December 1, 2010
For our World AIDS Day 2010 section, we wanted to capture the diversity of the AIDS community. So, we reached out to people across the world -- mostly those who have never written for us before -- and asked them to guest blog. These columns are written by people who are living with HIV, have been affected by HIV, or work in the field.
Sixteen years ago today I appeared on the cover of Essence Magazine as the first Black woman to tell her story to a major publication. It was brave of me to tell the world that I had AIDS. Back then we saw AIDS as mostly white gay males. And if by chance a woman did have HIV, in the minds of most, she had to be an IV drug user or something close to a street walker. The idea that a "decent" woman became infected with HIV was far fetched.
Then my story changed everything, especially for African-American women. Through my life we told women that even education, economics and a monogamous relationship did not necessarily keep you safe from HIV. It was bold for both me and Essence. Even the idea of putting a no-name woman on the cover of a magazine reserved for super models and celebrities was risk taking at it's best. But it paid off. It was one of the highest selling December issues ever and we achieved our goal. Black women across the United States started to rethink their relationships and sexual behavior. In fact, women still reach out to me to let me know that my story changed their life. I'm proud of that fact.
The cover of Essence changed my life and put me in the center of the fight against HIV/AIDS. Honestly, I had only been speaking for about six months when Susan Taylor asked me to do the cover story. Prior to that I had been living in secret and shame with HIV for about seven years. Then I made a transition to AIDS and I was staring death in the face. I started to disclose to friends and God started working out it all out. I accepted this new role for my life with transparency, grace and dignity.
I was on a mission to tell as many people my story before I died and I met this challenge with zeal. When my t-cell count was eight I was maintaining a breakneck schedule. AIDS was a sexy topic and I was at the center of it all. Eventually television came calling. The Oprah Winfrey Show. Nightline followed me for six months and featured me three times. I even did a a series of first person news reports for CBS News Chicago that won me an Emmy.
But then things changed. I didn't die. I made it to the turning point in treatment, protease inhibitors. Things first changed in my personal life. My husband had married me to watch me die. He was gonna go around the country and talk to people about his life as my caregiver. But the longer I lived the more difficult the relationship became. He didn't know how to deal with my living. It became so bad, that I decided AIDS hadn't killed me, he wasn't going to kill me either. I found myself rethinking my life. I went to seminary and got my Master of Divinity to expand my work. And I'm working on my PhD in Church History. I had always seen what I do as ministry.
I continued to travel and speak and the longer I lived the less sexy the topic of HIV/AIDS became. I saw a sharp shift in newly diagnosed cases of Black women and a lack of interest all at the same time. Essence hadn't been enough. But I never gave in or up. I continued to press forward and so did HIV. Black women became 72% of all new cases of HIV and AIDS became the number one killer of African-American women between the ages of 25-44.
So today I am saddened by it all. I mean it's World AIDS Day and I don't have a speaking engagement. Come on, I'm one of the most name recognizable Black women in America with AIDS and I don't have a gig today. It seems all surreal for me.
So I'm sitting here on my sofa wondering when will the tide turn. I'm wondering when will it ever get better? When will the tide change for the better? When will the numbers decrease for African-Americans, both men and women? What will it take to make AIDS important today. Just as important as it became for white gay men in the 80's and early 90's.
I have no answers to these questions that others need to help answer, I can only speak for myself. I will cross every T and dot every I until the day I die. I will take my medication and live as good of a life as I possibly can until my earthly purpose is over.
I will also continue to do the work. So just because I didn't have a big fancy speaking engagement at a college accompanied by a check to help pay my bills, that's real, I'm still forging on. Still doing what I do best. Because my life and work is ministry. I will walk through whatever doors God opens for me and I will continue to do it with grace and dignity until the day I die.
5:45 a.m. cst- NBC Chicago News Interview (Live)
9:30 am cst- Fourth Presbyterian World AIDS Day Workship Sevice
12noon-1:00-cst Twitter Chat with the Boss Network
1:00-5:00 pm (cst) Question and Answers on Twitter and Facebook
I will be going back and fourth between the two Social Media Networks
Featured on BET.com
Featured on BET 106th and Park shows airs 5-7pm cst
7:00-9:00 pm cst Hanging with the ladies for a discussion and Ice Cream Social at Good Gyrrl Studio
1200 W. 35th Street Lower Level Free!!! All Are Welcomed....
Read more of Rae Lewis-Thornton Speaks, Rae's blog, on TheBody.com.