23 April 2010
By Kelsey Lilley
Emmy award–winning AIDS activist and speaker Rae Lewis–Thornton spoke to a full crowd last Monday night, April 12, at 7p.m. in the Lilly Gallery. Her interactive lecture was sponsored by the Tau Omicron Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., 1972, Warner Hall, the Health Advisors, the Anthropology Department, Minority Student Services, the Asian Culture Awareness Association and the Black Student Coalition.
Lewis–Thornton found out she was HIV–positive at 23, after organizing a blood drive and receiving getting a letter saying that something wrong with her blood. After recalling the five–minute meeting in which she was told she had HIV, Lewis–Thornton said she was in “quasi–denial.”
“HIV was manageable,” she remembered saying to herself, “but AIDS is a death sentence.”
Particularly in a time when stereotypes and myths about people with HIV were far–reaching, and AZT–the drug most used today to delay the onset of AIDS symptoms–had not yet been invented, Lewis–Thornton called the ’80s “cruel and ugly time[s] to be told you were HIV infected.”
Lewis–Thornton recounted the next seven years of her life, during which she was still in denial. She told only five people about her HIV status and refused to read a single article or watch a TV special on the disease. Before being forced to retire due to her health, Lewis–Thornton was a political organizer, and had served as the National Youth Director for both of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaigns.
But HIV changed everything, she said, and explained her battle with depression, which sometimes left her with little energy or incentive to get out of bed daily.
“I began to wonder, Could I find hope in the midst of pain?” she said. “Could I live in the midst of dying?”
At that point, she said, she took her struggle to God, eventually attending Seminary and becoming licensed as a Baptist minister.
After growing closer to God, Lewis–Thornton said that she changed her mindset about the disease. She went on a drug regimen, at one point taking 27 pills per day and dropping from a size 12 to a size six in six months. But she still had told very few people.
“The secret was killing me,” she said. “Telling was not easy…but it felt like tons of bricks had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Eventually, Lewis–Thornton took an offer to give a lecture on her disease in Chicago, citing that lecture as the moment she knew that AIDS activism was her true “calling.” She quit her stable job in order to more fully pursue speaking and activism.
Six months later, she got a call from the editor of Essence Magazine, asking to tell her story. And she did, with the story appearing on the cover. Since then, she has graced the cover of numerous other publications, as well as made appearances on CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dateline and BET.
Despite all her success, however, Lewis–Thornton articulated the difficulties of living with AIDS. In addition to weight fluctuation, drug side effects and peripheral neuropathy–a disease that creates a “pins and needles” pain in her hands and feet–she experiences chronic fatigue.
“I’m tired,” she admitted. “And I keep doing it because someone has to do it.”
Lewis–Thornton also runs a blog, “Diva Living with AIDS,” and said that many people tell her she makes AIDS look “easy.”
“It takes every little thought I have,” she said about fighting AIDS. In spite of magazine covers, talk show appearances and a successful blog, Lewis–Thornton said that none of it matters, because, “They won’t save my life.”
Lewis–Thornton then addressed what she said is one her most frequently–asked questions–does she know who infected her?
After finding out her HIV diagnosis, Lewis–Thornton said she called old boyfriends and did try to figure it out, but eventually stopped.
“It’s not about me forgiving him,” she said, “it’s about me forgiving me.”
Lewis–Thornton explained that today, she still does not know who infected her, despite her lack of engagement in the “typical” behaviors associated with AIDS: she never had a one–night stand, sex on the first date or sex with anyone she didn’t love. Rather, she used her story as a reason to truly begin an open dialogue with one’s boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, etc., cautioning that the time to discuss sex, Condom use, and disease prevention is “at the kitchen table with [your] clothes on.”
In addition, Lewis–Thornton noted the racial and socio–economic inequalities that affect AIDS prevention and treatment, even today.
She also briefed the audience on the disease’s spread and effective prevention methods, noting the effectiveness of condoms, when used correctly and all the time. She also stressed the importance of healthy dialogue in a relationship. Lewis–Thornton’s message was to make educated decisions with one’s partner, based on the facts and discussed in advance.
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