Our Voices in the Fight: Rae Lewis-Thornton, the Face of Black AIDS

In 1994, Rae Lewis-Thornton was featured on the cover of Essence Magazine where she bravely shared her personal story about living with HIV.

Essence Magazine

The latest installment of our Black History Month series, “Our Voices in the Fight,” features the story of Rae Lewis-Thornton, a woman who bravely disclosed her HIV-status in a 1994 Essence Magazine cover story and has since dedicated her life to tackling the stigma around HIV/AIDS. Read on to learn more about her decision to disclose her status, including excerpts from her 1994 interview.

An office blood drive changed Rae Lewis-Thornton’s life forever.  

It was the Spring of 1986 and at age 23, Thornton was just starting her career as a political organizer in Washington, D.C. But a phone call from the American Red Cross brought all of that to a sudden halt.
She was diagnosed with HIV.

“I have no idea who infected me or when it happened,” Thornton said in a personal essay.   “Still, there is one thing I am absolutely certain of: I am dying now because I had one sexual partner too many. And I'm here to tell you one is all it takes.” 

Thornton withdrew into herself. The self-described divaand extrovert quietly entered a study at the National Institute of Health (NIH) and disclosed her status to a few select friends. Like so many others at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States,  Thornton said she felt alienated and alone, left to defend herself against fear and a virus that was claiming the lives of hundreds each day.

Thornton could have become a statistic and her story could have ended there. But after nine years of silence, she felt compelled to speak out -- on a national scale. 

In 1994, Thornton appeared on the cover of Essence Magazine. The issue featured her personal essay titled, “Facing AIDS.”   The piece detailed Thornton’s struggles accepting her initial HIV diagnosis, living with the disease, and maintaining her personal strength and dignity in the face of overwhelming stigma. She wrote:

“I'm young - 32. Well educated. Professional. Attractive. Smart. I've been drug- and alcohol-free all my life. I’m a Christian. I've never been promiscuous. Never had a one-night stand. And I am dying of AIDS.

“What I have clearly learned is that, unlike, people, AIDS does not discriminate. My wish is that all women would realize this and take control of their lives and their bodies.” 

Thornton’s cover story garnered national attention and launched her down a new career path – activism.  Determined to make sure people understood the realities of living with HIV, she began anchoring an Emmy Award-winning series of personal narratives for WBBM-TV in Chicago. The series tackled different aspects of living with AIDS, such as disclosing in the workplace, maintaining friendships, and educating teens about HIV. 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Rae Lewis-Thornton’s Essence cover story.  Today, Thornton continues to dedicate her life to educating and challenging people to take control of their own bodies, futures, and health. 

This Black History Month, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) salutes Rae Lewis-Thornton and her tireless dedication to ending the silence and stigma around HIV/AIDS.  EGPAF recently spoke to Thornton about her personal crusade to generate knowledge and awareness about HIV/AIDS, here's what she had to say:

“I am more passionate than ever about my work to combat HIV/AIDS, 20 years after the Essence cover. Today African-Americans make up nearly 52 percent  of HIV cases in the United States, yet AIDS is no longer a sexy topic. I’ve chosen to continue this battle using social media daily to educate and challenge others to learn more about HIV.”

You can follow Rae Lewis-Thornton on Facebook, Twitter,  and read  more about her inspiring life by visiting her website.

Join EGPAF on March 1, as we celebrate #ZeroDiscrimination Day, and pledge to stamp out stigma, fear, and discrimination against people living with HIV.