest of the needy.”
Burton, in an email to Positively Aware magazine, says she’s been involved in raising awareness about HIV since her dear friends Meghan Robinson and Michael O’Gorman died from AIDS. “From that time on, I knew that it would be a fight I would devote myself to. It was thrilling to me that Elizabeth became such a passionate advocate for AIDS awareness. As we all know, she and Dr. (Mathilde) Krim put this fight on the map.”
Elizabeth Taylor founded ETAF in 1991 to support organizations delivering direct care and services to people living with HIV and AIDS, often to the most marginalized populations, according to their website. Today, Taylor’s friends and family work together as ETAF ambassadors to help keep the issue of HIV/AIDS “top-of-mind” for the public. Taylor’s trust covers the operating costs of ETAF, ensuring that 100 percent of donations go directly to people affected by HIV/AIDS.
“My work as an ETAF ambassador entails many things,” says Burton, “but primarily I serve as a spokesperson or a message deliverer when called upon, although the hard ‘on-the-ground’ work is delivered by (ETAF Managing Director) Joel Goldman and his wonderful staff.”
Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, NO/AIDS Task Force, the largest HIV provider in New Orleans, had no offices and its patients nowhere to turn. Taylor wanted to help, and through her foundation was able to provide a mobile treatment unit so that clients were able to continue to access their medications and other lifesaving services, uninterrupted.
Taylor, understanding how successful the model was and that it didn’t need to be limited to a natural disaster, began to replicate it in other locales. She knew that chronic lack of access to healthcare was the biggest barrier in the battle against HIV and AIDS, according to a recent ETAF statement, and said, “If people cannot get to healthcare, why can’t we bring healthcare to people?” Since 2008, seven Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance/Elizabeth Taylor Mobile Health Clinics have been delivering care to the people of Mulanje and Phalombe districts in Malawi.
Recently, in collaboration with the Elizabeth Taylor Trust and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, Getty Images Gallery in London produced “Grit and Glamour” to mark 30 years since Taylor first began her leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Taylor’s son Christopher Wilding’s “major new photographic exhibition offered Elizabeth Taylor fans the chance to view previously unseen images of the Hollywood icon in a celebration of the British actress’ 30-year campaign to raise awareness on HIV and AIDS,” according to the Daily Mail.
In her day job, Burton has garnered two Emmy nominations for her portrayals of strong characters developed by Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. “Shonda Rhimes has been incredibly important to me in my life as an actress,” says Burton. “She chose me to play Ellis Grey in Grey’s Anatomy 12 years ago, which changed my professional life but more importantly, put advocacy for Alzheimer’s research front and center on network television and in the national conversation. Seven years later she chose me to play the larger-than-life, devout and conservative Vice President Sally Langston in Scandal. I initially thought that this character was not based on reality…until I saw the current crop of Republican candidates! Sally would fit right in amongst them, alas!”
In February hundreds of HIV advocates from across the country will descend upon Washington D.C. for AIDSWatch 2016, the largest constituent-based HIV advocacy event in the U.S., to educate Congress about the policies and resources needed to end the HIV epidemic. ETAF is the lead sponsor.
“The work that AIDSWatch does to elevate the voices of people living with and affected by HIV is crucial, and very much aligned with Elizabeth Taylor’s passionate approach,” says Joel Goldman of ETAF. “She used her enormous platform to advocate for those whose voices were being ignored, just as AIDSWatch is doing today. ETAF is thrilled to be the presenting sponsor for the second time and to see the impact of this exciting event continue to grow.”
As for Burton, she says her advocacy for AIDS research and the search for a cure will continue throughout her life. Along with her work at ETAF she also serves on the board of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
In September of last year at the 2015 United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), Burton presented the Elizabeth Taylor Legacy Award to House Leader Nancy Pelosi for her tireless work in the fight against HIV. “Presenting the ETAF award to Leader Pelosi on behalf of my stepmother was one of the greatest honors I have ever had,” says Burton. “I will always cherish the memory.”
Photo Credit: imgkid.com
Jeff Berry is the editor of Positively Aware magazine. A version of this article appeared in the January/February issue of Positively Aware (positivelyaware.com). For more information on the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and AIDSWatch 2016, go to etaf.org and aidsunited.org.