November 2, 2012
In the years before she was well known as a woman living with AIDS, Rae Lewis-Thornton struggled with disclosing to partners just like most others. "Just like you have the right to not date somebody who's unemployed, you have the right to not date somebody who has HIV," she says; "But I never had a man say no." Rae shares her dating experiences, her journey toward self-love above all else -- and her response to men who've wanted to have sex with her without a condom. Watch the other videos in this series.
What has dating been like for you?
Dating has been interesting. Prior to my husband, my HIV status was a well-kept secret. So I had to tell my partners. That was hard, disclosing your HIV status in those early days. But I felt that I had no right to put a person at risk, that I should give them an option.
You sit down in a very neutral place, like at the kitchen table; and you tell the person that you have HIV. You answer any questions that they may have. You accept whatever they say. And you understand that it's not necessarily a rejection of you, but a rejection of HIV.
And a person has that right. Just like you have the right to not date somebody who's unemployed, you have the right to not date somebody who has HIV. But I never had a man say no.
Then I got married and divorced. And my dating life shifted. Because by the time I got divorced I was super-famous. Most people know me, in the black community especially, by face or by name. Like, if I say my name, in a minute it will click. "You're the girl with AIDS. You're that woman with AIDS." OK? So men who approached me knew that I had AIDS.
What I found was that I had more takers for casual dating than I did relationships. Other women without HIV say they have that problem too -- that there are more men who just want to have sex than want to have a relationship. But to want to have just a casual sexual relationship with a woman with AIDS, is kind of mind boggling to me. I don't think I'd want to have a casual relationship with someone with AIDS.
I had people who wanted to be with me, but they didn't want other people to know they were with me, in case the relationship didn't work out and then they'd have another person that they go to say, "Well, weren't you with that woman with AIDS?"
I'm going to confess that there was a part of me that felt it was OK to have these private relationships. Because at one level, I had this ego thing going on: "Men still want me, no matter what." And at another level, you never want to be alone. Everybody wants to be validated.
But I came to a place that's that working through, living healthy; that if a man couldn't walk with me in a park in the daylight, he couldn't get no coochie in the dark. And I've been pretty faithful to that. That was about seven, eight years ago.
Now I'm at another place -- I'm 50. If he doesn't add value to my life, then why is he in it? If I got to sit at home and wait on you to call me, I am wasting my time. And so I've gotten to this really good place where, yeah, I want companionship, but I'm OK being by myself. But if I can find a partner who wants to meet me on my terms, then I'm willing to do it -- that understands what I'm saying; where it's not about the sex. Because I can get sex. I get married men who are willing to have sex with me. I can walk out of this room, pick up my cell phone, and there could be a married man at my house when I get home.
I have made those choices not to do that. I've even had men willing to have sex with me without a condom. And I'm going to say something: When you're in an intimate situation and someone penetrates, there are a couple things that happen. The first is like, you do this, "Oh, Jesus," kind of, or "Have mercy, Lord" thing in the first few moments. But then when you come back to your senses, you've got to reevaluate the situation.
I'm not that grand that you will want to be with me without a condom. But there are some fundamental things. If this man knows I have HIV and he's prepared to have sex with me without a condom, who else is he having sex with without a condom? If he thinks my vagina, and this sex, is worth his life, is this somebody I really think is worth me? Because I think a lot of myself.
And then, kind of fundamentally: I have no immune system. I am not prepared to be reinfected with HIV by a more aggressive strain. I'm not prepared to get any other sexually transmitted diseases. I don't want hepatitis, because that will take your butt up out of here quicker than AIDS. And so I value me, even if you don't value you.
And there's not enough love. If I love you, I would want to keep you safe. If you loved yourself, you would want to keep yourself safe. And if you don't love you, how can you possibly love me? But it took a lot of therapy, and a lot of putting what I know to practice. Because Oprah says all the time: "When people know better, they do better."
That is not true. It takes a lot of work to do better. I want to die doing better about myself, and about other people that I encounter. So, I'm good, baby. I'm just good. I fucking got a vibrator; and that is what it is. I'm just not willing to sacrifice who I am to be with a man.
You've said so many great things; but I think that's one of the most important, best things. We keep telling women, "You are no one without a man. You need a man. If your man strays it's because of something you did. At all costs, keep that man." And we're giving women really bad messages.
And you know what? We're giving women with HIV bad messages. We're telling them that they have to stay in those unhealthy, abusive relationships; that they have to stay with a man that infected them because "he's the only one that'd want to be with you."
That is not true. If you treat yourself like a woman, there will be a man who will want you. There is somebody for everybody on this planet. But you have to put yourself first. And I think that women with HIV need to know that, yes, there will be men who want to date you. There are healthy relationships that you can have, with HIV; and you don't have to settle for the crap.
It's enough managing your HIV day to day, to have to try to figure out him, too. And I just; I just can't. I can't. You know something fundamental for me, too? I spend a whole lot of time, especially on the blog, writing to women and telling them to love themselves. I have to practice what I preach. If I really want to be authentic, then I have to do what I am asking other women to do.
And a guy that I'm talking to now has said a couple times, "Ooh, that blog, it seemed like it could have applied to me, that you wrote yesterday."
I said, "Well, if the shoe fits ... you need to take heed, Boo." I just want to be authentic. I want to be true. And you can't be authentic 100 percent of the time, but you can work at it.
You know, my therapist says to me that discipline is a transferable skill. And he looked me in the face one day -- this is a few years ago -- and he said, "And I know you're disciplined." I was on Fuzeon (enfuvirtide, T-20) at that time. He said, "Because you inject yourself in the stomach twice a day. And it hurts like hell every time you do it. But you do it. You haven't missed a dosage. That's a lot of discipline. It's a lot of discipline."
And I don't feel like I have to settle for less.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.