Rae Lewis-Thornton: A Diva Living With AIDS

AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton.

Rae Lewis-Thornton is clear about her legacy. “It is probably the thing that I will be most proud of. I will go down in history as the black woman who gave AIDS a face for black women, to give it a different kind of feel,” Lewis-Thornton tells rolling out.

“I lived a normal life, I dated normal men, and I did normal things,” she said. “That’s what we tried to show, and I’m very proud of it.”

Decades ago, Lewis-Thornton appeared on the cover of Essence magazine to put a startling new face on the epidemic of AIDS — that of the young, classy, beautiful, educated, heterosexual (but not promiscuous) black female.

Rae Lewis-Thornton on the cover of Essence in 1994

Today, Lewis-Thornton has been living with HIV for 28 years and advanced AIDS for 19 of those years. She adheres to a very aggressive regimen that includes a combination of five different HIV medications, totaling about 15 pills a day. For the most part, the medicines do what they’re supposed to do: Keep her alive.

But don’t get it twisted. Although Lewis-Thornton has good days and bad days, she doesn’t permit defeat. “Although I’ve had some infections that I haven’t been able to really get a handle on because there are some parts of my immune system that won’t repair[themselves], I’ve learned to take the good with the bad, and I’ve put everything in perspective.”

That “perspective” is that, 15 years ago, she should have died. “My t-cell count was 8 out of 1,000. I should have died. I just blogged about that. I said that I accept the miracles as they come. I don’t really worry about what [is] not.”

Rae Lewis-Thornton does worry that today’s black woman is not getting the message, much like the ostrich that sticks its head in the sand to avoid impending danger.

“We spend so much time trying to prove that we’re morally correct and morally superior that we don’t have any dialog about sex,” Lewis-Thornton argues. “But, for women specifically, there’s this false sense of security that ‘the love will keep me safe, this relationship will keep me safe, what I know about this man will keep me safe,’ and what you think you know may not be true.”

Or, to put it bluntly, “If the penis ain’t in your pocket, you have no idea what it’s doing when it’s not with you.”

Participation in unprotected sex and blindly trusting a sexual partner also have roots in low self-esteem and in women seeking validation in the arms of a man, Lewis-Thornton explains.

“Women have to move beyond this sense of ‘I need a man, I want a man, I’m validated with a man, my life is complete with a man,’” she states. “We need to begin to put self-love first.”

Rae Lewis-Thornton says self-love begins with taking responsibility for your own sexual health. “It’s about surrendering yourself and not living in a level of arrogance about your relationship and denial about your relationship. Love won’t keep you safe at the end of the day. The only person that will keep you safe is yourself.”

Rae Lewis-Thornton’s Twitter handle is #RaeLT. Also, check out her riveting blog, “A Diva Living with AIDS,” on www.raelewisthornton.com.

Zondra Hughes

Deputy Editor, Rolling Out

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