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Magic, HIV and Me: A Retrospective!

By Rae Lewis-Thornton

November 8, 2011

This piece originally appeared in Rae's blog, Diva Living With AIDS.

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Magic Johnson's announcement that he was HIV infected. The world was buzzing, even in my home. At the time I was sharing a house with Jesse Jackson, Jr. and his brother Jonathan, and we were all friends with Magic's Godfather, who was a long time supporter of their father, Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But as the world was buzzing all around me, I was dying from shame, stigma and the secret of my own HIV status. By then I had known my HIV status for 6 years, but had been infected for 8 years.

I was taking AZT but it was failing miserably. Around the same time as Magic's announcement, I received a letter from the National institute of Health, (NIH) where I was in a HIV study, to inform me that my T-cell count had dropped to 124 and I should consider going on new medication.

What the HELL? New medication. What new medication? I had been out of health care for almost two years and couldn't get new insurance if my life depended on it. Every insurance company said I had a, "Pre-existing Condition," and that disqualified me for health insurance. Ironically, I was gainfully employed as the National Field Director for Physicians For A National Health Program. I was organizing doctors around the country on the idea of Universal Health Insurance, what we now call, "Single Payer."

Any who, I was living in shame and to afraid to disclose, even to seek the help I needed. Jesse Jr. and Jonathan didn't even know that I was HIV positive. To date I had only told 5 people and I was keeping the list as short as possible. I even took the labels off my medication and flushed them down the toilet before I threw the used bottle away. I did any and everything too keep my secret. I didn't know about any new treatments for HIV because I was to afraid to read literature for fear that someone would see me reading it and assume that I had HIV.

So as Magic had disclosed to the world, I was living in the shame of my disease and it was killing me quicker than the disease. My secret had taken on a life of its own.

Magic was all the talk, everywhere, but especially in the African-American community. The television tried to keep it politically correct; And people who were interviewed definitely showed compassion for Magic, but the whispers that took place in homes, barber shops and beauty shops was no joke.

"How did he really get it," was the main question? Often times, they didn't even say what "it" was, as if they did, "it" would get them too. Yep, and the biggest question was, "Is Magic Gay?" People said it, and actually explained the question, "I mean it had taken him 7 years to marry Cookie,"

Prior to then, people just said he was a "dog" and Cookie was a fool for hanging on to him, wasting her pretty. They were sure he would never marry her. I'm just being honest. This is what was really said during this period. Now people were saying that Cookie was just a front. It went something like this, "Don't no man just up and marry a woman after 7 years for no good reason. She must be in on it. I wonder how much he paid her." For Real! This was the Real Talk!

So while we talked a good game in the watchful, public sphere, in the private sphere, Magic was getting his ass kicked.

While we give Magic credit for giving a new face and a new "type of man," heterosexual, non-IV drug user, who just had too many women and too much pussy in his life time, and that got him HIV, the truth of the matter, the real talk was mean and provided no hope for me as a woman living in secret.

It was the real talk that scared the hell out of me. If they would say the things they said about Magic, a well loved athlete, what would they say about me? Yep, the real talk hit the very core of my being and the stigma of HIV begin to fester in my heart like an open sore that wouldn't heal.

Then one day, about a month or so after Magic announced his HIV status, I got an unexpected telephone call from the doctor at NIH in charge of the study. She called to inform me that my T-cell count had dropped some more and that I really needed to get into treatment and get some new IV medication on board right away.

I sat on the side of my bed and listened, my heart beating like an African drum calling for freedom. I was staring death in the face and I had to do something or die. She didn't mix her words, "If you don't get into treatment, it will have grave consequences Rae."

I sat there for hours, thinking it through. I needed help, but I wasn't sure who to tell or who I could trust. I wanted to go to Mrs. Jackson, who had become like a mother to me, I knew she had access to resources, but I couldn't risk the disappointment that I thought she would have in me. That was to great of a risk. I would discover later that I was just being foolish, she loved me no matter what; But at the time, it was not a risk I was willing to take.

By the time I went to bed that night I had decided to speak to the doctor's I worked for. They were both die hard liberal and both were practicing physicians. I decided to tell the youngest one, Dr. Ron Sable. While he and Quentin Young were both super liberal I figured, Ron was young and openly gay, he should be real cool about it. And Honestly, Dr. Young was well into his 70's and I didn't want him to be disappointed in me. He was like a grandfather, nor did I want him to have a heart attack on me. For Real!

That next morning I waited for Ron to drop by the office. I didn't give him much chance to settle in. I pulled him to the side, "Ron I need to speak with you."

I remember it like yesterday. I stood there in front of him, my palms sweating, my heart beating fast. "What you need Rae?" He asked in his G-Q calm manner. I got right to it, "I have HIV."

My heart dropped, just having to say it. "I HAVE HIV." I hadn't told soul in over 2 years, now I had to say it, "I HAVE HIV!"

Then typical of me, I started to ramble. "I'm in a study at NIH and they said I need new medication and we've been trying to buy me insurance and no one will insure me, I need help where can I go. I'm scared."

Ron stood there frozen....

Continue on to part two.

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Rae Lewis-Thornton Speaks

Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton

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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