Elton John has led tributes to Elizabeth Taylor, who died early this morning at the age of 79.

The gay icon was a tireless campaigner for equality and dedicated the latter years of her life to HIV and AIDS causes.

John, who was a friend of the actress, said: “We have just lost a Hollywood giant. More importantly, we have lost an incredible human being.”

Taylor, who supported marriage equality efforts and was the first major celebrity to campaign for HIV and AIDS awareness, has been praised by a host of gay celebrities.

Stephen Fry described her as “surely the last of a breed”, while Boy George said: “The amazing Liz Taylor, goddess, actress, AIDS activist and one of the world’s true beauties.”

George Michael said the late star was “the last of the Hollywood greats, and a fantastically charming woman”.

Gay rights and HIV charities have also paid tribute to Taylor.

Sir Nick Partridge, chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said the actress was “the first major star to publicly fight fear and prejudice towards AIDS and she did it with reason and compassion”.

He added: “It’s easy to forget just how much fear there was 25 years ago and how big a star she was. In a way that was typical of her, she used her fame to lever millions of pounds to support and change attitudes towards people with HIV. She was the pattern card of how stars can use their celebrity for good.

“She leaves a huge legacy for people living with HIV for which we will always be grateful. We will miss her.”

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called her an “extraordinary ally”.

GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios said: “At a time when so many living with HIV/AIDS were invisible, Dame Taylor fearlessly raised her voice to speak out against injustice. Dame Taylor was an icon not only in Hollywood, but in the LGBT community where she worked to ensure that everyone was treated with the respect and dignity we all deserve.”

Taylor, who was born in Hampstead, London, was famous for her beauty, talent, eight marriages and debilitating illnesses.

She began acting at the age of nine and went on to star in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, National Velvet, Cleopatra and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

After her friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS in the early 1980s, Taylor set up the American Foundation for AIDS Research (Amfar)and said she was on a “crusade” against the disease.

The star had been suffering from a congestive heart problem since 2004 and had endured years of poor health. She died of heart failure at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles this morning surrounded by her family.

A private funeral is to be held this week and her family have asked for donations to be made to Amfar in lieu of flowers.