CHICAGO — AIDS activist and Chicagoan Rae Lewis-Thornton introduced a new face to the HIV epidemic when she graced the cover of Essence Magazine in 1994 for a story on her battle with the virus.
At the time, most of the conversation surrounding HIV/AIDS was about gay men, and Lewis-Thornton’s cover story shed light on how Black women are also disproportionately affected by the virus.
“I’m young, I’m educated, I’m drug-free, and I’m dying of AIDS,” the cover read.
When Lewis-Thornton posed for the cover, the life expectancy for a person with AIDS was 18 months from diagnosis, she said. Lewis-Thornton celebrated her 60th birthday Sunday — more than three decades after she was diagnosed — and has released her memoir, “Unprotected.”
“It feels like a miracle,” Lewis-Thornton said. “I was diagnosed with HIV at 24, and I survived. I feel like there’s still so much purpose to my life, and through this book I can work to fulfill it.”
“Unprotected,” released May 18, tells the story of what happened to Lewis-Thornton as a child — living in cycles of traumatic events like rejection, violence and sexual molestation — and how that shaped the trajectory of her life.
“The AIDS story is in there, and people will see what HIV looked like in the ’80s and ’90s for people living with AIDS,” Lewis-Thornton said. “You’ll see AIDS through my life: the secret; taking the AZT, which made me very ill; hiding my pills; and maneuvering through life with this disease.
“But the overarching story is about how unprotected I was as a child and how that shaped the rest of my life. You’ll see this little girl living in a toxic new normal that’s violent, unkind and takes away her childhood. But she never gives up.”
Lewis-Thornton, who had a career in politics, said she never saw herself as an AIDS activist until she was invited to speak to a high school class through someone who works at TPAN, a Chicago-based organization serving people living with or vulnerable to HIV.
“They asked if I’d speak to this school and I was like, ‘No, I won’t,’ but then he explained more and the teacher sounded really sincere,” Lewis-Thornton said. “She wanted someone with HIV to come to the school that didn’t meet any of the stereotypes, so someone who wasn’t gay or a drug user.”
Lewis-Thornton called the teacher, who taught at Bowen High School in South Chicago, and was persuaded to come speak to her students, she said.
“I came, I spoke, the bell rang. I spoke again, the bell rang, and young people were still standing around,” Lewis-Thornton recalled. “And by the third workshop, I asked why some students were staying, and the teacher told me they were skipping class to hear me speak again.”
When students would ask Lewis-Thornton how much longer she had to live, she’d ask all the freshmen in the classroom to stand up.
“I’d tell them, ‘By the time you graduate, I’ll be dead,’ because that was the trajectory of AIDS back then,” Lewis-Thornton said. “I still get messages to this day from former students who heard me speak saying they’re so happy I’m still alive and that my story touched them.”
Lewis-Thornton returned to Bowen the next day to a line of students outside the classroom door, she said.
“Those who had been there the day before wanted to hear me again, and those who weren’t scheduled were skipping class because they heard about the pretty lady with AIDS,” Lewis-Thornton said. “And at the end of the day, a young lady came up to me and said, ‘Miss. Lewis, I know you don’t consider yourself a public speaker, but I think you shouldn’t stop because God is using you.'”
Three weeks later, Lewis-Thornton quit her job working on a mayoral campaign and set out to be a public speaker, starting at Chicago Public Schools, she said.
“The book is going to touch on my early days as an AIDS activist, and you’ll see that I didn’t die,” Lewis-Thornton said.
The book took Lewis-Thornton nearly four years to write because she had to revisit the traumatic experiences from her childhood, she said.
Lewis-Thornton hopes that by sharing her story, she can influence people to have deeper discussions about childhood trauma and how to help young people and adults recover from it.
“I’m hoping my story will create another dialogue about trauma so we can help young people get better and prevent poor health and other outcomes for them as adults,” Lewis-Thornton said. “At the same time, I want to have this honest discussion about what HIV looks like for heterosexual Black women, who don’t see themselves at risk for this disease.”
“Unprotected: A Memoir” is available for $27.99 through the Barnes & Noble website.
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