Chicago's Rae Lewis-Thornton braves friendly fire
"I am fine!" Rae Lewis-Thornton declares, strutting through a
classroom full of horny high school boys. "Ain't I?" They grin. The
34-year-old former political organizer for Jesse Jackson is sassy,
sexy and smart as a whip, and she works it for all it's worth. "I
ask them, 'How many of you guys would have sex with me?'"
Lewis-Thornton says later, curled on a couch in her Chicago
apartment, "and they all raise their hands -- even some of the
teachers raise their hands." And then she drops the bomb.
"You mean you got AIDS right now?" the boys ask. "Like, this very
minute?" It's true she doesn't look ill in her size-four business
suit. But only a year ago, she wore a 12. "By the time you walk
across the stage for high-school graduation," she says quietly,
"I'll be dead."
Since 1993, Lewis-Thornton has taken a fierce brand of AIDS
activism to inner-city schools, conservative black churches and the
readers of Ebony. Her blunt, charismatic campaign has landed her on
the cover of Essence. And last January, the CBS affiliate in
Chicago, WBBM Channel 2, featured her in a news story and found her
so polished and devastatingly honest that it hired her as a
contributing editor. The result: A remarkable series of seven
first-person segments on life with AIDS, each nearly five minutes
long -- an eternity in TV news -- and a team of telephone counselors
who fielded questions about HIV until midnight. Reaction to the
series was so strong the station renewed Lewis-Thornton's contract
last summer for several more episodes and is exploring airing the
programs in other markets.
Lewis-Thornton had always planned on fighting her way to the
bigtime. It just wasn't supposed to happen like this.
Rae Lewis' parents were heroin addicts, and her father was killed
when she was three years old. She was raised by an abusive alcoholic
grandmother in a poor neighborhood in Chicago -- yet pushed herself
to graduate magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania. An
obsessive workaholic and "quintessential Buppie," Lewis-Thornton
played by all the rules: Church, no drugs, no drink, no one-night
stands. By 1984, she was the national deputy youth director for
Jackson's presidential campaign and was fast becoming a rising star
behind the scenes in black national politics. And then, during a
shortage in the blood supply in 1986, she organized a blood drive.
After she gave blood herself, a Red Cross counselor told her she was
HIV positive. When Lewis-Thornton told her then-boyfriend, he
grabbed the laundry she had washed for him, called her a bitch and
stormed out of her apartment.
She told almost no one about her status for seven years, working
on Jackson's 1988 campaign and helping Carol Moseley Braun become
the first black woman in the U.S. Senate. But when her declining
T-cell count plunged her into full-blown AIDS in January of 1993,
her health couldn't withstand the pace of politics and the secrecy
became too much to bear. "I got tired of hiding it, and how crazy it
made me," she says. She launched her education efforts, and it
didn't take her long to attract attention. At a banquet where she
was receiving an award, Lewis-Thornton stepped to the podium and
announced, "The black community is in massive denial. There have
been men hitting on me all night long, men sitting by their
girlfriends and wives. Don't you know that not only am I HIV
positive, I have full-blown AIDS?"
"Their mouths fell open," she recalls. "And when I walked off the
podium [Ebony editor] Susan Taylor grabbed me and said, 'Can we do a
story on you?'"
Her work (she calls it a ministry) is to hammer home the need for
HIV testing, openness about being positive and always using latex
condoms -- pretty standard stuff. But her positions aren't without
controversy, particularly because Lewis-Thornton refuses to
sugarcoat her condition. "People in the AIDS community tell me quite
frequently, 'You talk about death a lot -- why do you do that?'" she
says. "Because I'm dying. When I go out and speak to a group of
people, especially young kids, and I walk up there in a $400 suit
looking like, Mmmm!, they don't see the disease. I don't want them
walking away thinking, 'Well, shit, if AIDS is like this, I can
That's not to say Lewis-Thornton has stopped having a life. "The
day I stop living will be the day I die," she says. In 1993 she took
a more forward-thinking step: Marrying Kenny Thornton, a man she met
in her church. HIV negative, he gets tested every six months, and
says he understands the risks their sex life presents to him, even
practicing safer sex.
Meanwhile, Lewis-Thornton brings the risk of AIDS home to others.
Besides her ability to work a crowd, perhaps Lewis-Thornton's
greatest asset is that the mostly black, straight audience she
targets considers her one of their own. "I've been in schools where
they've had gay men talk about AIDS who actually got laughed at and
disrespected, because the young black boys are saying, 'Aw, man this
faggot can't say shit to me,'" she says. "They can't hear the
message because of the messenger."
After years of political organizing, Thornton-Lewis knows better.
As she puts it, "I was taught that you don't send that brassy New
York organizer into Mississippi."