In the winter of 1986, Rae Lewis-Thornton decided to donate blood at a local hospital in Washington, D.C. She was young, successful and happy, with a boyfriend and a job working for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.
Three months later, Lewis-Thornton received a letter from the Red Cross regarding the blood she donated and asked her to come in. She left the Red Cross that day, HIV positive at the age of 23.
Nearly 30 years later, Lewis-Thornton is still fighting her disease, but she is focused on changing the stereotypes associated with HIV/AIDS in America. On Wednesday she will speak at the Texas Student Activity Center about this issue and its stigmas. The event is presented by the African American Culture Committee.
Lewis-Thornton tested positive when much was still unknown about HIV and AIDS. As this strange new illness ravaged America, researchers could not get a grip on the disease.
“At that time we didn’t know HIV was a death sentence,” Lewis-Thornton said. “I remember thinking when I left the Red Cross, ‘It’s alright, I only have HIV, and I can handle this.’”
Lewis-Thornton also remembers intense confusion. HIV was mostly associated with homosexual, drug-using white men at the time. Lewis-Thornton was drug and alcohol free, heterosexual and monogamous in her relationships. She didn’t understand how an educated and successful woman was placed in this situation.
“People never seem to think it could happen to them,” Lewis-Thornton said. “That is the major issue I want to come across. You are the only one who can keep you safe.”
For seven years Lewis-Thornton kept her HIV a complete secret. She continued to progress in political organizations and worked on several presidential and senatorial campaigns. She did not let her situation come across in her work and most of her friends and family were completely in the dark.
When she turned 30, however, her T-cell count dropped below 200, and her virus transitioned into AIDS. At this point, Lewis-Thornton knew she had to tell her close friends and family about the illness that was slowly destroying her body.
She said she was most worried about informing Jackson of her illness. After working together on two presidential campaigns, he had become like a father to Lewis-Thornton.
“I’ll never forget when he said, ‘I loved you before AIDS, and I’ll love you after,’” Lewis Thornton said.
Lewis-Thornton had no intention of going into motivational speaking. It never even crossed her mind. One day, however, a Chicago high school teacher begged her to speak with her students about the realities of HIV/AIDS. She was hesitant at first, but was ultimately convinced.
As the class periods changed, some students left and the next class filed in. But Lewis-Thornton noticed that throughout the day, some students did not leave.
Lewis-Thornton asked the teacher why some students were being kept in the room for multiple lectures. She asked if it was a punishment.
According to Lewis-Thornton, the teacher replied, “A few of the kids have been skipping class to hear you speak again. They’ve refused to leave.”
The actions of these students flipped a switch in Lewis-Thornton’s mind. Three weeks later, she quit her job and decided to start speaking for groups interested in the truth about HIV/AIDS. She believes it is her calling.
“I walked away from that high school and couldn’t shake this feeling of gratitude,” Lewis-Thornton said. “I knew I had the duty to educate everyone I could about this illness.”
Lewis-Thornton’s lectures are typically open forums where no question is too provocative. She has few reservations addressing intimate details about her story and the effects of HIV/AIDS.
“You can actually see the girls squirm when I tell them I have 15- to 21-day menstrual cycles,” Lewis-Thornton said.
Lewis-Thornton believes that HIV/AIDS should be as relevant today as it was in the early 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one person contracts HIV every nine-and-a-half minutes. She said that although it is not a “sexy” topic, HIV/AIDS is too important to glaze over.
Abigail Emery, a biology pre-med freshman and a budding AIDS activist, agrees with Lewis-Thornton. She will be attending Lewis-Thornton’s lecture Wednesday.
“It is an issue that has seemed to become nonexistent in the past decade,” Emery said. “There is still so much that must be done.”
Perhaps Lewis-Thornton’s new perspective and approach to AIDS awareness will give UT students a reformed understanding of HIV/AIDS relevance today. Lewis-Thornton hopes to inspire a new generation to stand up in the fight against AIDS and its negative stereotypes, one lecture at a time.