Rae Lewis Thornton Reveals the Real Deal about Living with AIDS

Monday, 12 November 2012 23:10 Written by  Iya Bakare

Rae Lewis-Thornton isn’t a White homosexual male or a drug addict. In the 1980s, the world tagged these descriptions to the face of the HIV virus. Almost 20 years ago, Rae changed the face of the disease as the first black woman to share her story publicly.

The Chicago-native says she shared her story in Ebony as a part of another feature and started to speak publicly about her status in 1993 before she was featured as a cover story in Essence in December 1994. Rae says it was an awards ceremony where former editor-in-chief Susan L. Taylor approached her about featuring her story in her publication.

“It was the first single focus story on my life,” Rae comments. “It was brave of Ms. Taylor because they [Essence] really knew nothing about me. This was the holiday issue and it was seen as controversial because they were talking about AIDS when people wanted to read about fashion and toys. I’m proud to be known as going down in history as the first black woman who was the face of AIDS.”

The motivational speaker admits she decided to go public with her testimony when she transitioned from her HIV positive status to AIDS, especially since the survival expectancy for people with the disease during that time was three years.

“When I transitioned to full-blown AIDS, I thought I may as well speak out because I was dying anyway,” she adds. “I didn’t care, and I said I was going to tell and let the chips fall.”

In December 1986, Rae donated blood at a routine blood drive and received news a few weeks later she was HIV positive. Prior to her transition, Rae says she didn’t share her status because she didn’t want her career as a young professional to be affected.

“That was an ugly time in America when nurses and doctors didn’t want to touch patients with HIV, schools discriminated against children and funeral directors didn’t want to bury people with the disease,” she admits. “It was the burden from hell and the secret was killing me quicker than the disease.”

During this time, Rae says she was involved in relationships, but many of the men wanted her to keep her secret, as well. She says it was such a shock to many when she revealed her well-kept secret because she never appeared ill to others and never showed signs of what people perceived were signs of HIV or AIDS.

“We’re [black women] accustomed to keeping secrets and we don’t talk about our business publicly,” she adds. “I had to be willing to let that go. Once I started speaking, I knew it was what I was destined to do.”

A part of letting go meant she had to reveal her health status to her biological mother, her mother who reared her and friends. Rae says it was difficult for the person who reared her to see her rise to fame because of AIDS, and although her biological mother wanted to support her, she couldn’t because she suffered from a mental illness and from drug addiction.

Despite the criticism from others, Rae says she decided to share her testimony because she wanted women to think about how this disease could change their lives and to open a discussion about it. In her regular blog posts on her website, www.raelewisthornton.com, and through social media, the AIDS survivor candidly shares her daily life with this disease. From pictures of her medicine to images of her IV injections, Rae divulges her raw and factual reality.

“Some days enough is enough and some days enough is too much,” she comments. “I have two options, life or death and there’s nothing in between. I take 15 pills a day, go to events, come back home to take off my eyelashes and makeup and I deal with this. It’s not a quick fix. You can live a long time, but it’s a hard life. The best bet is prevention.”

Side effects from the various medications Rae digested since she was diagnosed to now and their expenses are another story, she says. Yet, the activist doesn’t allow the damage to her immune system that can’t be reversed and the extensive care to cripple her. She took what some may use as a crutch as a tool and a platform to help others. She earned her Masters of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary in 2003 and her Ph.D. from the Lutheran School of Theology in church history. She earned an Emmy for her story, continues to speak out about HIV/AIDS awareness, wrote her first book and is an entrepreneur with her RLT collection that features customized, high-end bracelets.

“It’s not about me, but about how God uses me,” Rae says. “Men who date me have to consider this is my life and my ministry and figure out if they can deal with it.”

Rae admits she always searched for love because she didn’t have a family setting when she was younger, and although sex was her way of looking for love, Rae says she accepts responsibility for the decisions she made to lead where she is today.

“I don’t blame anyone for my status but myself, and it’s unfair when we don’t take ownership about our vaginas,” she admits. “When you’re faced with the reality of there could have been a different outcome, it becomes real.”

Through relationships and a marriage, Rae says it took time for her to value herself as a person and as a woman.

“I had to learn my self-worth and found it through prayer, therapy and hard work,” she admits. “I was well into my 30s and 40s and didn’t have it, but I have it now. If you can’t walk with me in the park in the daylight, then you can’t get my coochie at night in the dark.”

Almost 30 years after she was diagnosed, the 50-year-old says she is shocked she is still here to tell her story as young ladies she spoke to as teenagers contact her.

“I didn’t think I would live this long,” she admits. “I looked at the mirror and saw death staring back at me. I’m a walking miracle and should have died a long time ago. The one thing I’m sure of is I’m going to continue to do what God calls for me to do.”

Follow Rae on Twitter at @raelt

*Photo Credit: www.raelewisthornton.com

Iya Bakare

Iya Bakare

Iya Bakare, GMO's managing editor, earned both her Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees in print journalism. She earned her B.A. from Delta State University with a minor in English and graduated with a M.A. degree from Columbia College Chicago. In her spare time, the Chicago native continues to freelance and ponder ways to both inform and improve her community one story at a time.

She can be contacted at Iya@glossmagazineonline.com
Follow her on Twitter: @ibakare

Website: www.iyabakare.com