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Sep14

Remembering Joan Rivers, fierce and early voice against AIDS

Sunday, 14 September 2014 Written by // Guest Authors - Revolving Door Categories // Activism, Arts and Entertainment, Current Affairs, Performances, Television, Opinion Pieces, Revolving Door, Guest Authors

From TheBody.com comes this tribute to Joan Rivers' work with the HIV community that goes way back. “In a community that is no stranger to grief, the death of an ally like Rivers is hard for many.”

Remembering Joan Rivers, fierce and early voice against AIDS

This article by Mathew Rodriguez first appeared on TheBody.com here.

Joan Rivers, legendary comedienne, self-proclaimed feminist, and icon, passed away at the age of 81 on Thursday, Sept. 4, after throat surgery. She was "surrounded by family and close friends," according to a statement from her daughter, Melissa Rivers. "[Joan's] greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon." And thus, I invite you to laugh now. 

When Joan Rivers appeared on Louis CK's TV show Louie in 2012, she did so to share some wisdom about what it meant to be a comedian. 

"I've gone up, I've gone down, I've been bankrupt, I've been broke. But you do it, and you do it because, because we love it more than anything else. That's why you're doing it. You want a real job, there are a million things you can do. But what we do is not a job. It sounds so stupid, but what we do is a calling, my dear. We make people happy. It's a calling." 

Rivers had the power to evoke laughter even out of what some would deem the least funny situations. On her husband's suicide, she said, "My husband killed himself. And it was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head." 

She loved to make people laugh not just to make them laugh, but to lighten a world that was often so heavy. It is no surprise, then, that Rivers was one of the earliest -- and fiercest -- voices in support of people living with AIDS. 

Karen Ocamb, former news editor at Frontiers magazine, wrote of Rivers on her Facebook, "While so many will remember this pioneer in her funny one-liners, sometimes jaw-droppingly outrageous, and her fashion sense ('Who are you wearing?') -- please also know that she was out front helping people with AIDS at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis when so many others turned away in fear." 

Rivers talked with disco icon Sylvester about her history of AIDS fundraising, a time she describes as "when you weren't supposed to do it," in the same year that Reagan finally decided to let the word "AIDS" pass from his lips. Watch the first video below, and if you want to skip the awesome performance and get straight to the talk about her AIDS fundraising, you can go straight to 5:58 in the video. 

Rivers continued her work around HIV/AIDS even in later years, and right up until her death. In 2008, longtime activist and now San Diego Human Rights Commissioner Nicole Murray-Ramirez presented Rivers with an award for her HIV and AIDS work from the city of San Diego. "When it comes to HIV and AIDS she stands out as our own little Joan of Arc," she said. Ramirez has also been quoted as saying, "Joan Rivers was the first celebrity that started doing AIDS. And then came Elizabeth Taylor and the others." 

On May 10, 2009, Rivers won NBC's The Celebrity Apprentice and donated her winnings to God's Love We Deliver (GLWD), of which she was an early supporter and a board member up until her death in 2014. Watch the second video below as she describes the work of GLWD on Apprentice. 

She talked to Giuliana Rancic of E! News about her work with GLWD and the early days of the epidemic, when "we would go around on bicycles and deliver food to people. And [GLWD] has grown into this amazing organization where we give something like 4,500 meals a day to our clients. We also send meals -- if you live with a caretaker, your caretaker gets a meal. If you have children, your children get a meal." 

On why she began supporting GLWD, Rivers said, "In those days, so many of my friends started getting 'gay pneumonia,' and then when it became known as AIDS, people didn't want to touch these people, literally, or go to their apartment. They couldn't get help. There was one hairdresser that was a very good friend of mine and we said 'Let's start bringing him food,' and it started to grow." 

On May 7, 2014, Rivers helped to deliver GLWD's 15 Millionth Meal. "This is another important milestone in the history of God's Love," President and CEO Karen Pearl said to the New York Nonprofit Press on the day of the occasion. Rivers added, "I'm so honored to be a part of God's Love We Deliver and I'm thrilled to know that over the past 29 years we have delivered an astonishing 15 million meals!" 

In a community that is no stranger to grief, the death of an ally like Rivers is hard for many. Her persona, her voice, her wit, the void she's left behind -- all larger than life. But as we always do in times of mourning, we have each other and the future to keep us going. 

About the author: Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez

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