Looking Back at 30!
By Rae Lewis-Thornton
June 3, 2011
This piece originally appeared in Rae's blog, Diva Living With AIDS.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the first diagnosed cases of AIDS. On June 2, 1981, five men were diagnosed with GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency in Los Angeles. Thinking back to what I was doing at the time... Let's see, that summer I was working at Paul Harris boutique in the Water Tower Place mall on Chicago's Magnificent Mile and preparing to go off to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for school. I had been roughing it, trying to make my way in this world since my senior year of high school, October 1979.
I don't remember hearing about AIDS back then and if I did with a name like GRID, I probably would have dismissed it in seconds. I mean I am a heterosexual woman and gay had nothing to do with me. And given the fact that I was trying to figure out where my next meal was coming from, a disease like this would have been the last thing on my mind. I mean at this point in my life, I hadn't had one sexually transmitted disease.
I wonder if my life would have been different if they had diagnosed women that day rather than men. Or if they had not narrowed AIDS to the belief that this was a disease about men, that men gave to each other. If somewhere they had considered -- if men had sex and women had sex, and according to my TV doctor House, everyone lies, that maybe one of these men had sex with a woman at least once in their life and that maybe women were at risk for this strange illness as well. But they didn't!
The medical community made this disease a scary boogie man that men did to each other and if you weren't one of them, then you were free. But none of that really matters today because in just two short years of those first cases, the summer of 1983, I had sex with a man and he infected me with HIV. And my life changed forever. I didn't know at the time and he probably didn't know at the time either. I wouldn't discover until the winter of 1986, a year after the HIV antibody test hit the market, that I was actually infected with HIV.
Since I was diagnosed it feels like I've lived three life times. For sure AIDS has had a major impact on my life and for sure I have been fighting for my life! And for sure I will be fighting for my life for the rest of my life. But today looking back on the history of AIDS, the thing I wish the most is not for myself. I've lived my life and made my choices. All I can do is stand and be a woman and accept with dignity and grace the choices I made about my life and body.
No, today the wish is not for me but for every person that does not have HIV today... My wish is that you never get HIV! The thing that we have known for almost this entire pandemic is the thing that gets overlooked the most: HIV is a preventable disease. We can change the course of this disease by changing our behavior.
We must put personal responsibility into the equation if we are to change the tide and not drown in this ugly disease. We must make condom use a normal, natural and vital part of our sex lives. We must understand one fundamental thing... The only sure winner against becoming HIV infected is either no sex or sex with a latex condom. Anything other then that is a stupid ass gamble. Honestly, I don't know if different information would have changed the course of my life. What I know for sure is that my life has been changed forever by AIDS...
I tweeted today that people don't really understand me... The drum that I beat to or the song that I sing. I do what I must so that AIDS won't kill my spirit before it takes my life. Yes, I do what I must... No, this isn't the journey I would have wanted for myself but it is the journey that I've accepted with Grace.
Looking back 30 years later... My prayer today is not for me but for you... That you will never know my pain or walk in my shoes. HIV is preventable, this I also know for sure.
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Rae Lewis-Thornton Speaks
Rae Lewis-Thornton is an Emmy Award-winning AIDS activist who rose to national acclaim when she told her story of living with AIDS in a cover story for Essence Magazine. She has lived with HIV for 27 years and AIDS for 19. Rae travels the country speaking and challenging stereotypes and myths about HIV/AIDS. She has a Master of Divinity degree and is currently working on her Ph.D. in Church History. Rae has been featured on Nightline, Dateline NBC, BET and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as in countless magazines and newspapers, including Emerge, Glamour, O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Jet, Ebony, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, to name a few. She earned the coveted Emmy Award for a first-person series on living With AIDS for Chicago's CBS News.
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