AIDS activist Rae Lewis Thorton candidly spoke to about 50 students and community members about her personal experience with the illness at a Black Student Union discussion Saturday.
Infected with HIV at age 23, Thorton told students to make smart choices at the two-hour event, co-sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and The Out Crowd.
BSU Vice President Tamika Smith said the event was held to “put a face with an epidemic that is killing people of color at alarming rates.”
Thorton began her presentation with a prayer and said religion helps her cope with the illness.
“If I did not know God (when I found out I had AIDS), I probably would have walked out of that Red Cross building straight into the Potomac River,” she said. “But instead I walked away with a sense that I could handle this.”
Thorton said she has shared her “intense to funny as hell” experience with AIDS with audiences for 17 years. She cautioned her audience to “go with the flow” of her speech, arguing that there should be laughter even when people discuss a serious topic such as AIDS.
Thorton said she does not know who infected her.
“At some point it became irrelevant,” Thorton said. She said her disease came as a result of choices she made in the past and does not want to blame someone else for it.
“You see, I had a choice to have sex or to not have sex. In the real world, ‘I coulda, woulda shoulda’ don’t mean a damn thing,” Thorton said.
Students said they were impressed with the way Thorton presented her bout with AIDS.
“You seldom do hear such a candid speaker. I think she just broke it down for everybody,” freshman Paul Kendrick said.
Thorton said breaking down the disease to make it more realistic also has its drawbacks.
“People say to me that I make it seem easy. The fact of the matter is that I am losing a part of me every day,” she said.
Thorton also noted that her material wealth and appearance often mask her disease. At 39, she said she is a light-skinned black woman who wears designer clothing and drives a BMW. But she noted that her possessions do not save her.
“Being on ‘Nightline,’ being on the cover of Essence did not take AIDS away,” she said. “My Emmy Award has not saved my life. It doesn’t matter how won much stuff I got; my stuff can’t save me.”
Thorton won an Emmy for her work on a documentary of first-person accounts of people living with AIDS. She has also worked on multiple political campaigns including those of Jesse Jackson and said she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in religion.
“Ultimately I know that I can’t save you. No matter what you thought about the presentation today, you have to make your own choice and live your own life,” she said.
The event is the second in a series of BSU sponsored activities following Martin Luther King Day. Throughout the series, the BSU is collecting money for an AIDS charity.