Rae Lewis-Thonrton changed the national conversation around HIV when she came out about her status on the cover of Essence magazine in 1994, declaring, “I’m young, I’m educated, I’m drug-free, and I’m dying of AIDS.”
One of the first African-American women to be out about her HIV status, Lewis-Thornton became a new face of AIDS, one that proved black women could get HIV even if they didn’t use drugs, had graduated cum laude from Northeastern Illinois University, and had even worked on numerous high profile political campaigns including Senator Carol Mosley Braun’s 1992 Senatorial campaign, Michael Dukakis 1988 presidential campaign, and Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.
For many black women, Lewis-Thornton’s coming out cover story was a shocking revelation.
“Susan Taylor received a lot of criticism for putting me on the cover of the magazine at the time,” Lewis-Thornton told The Bodyin 2012. "Here it is, this little bitty black girl from a working class family, with AIDS, nonetheless, on a cover — for the holiday issue — that's reserved for people of importance. It was brave. I say it all the time. It was incredibly brave of Susan. And it was incredibly brave of me.”
But there were also positive responses.
“People told me I saved their lives,” Lewis-Thornton recalled in Essence’s 20 year anniversary update.
Lewis-Thornton’s candor has only increased since the 1990s: she’s spoken openly about medication side effects like diarrhea, violent dreams, and lipodystrophy.
“One day my body reshaped itself without my permission,” she later told Essence, about the redistribution of fat. She’s revealed that she’s had liposuction; she talks about sex, dating and disclosure; she's shared her battles with depression, menopause and aging with HIV.
She even revealed to Essence she was “the daughter of two heroin addicts, was raised and abused by her late grandfather’s third wife, [and] had been molested by four relatives by her 10th birthday.” This June (after the brutal murder of Jessica Hampton and rumors she was killed because she gave her boyfriend HIV), Lewis-Thornton invited people to a live Facebook chat, to “talk about all of this stigma and mis-education around HIV. Let's talk about domestic violence, murder and something gotta change in our community.” The Chigaco woman’s tell-all memoir, Unprotected reportedly reveals the name of the celebrity she believes gave her HIV in the mid 1980s. Due out later this year, Unprotected is her third book, following The Politics of Respectability and Amazing Grace Letters Along My Journey.
Now 54, she’s been HIV-positive for over three decades, and living with AIDS for two of them. Although her viral load has been undetectable for 13 years, Lewis-Thornton explained in a June blog post, “If a person has already transitioned to AIDS, like in my case, HAART therapy will suppress the virus from doing any new damage to my body. But the damage that has already been done to my immune system cannot be reversed. (That's why I have more health problems then the average person today with HIV.)”
In her years as a public figure, Lewis-Thornton has been featured in dozens of publications. She earned an Emmy and other awards for her role as a reporter on the series Hard News, Living With AIDS, 1994-1995. Her award winning blog Diva Living With AIDS helped her being named one of 2014’s Top Ten Social HealthMakers on HIV and AIDS by Dr. Mehmet Oz’s ShareCare. She’s spoken on dozens of college campuses, received numerous awards and served on the advisory board for Hip Hop Sisters Network.
“Rae Lewis Thornton…has been a highly visible spokeswoman and advocate in this ongoing crisis,” says Tracy Baim, publisher of Windy City Times and one of the people who nominated Lewis-Thornton for this honor.
In addition to her tireless activism and HIV education, Lewis-Thornton is also an ordained minister and a businesswoman with an on-line book club (RLT Reads), a line of fashion bracelets (worn by the likes of Phadrea Parks, Dionne Warwick, Kim Coles, and Judge Glenda Hatchett), and a tea appreciation society (Tea With Rae).
But one of the things this fighter is most proud of is that she’s survived at all—and found self acceptance along the way. “Learning to love myself has been the greatest thing I have ever done for me,” Lewis-Thornton posted on Facebook earlier this year. “That love has made me comfortable in my skin…I'm a fuckin' BAD ASS! HIV didn't stop me. My mama telling me I ain't shit didn't stop me. And most importantly I didn't stop myself. I'm proud of me!!”
“What’s important,” Baim says is not only that Lewis-Thornton was “fearless on the cover of Essence,” but that she “has always been very inclusive in her work, never shying away from the intersections of this disease, including its impact on the LGBT community. She is a role model, and an ongoing source of inspiration for those living with HIV/AIDS, and those fighting to end this epidemic.”
It’s that willingness to be a public role model for a community that often feels invisible (heterosexual women of color who aren’t drug users but are living with HIV) that will go down in history. As she told The Body in 2012, “I am, honest-to-God, I'm so honored for that place in history. It's an awesome place in history to be.”