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Mary Fisher had to fight for a spot among AIDS activists Earning Respect

In a large, inviting house in Bethesda, flanked by a cozy art studio, a jungle gym nestled in a grassy glade, and trees covered in autumnal reds and yellows, Mary Fisher wonders aloud what she should say about AIDS to the parents and teachers of 6-year-olds.

Hundreds of public appearances have come and gone since the mother of two moved the Republican Party elite to tears at their 1992 national convention by announcing that she was infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

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But on this recent October night, Ms. Fisher is scheduled to address the PTA at her own son's Montgomery County elementary school. And she's a little nervous.

"These are the people who will be teaching my children. Our children will one day be creating our laws and our policies about AIDS.

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"If I can't reach these people . . .," she added, her voice trailing off.

Mary Fisher -- a wealthy Republican woman infected with HIV by her husband -- first gained national attention two years ago when she urged the Republican national convention to show compassion to all people with AIDS. Since then, though Ms. Fisher's message has not changed, her reception in some circles has.

Bit by bit, this unlikely activist has won a grudging admiration among AIDS advocates, who are angered by what they see as a lack of leadership and frustrated by slow progress made in research.

"She was too pretty, too wealthy, too Republican," said Sean Strub, publisher of POZ, a magazine for HIV-positive people, whose current cover features Ms. Fisher's photograph.

"We tried to dismiss her, but she can't be dismissed. She slowly but definitely won over the AIDS community," he said.

Since going public with her HIV status, Ms. Fisher, who is an artist, has founded the Families with AIDS Network, a support group for care-givers of people with AIDS.

Four times a month, the 46-year-old travels, taking her message to churches and corporate boardrooms, schools and professional societies nationwide; last year she moved to Maryland from Boca Raton, Fla., to be more centrally located.

Last year, too, a book of her speeches, "Sleep with the Angels: A Mother Challenges AIDS," was published. It will be followed next spring by a second compilation of speeches and, in the fall, by her autobiography.

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"We were highly skeptical about her -- hardened cynicism is a better word," said Torie Osborn, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who is a new friend of Ms. Fisher's.

"But this is a woman who travels around the country quite regularly, speaking in the most conservative churches, to Republican women's social clubs, to corporations. She speaks purposefully in places not used to hearing messages of compassion -- and especially not about AIDS," Ms. Osborn said.

Last summer, Ms. Fisher's art also became a medium of activism. "I don't know why, I have so many things to say, not just in speeches," she said.

For years, she has made her own paper and, in combination with oils, created textured paintings. Though her earlier work was filled with soft pastels, now a vivid orange is dominant. Images of women and children are repeated again and again, superimposed with words echoing her speeches: "Show grace," "You matter very much," "AIDS kills families."

This isn't angry art, but its message is clear.

Despite her commitment to spread a message of acceptance for people with AIDS, "this is not by my choice. I would not have chosen to have this disease," Ms. Fisher said.

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She was sitting in a large living room made friendly by a sofa covered in a cream-and-beige animal pattern and scattered photos of her sons, 6-year-old Max and 4-year-old Zack.

Her own art is haphazardly stacked along two walls; nearby a photograph of her father, Max Fisher, is hanging. In it, Mr. Fisher, a major contributor to the Republican Party, is wearing the red ribbon that symbolizes solidarity with people with AIDS, as he stands weeping during his daughter's convention speech. "To my darling Mary," reads a tiny penciled message. "With love, Dad."

Until she tested positive for HIV, Ms. Fisher's life seemed one of unlimited promise and privilege. The daughter of an immensely wealthy real estate investor, she grew up in Detroit, the second of five children.

At the exclusive Cranbrook Schools, she was class president four years in a row. Later, she was the first woman to do advance work in the Ford administration. (The former President and Betty Ford are personal friends; they are godparents to both her sons.)

But in the summer of 1991, Ms. Fisher discovered that she had been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus by Brain Campbell, her former husband and the father of her two children.

Mr. Campbell, who has since died of AIDS with Ms. Fisher by his side, probably was infected through intravenous drug use. Neither Max, who is 6 years old, nor Zack, who is 4 and is adopted, are infected with HIV.

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In those first months after her positive test, Ms. Fisher agonized over whether to tell her story publicly. The question, she said, was what, if anything, could she accomplish?

"Betty Ford is one of my mentors and idols, and I believe that she helped so many women, not just women -- people -- by being open. I thought, if I could do in some small way the same thing, I'd have accomplished something," she said.

What clinched her decision, however, was that some family members and friends were afraid for her -- and urged her to stay silent. "That told me more than anything that there was stigma and prejudice and that I had to talk about it."

And so her mission began.

"I talk about AIDS to groups who don't normally talk to people with AIDS," she said. "We must talk about AIDS. It's all we have; we don't have a cure. By allowing people to stay in denial that AIDS won't affect them, we fuel the disease and we enable the stigma to stay."


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