Students, faculty and community residents gathered Tuesday evening in Lee Hall auditorium to hear nationally recognized AIDS activist Rae Lewis Thornton.
In recognition of National Black HIV Aids Awareness Day, the lower level of Lee Hall auditorium was full. Mostly young African-American women, who according to Center for Disease Control are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than white women, filled the rows.
Thornton, 43, is an example of what full blown AIDS can look like in African-American women: Healthy, attractive, strong, and funny. But between her jokes she brought a word of warning.
“I wear a mask; hidden in fine clothes and make up, you may look but you can’t tell, I have AIDS,” Thornton said to the crowd.
Thornton has been living with AIDS for 20 years. When her mask comes off she takes 26 pills a day, has long episodes of diarrhea and vomiting, caused by her medicines, and sometimes endures 21-day menstrual cycles.
She has appeared on numerous TV shows, like “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Nightline,” and received an Emmy Award for “Living with AIDS,” a first person account of her story aired on CBS. She has also been featured on the cover of Essence magazine and voted one of “The Most Intriguing People in America” by Ebony magazine.
But this celebrity resume is just another mask.
“AIDS is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Thornton said.
“I’ve done,” she emphasized while blaming no one for contracting her disease.
Thornton does not know who infected her with HIV.
“It’s irrelevant who infected me,” she said; “I made a choice to have sex.”
Thornton shared the hardships of her choice with the audience remembering while in a classroom at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago she suffered from “going to the bathroom all the way to the bathroom;” leaving a runny trail of defecation along the school hallways because of severe diarrhea. She said similar incidences occurred in public restaurants.
Yet, Thornton said that after cleaning up her mess, she would simply wash up in the bathroom and then return to her classroom or dinner table.
“For me it’s about how will I maintain my dignity in the midst of obstacles,” Thornton said. Thornton was licensed as a Baptist Minister in August of 2000 by Rev. Clay Evans at Fellowship Baptist Church in Chicago, Ill. In June of 2003 she graduated with a master’s in divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary also in Chicago.
Thornton travels the U.S. speaking to students as a motivational speaker and refuses to feel sorry for herself.
“Some of us get so wrapped up in our pain, that we don’t give a damn about anybody else. So even in my hurt, in my pain, and in my misery I think about others,” Thronton said.
While attempting to catch a connecting flight to Tallahassee from the Atlanta airport, Thornton flight was delayed because of Presidents Bush’s plane arriving for Coretta Scott King’s funeral.
Bush promotes and funds teaching abstinence in schools as a way to fight the AIDS epidemic, but Thornton says “abstinence only” educates students about the cautions of the deadly disease.
“I believe you give young people enough information to make an intelligent choice. We’ve got black kids across the South that are uneducated because of abstinence only programs” because speakers can only talk about abstinence -“nothing else,” Thornton said. Thornton, who practices abstinence, said she preferred that students didn’t have sex. But when a student from the crowd asked her about promoting condom use over abstinence because of the dangers of herpes and human papilloma virus Thornton said, “It’s a rationalization to me that is irrational.”
“It (HPV and herpes) will make you sterile….but it’s not going to kill your ass,” Thornton said.
Valentine Dike, a 20 year-old junior biology major, from Nigeria, Africa and Christian disagreed.
“She is a living testimony but if you’re a believer, walking in purity should definitely be emphasized (over contraceptive use),” he said. “Don’t downplay God.” Lisa Gaines, a FAMU alumna and registered nurse from Chicago, teaches abstinence in local Leon and Gadsden county schools.
“I found it interesting that she is abstaining right now. So what does that say,” Gaines said.Demitri Gibson, a Tallahassee police officer, said that AIDS prevention is more than just condoms or abstinence teaching, “It’s requires a change of mind.”
Thornton, who is divorced, said even with full blown AIDS, men still pursue a relationship with her. She said many were willing to have sex with her – some even without a condom.
“If he thinks that I’m worth HIV, then he’s not smart enough to be with me because I value life and I value a man that values life,” Thornton said.
Thornton encouraged the every student in the auditorium to get tested for HIV.
Thornton’s fight with full blown AIDS may be coming to an end.
“My body has developed a resistance to all the AIDS medications, and doctors say that if I stop taking my medications I could die within a year,” Thornton said. “I’m not worried about it.”
“I’ve stop trying to predict death and I’m embracing it,” Thornton said. “I’ve realized that you’re not going nowhere till the lord says it’s time for you to go.” “The best thing I have for me is that I’m trying to die with dignity. That’s hard to do when you have AIDS,” Thornton added.