What’s the Buzz About Elton John’s Humanitarian Award from Harvard?

Sir Elton John has just received the Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award.  John accepted the Harvard Foundation award at Sanders Theatre in a ceremony filled with touching remarks, standing ovations, and festive music.  John is well known for his philanthropic work. He has supported many causes, but his work with HIV and AIDS has been his primary focus since 1992. That’s the year he founded his AIDS Foundation. It’s been his mission to end the worldwide epidemic. His foundation has raised $385 million, and counting, to support programs around the world related to this cause.

The Harvard award is not the first he has accepted for his philanthropic work. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1998. The Harvard School of Public Health also awarded him the AIDS Initiative Leadership Award in 2013.  But at this award ceremony, he spoke about the things which inspired him most. He said that he met Ryan White, whose teenage struggles with the disease included discrimination and adversity. White became a public symbol when he faced a wide range of public ridicule. Sir John told the Harvard gathering that it was Ryan White’s experiences which inspired him to begin his recovery from addiction to drugs, alcohol, self-absorption and an eating disorder. He started his AIDS Foundation after meeting White.

Eight-year-old Chase Sullivan presented Sir John with red roses.  Chase’s parents are Harvard professors. The floral presentation was on behalf of Cambridge children. The Harvard College Kuumba Singers performed music of Africa; one of Sir John’s favorite places.  Sir John wore a black suit embroidered on the back with colorful designs and his trademark glasses studded with rhinestones.

Sir John can now claim 27 years of sobriety. His personal war against addiction has not kept him from achieving musical success. He has an Oscar, a Tony, and Grammys. He’s also a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member.  But his work helping people to achieve humanitarian goals is what gives his life purpose. This recent award places him in the company of past award winners such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai, Rihanna, and Arthur Ashe.

Though Sir John’s activism was applauded by the Sanders Theatre audience filled with Harvard students and staff, and many fans, he has had his share of detractors.  He performed with Eminem at the 2001 Grammys. This led to a round of highly public social media posts and open letters criticizing his support of the rapper known for homophobic lyrics.  Sir John’s desire to embrace all of humanity has provoked social media controversy. Some do not agree with his positions. The recent Harvard award spurred a new rash of negative posts. These identify Sir John’s work as a part of a gay or political agenda. But, regardless of what camp the public claims, his work as a humanitarian continues to encompass many charities.

There’s no doubt that Sir John can leverage his entertainment success to raise awareness and huge sums of money for charity. However, he is free to choose to raise money for AIDS awareness and services. His work has raised millions around the world. His spirit has convinced many to look past their differences. He said his own problems with excess caused him to “lose his own humanity”. Now, at 70 years old, he is focused on helping people turn against drugs and their own excesses to live better lives filled with kindness and good deeds.

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