Rae Lewis-Thornton, a self-described "diva living with AIDS," was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 during a routine blood drive and since then has become an Emmy-winning AIDS activist/motivational speaker.
In a December 1994 cover story in Essence Magazine, Thornton became the first African-American woman ( she is heterosexual ) to tell her story of living with HIV/AIDS. She has since appeared in numerous publications, such as Glamour, O-The Oprah Magazine, Ebony, Jet Women's Day, Poz, The Crisis, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, and on various TV shows, including Nightline, Dateline, BET, CNN and the Oprah Winfrey Show as well a series of first-person reports on her life living with AIDS for CBS-Chicago. Those reports resulted in her winning an Emmy Award.
Motivational speaker, activist, minister, life coach, jewelry designer, blogger and social media mavenLewis-Thornton has spent 20 years educating people about HIV/AIDS. She also spent time as a political organizer for former Sen. Carol Mosley Braun's political campaign as well as the Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson Sr. presidential campaigns.
"There is still this passion and urgency within me to do the work of HIV/AIDS awareness because it is important and people are still living in shame and in secret," said Lewis-Thornton. "The fact of the matter is that African-Americans are still disproportionally impacted by HIV/AIDS, that is both Black women and Black gay men. Every two minutes someone becomes infected with HIV in the United States and African-Americans are the majority of those cases."
Lewis-Thornton noted she is caught in an era where HIV/AIDS is no longer a sexy topic and that, due to the economic downturn, people aren't bringing in speakers like herself to other areas of the countryso she's had to figure out new ways to get her message across. Turning to social media, Lewis-Thornton is reaching people across the globe via Facebook, twitter, instagram, and her blog at www.raelewisthornton.com .
"Through social media, I've been able to inspire and encourage people who are actually dealing with this disease. I've brought in a whole new group of young people with HIV who look to me and my work and that gives them hope," said Lewis-Thornton. "What's interesting to me is that my focus has always been in the United States but now I'm reaching out to people around the world. I recently heard from a young man in Saudi Arabia who was just diagnosed with HIV."
Along with Lsocial media outreach, she is also a minister. She has a Masters of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary and is currently an associate minister overseeing the HIV/AIDS ministry at Rev. Dr. L. Bernard Jakes' West Point Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago .( Jakes was one of the supporters of the Illinois marriage-equality bill. ) "I chose this church because they are LGBT-friendly," said Lewis-Thornton.
"What I am trying to do with the HIV/AIDS ministry is to create a model for what this ministry should look like in the 21st century. Twenty years ago HIV/AIDS ministries were helping people who were dying so now I am trying to create a model where we help people live with HIV/AIDS," said Lewis-Thornton.
To raise awareness Lewis-Thornton arranged to have HIV tests performed at the church and Jakes and his wife were both tested in the pulpit. After church, they tested parishioners until they ran out of kits and the tests continued the following Sunday with over 90 people getting tested.
Lewis-Thornton is also a jewelry designer, with her RLT Collection of bracelets. "A bracelet for every woman" is her tagline and she is working on making her collection a household name. Several notable womenincluding Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dionne Warwick, Kim Coles and Val Warner ( co-host of ABC 7's Windy City Live )have worn her bracelets. Ralph wore one to the Oscars this past year and wears the collection on her show Instant Mom.
Although Lewis-Thornton has a non-detectable viral load she has what she describes "an HIV face." Since February of this year, Lewis-Thornton has been getting Sculptra injections at Stroger Hospital to reduce the body fat under her chin. Lewis-Thornton detailed her experience on her blog; since, she has gotten queries from other people with HIV/AIDS who want to do this procedure. The procedure was done by a medical dermatologist, not a plastic surgeon. Lewis-Thornton noted that her doctor was so pleased with the results that he is putting together a presentation for other medical dermatologists to say this is a service that they can offer to patients with HIV/AIDS.
"The Sculptra did help my self-esteem and made me work even harder to get the rest of my body in shape. Since September I've lost about 15 pounds," said Lewis-Thornton.
As for the latest in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, Lewis-Thornton said we've come so far from the days of pre-AZT meds. "I took the first generation of meds ( pre-AZT ) and at one point I should've died because my T-cell count was so low." said Lewis-Thornton.
Lewis-Thornton advocates the use of condoms for all sexually active people. "When I was young, I took birth control pills so I wouldn't get pregnant but I still ended up with HIV," she said.
As for a cure, Lewis-Thornton is skeptical. "HIV is an incredibly intelligent disease and so whether doctors will be able to outsmart it is the big question," she said.
"What I do know is people who are dealing with this disease are whole and healthy so we have to make some decisions about how we want to live instead of how we are going to die. I'm taking care of myself both psychically and mentally because I have to think about what the rest of my life is going to look like," said Lewis-Thornton. "I never thought I would live to see 51 years old and I don't want to die from something else.
"I want to die fabulous while wearing red lipstick. Going to the gym and changing my diet has made me a healthier person overall. My next project will be helping people live with HIV/AIDS in a whole and healthy way just like I've done. We are 33 years into this pandemic, and people with HIV/AIDS can live healthy livesthey just have to make smart choices."
See www.raelewisthornton.com for more information.