This week, we marked World AIDS Day 2011. The White House wore a giant red AIDS ribbon. (Something I doubt you would see in a Michele Bachmann administration.) The cable news programs came through with a steady stream of State-of-the AIDS-epidemic related stories. Bono was on all the talk shows looking good and sounding hopeful. AIDS was everywhere — so to speak — which is, after all, the point of HIV/AIDS Day, to raise awareness. It was during the height of this AIDS Day symphony that I tripped over the name of a dear old friend, albeit one whom I’ve never met, when Mary Fisher came unexpectedly, but most happily, On Our Radar.
Like Madonna and Eminem, Mary Fisher is a hometown girl. Like them, she grew up within a twenty-mile radius from where I sit writing this. But unlike Madonna, Eminem (and me), Mary Fisher was the daughter of privilege. In the Detroit area, the Fisher name is everywhere. For more than fifty years, Detroit men and women walked to their auto assembly jobs under a sign with a blue stagecoach that read: Body By Fisher. My grandparents would point out the Fisher estate, barely visible behind wrought iron gates along Grosse Pointe’s Lakeshore Drive, whenever we drove by. We watch “Broadway” plays at the Fisher Theater, and every Detroiter knows the sight of the Fisher Building and its golden dome, where the Fisher Freeway meets the Lodge. In this town, Mary Fisher is royalty.
Mary Fisher’s announcement in 1991 that she had contracted HIV from her husband sent a shockwave through this city. Until that day, AIDS was the “gay disease.” The “bathhouse disease.” The disease “nice people” didn’t have to worry about. Mary Fisher’s announcement took the wind out of a lot of puffed up sails. AIDS was suddenly discussed more like cancer, less like the mark of Cain. “If it can happen to Mary Fisher….” people whispered. Suddenly the chattering class was much more interested in finding a cure than pointing a finger. It isn’t something I can quantify, but I know it happened. I heard it. I felt it. The wind changed. Mary Fisher put empathy into the hearts of this city where there had been only indifference or condemnation.
I lost track of Mary over the years. She moved away from Michigan so her name doesn’t appear regularly in the local news or social gossip columns. I realize, most contritely, I may have assumed Mary had died, or was too ill to be out in public, much less on the front lines of the AIDS battle. (And yes, I am painfully aware that this is exactly why we need an AIDS Day, to educate people like me.) But suddenly there was Mary Fisher’s name in an ad touting her appearance at DKNY Madison Avenue, on Global AIDS Day, with her line of Abataka jewelry to benefit the Mary Fisher Care Fund, a non-profit group she started in 2000.
I was curious enough to look up the the Mary Fisher Clinical AIDS Research and Education (CARE) Fund, and particularly the Abataka Jewelry Collection, and for the second time in my life, was blown away by the difference this one woman has made in the world. “Abataka” means “Community,” or “We are all one.” Every piece of jewelry is handmade by a woman in Rwanda or Zambia who is HIV-positive. They support themselves with the wages the jewelry-making pays, but thanks to Mary Fisher, they also become part of a research and support group that helps them contend with their condition. The profit from the jewelry goes to support the Mary Fisher Cares Organization, which promotes and coordinates the latest AIDS research with actual AIDS treatment.
I couldn’t think of a better time to have stumbled across the efforts of hometown girl, Mary Fisher. It is the holiday season, the time for gift giving, and open hearts. If there is someone on your gift list who would appreciate a handmade Abataka bracelet, I would encourage you to take a peek at the collection. It’s a lovely gift that gives back in so many ways: to the women who make them, to the Organization their sale supports, and most of all to your own heart, knowing you helped. But even if you are not in the jewelry market, I hope you will take a moment to appreciate a woman who could afford to do nothing, but who instead gave other HIV positive women a future.
And that is why this week, Mary Fisher and the Abataka jewelry project is On Our Radar.
Jean Ann Esselink is straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
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