You may not remember Rae Lewis-Thornton’s name off the top of your head, but we’re certain you remember her story and this cover of Essence in December of 1994 when she told the world: “I’m young, I’m educated, I’m drug-free, and I’m dying of AIDS.”
At the time, Lewis-Thornton was told she’d be lucky to live three more years. Today, she is a 20-year survivor of HIV/AIDs who’s written three books, won an Emmy, and educated the masses on the reality of living with the disease. Essence caught up with the activist on the cusp of the milestone anniversary of her groundbreaking cover and she told them plainly of her survival: “I should have died many times. Most people infected at the time I was are dead.” And yet, the 54 year old still lives and breathes and many Black women can likely attribute her story to their own sexual health. “People told me I saved their lives,” Lewis-Thornton told Essence. “Women shared that I made them rethink dating and sex because they could have been me.”
Lewis-Thornton had to rethink her own dating life after her diagnosis. At the time of her Essence cover she was a newlywed, but as her health improved, her marriage oddly declined.
“When we got married, my husband would say his ministry was to watch me die, and when I died he was going to travel the country sharing his story as my caregiver. I didn’t want to die alone, so I thought God had sent somebody to watch me. Women can make themselves believe crazy things to keep a man,” she told the magazine, noting they divorced after four years of marriage.
Though Lewis-Thornton made it a point to say she was never promiscuous and never even had a one-night stand or sex on the first date, she said “I was always looking for someone to love me, and that led me to HIV.” According to Essence, the Chicagoan is 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 tenth birthday. As for her past lovers, none of them responded when she notified them of her status. And it wasn’t until “[one of them] started to die,” that Lewis-Thronton knew who had infected her, a man she said is a celebrity.
Though popping 15 pills per day just to survive doesn’t make for the easiest life, Lewis-Thornton is grateful to be alive and living with a disease she suffered through years of debilitating medications just to cope with.
“It’s about maintaining dignity when your back is against the wall,” she said. “I held on. Then I looked up and I was still alive.”
Check out the rest of Rae Lewis-Thornton’s interview on Essence.com.