When Rae Lewis-Thornton sat down with BET News for an exclusive interview inside her immaculate home in Chicago’s Gold Coast, she offered the same disclaimer she gives every reporter, man, woman, or child: “No question is stupid, too personal or off limits. Just be prepared for the answer because I don’t give half-truths.”
The Emmy Award-winning producer of an eight-part series on living with AIDS has earned a reputation for being one of the most transparent and candid AIDS activists of our time. Living with the disease for over 20 years and working as an advocate for most of her life, she took a bold step into the spotlight when she shared her story on the cover of Essence magazine in December 1994. Since then, she has traveled the country to colleges and universities urging young people to avoid the mistakes she made.
“I was just trying not to get pregnant at the time. Never had a one-night stand, only slept with men I loved,” she laughs. “At least I thought I loved them at the time I was loving them. I didn’t know I would end up with AIDS.”
Lewis-Thornton’s story mirrors that of the increasing number of young people and women being disproportionately infected with HIV today. AIDS is the number one killer of African Americans between the ages of 25-44 in the United States, and 72 percent of all new cases of women are African American.
“No one thinks it can be them. They want to figure out what I did that separates them from what they do. But it’s simple: if you are having sex in the 21st century without a latex condom, you are putting yourself at risk for HIV.” At the time of her infection, she didn’t even know she was at risk. “People thought it was a gay, White male disease,” she explains. “In fact, stigma was so bad back then that people were afraid to donate blood. I thought that was stupid so I teamed up with the Red Cross and held a blood drive. Three months later I got a letter in the mail telling me something was wrong with my blood. That’s how I found out I was HIV positive.”
After many years on the road, urging young and old people alike to know the risk factors associated with being infected with HIV, the economy took a dive and the speaking engagements became fewer. “This was not only my ministry but my bread and butter,” she says, taking a deep breath. “But just because the speaking engagements stopped didn’t mean my ministry had to.” A doctoral candidate at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, she admits to joining the social networking world with a bit of hesitation; but via MySpace, Facebook, Twitter (@raelt) and a blog entitled “A Day in the Life of a Diva Living with AIDS” (), she has thrived.
In July, she had the first-ever HIV/AIDS-centered tweet-up event in Chicago. Nearly 200 bloggers and Twitter followers showed up to meet Rae and tweet HIV/AIDS Awareness during a social hour featuring an inspirational speech by Rae herself. On Twitter, she will often start early in the morning acknowledging her more than 2,700 followers with a “Good Morning lovelys” tweet. Throughout the day, she may tweet about everything from the new medicines she has to take or a new handbag she wants to purchase. “It’s important for me to show my followers that I live a normal life. But I also want them to see that AIDS is no walk in the park.” It is common for Rae to tweet a simple Friday night reminder to wear a condom to anyone planning on having sex. “It’s important that I educate on social media. More young people are on Twitter and most importantly, there are a large number of Black people on Twitter.”
Occasionally, Rae will open her Twitter audience to a question and answer session. She uses her same motto: “No question is stupid, too personal or off limits.” The dialogue is often subject to retweets and she frequently receives direct messages from people with questions, fears or who need advice about how to live with the disease. “They trust me and I trust them. It’s a relationship we have on Twitter. We often use a hash tag #dontjudgeme and that’s what it’s all about because even today there are a lot of misconceptions about HIV. You hope people get it; some do and some don’t. For the ones that don’t, I want them to know that this is not a death sentence. They can live. But their life will be changed forever.”