In a room full of Florida A&M students and members of the Tallahassee community, award-winning AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton was just as open and honest about her life with HIV/AIDS as she was 19 years ago when she first shared her story on a 1994 cover of Essence magazine.
Lewis-Thornton was the keynote speaker at the event “Reflection on Respectability,” which was sponsored by the FAMU Women’s Center in honor of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Yolanda Bogan, director of Counseling Services at Sunshine Manor, believes “students need multiple reminders of the consequences of their sexual decisions.”
Tackling the topic of sexual responsibility, Lewis-Thornton held nothing back in identifying her sexual decisions. She lost her virginity the summer before her freshman year of high school.
“If I could go back and change some of the things I did, I would,” she said.
With cases of HIV/AIDS on the rise in the black community, Lewis-Thornton believes people must realize that sex is not a decision to be made loosely.
“If you aren’t responsible enough to talk to your partner about sex, you aren’t ready to have sex,” she said. “The choices you make about your life today will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Mariah Williams, a fourth-year International relations student from Pompano Beach and peer educator at the Women’s Center felt a personal connection with Lewis-Thornton’s story.
“HIV/AIDS affects the African-American community seriously,” Williams said. “I personally lost a cousin to AIDS when she was just 28 years old. It really hits home for me.”
Jasmine Nelson, a first-year social work student from Washington believes the event was enlightening.
“The event was not only inspirational, but also informative,” Nelson said. “Miss (Lewis-) Thornton kept it real and broke it down so that we would understand the seriousness of STDs and how the choices we make now could affect the rest of our lives.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blacks face the most severe burden of HIV of all racial groups in the U.S. Lewis-Thornton believes African-Americans should educate themselves on the truths of the disease because of that statistic and the stereotypes that come along with having HIV/AIDS.
“We really have to collectively challenge how we look at people with HIV,” she said. “There are young women and men who were born with HIV. It wasn’t anything they did to get there. There are a lot of people who don’t see HIV effectively.”