To Beat AIDS, the Unbeatable Foe
“Reverend, I got to talk to you,” Rae said, standing in his kitchen one day.
“What’s up? You pregnant?” he asked.
“I wish I was,” she said, and then the truth started spilling out. After a few minutes, he stopped her.
“I loved you then,” he said in his fashion, because he didn’t like a lot of small talk, “and I love you now.”
Jackson remembers that moment in his kitchen. “I was astonished,” he says on the phone. “And I didn’t know what it meant; I didn’t know what the options were. At that time it was a death sentence for most people.” Speaking fondly of Rae, he continues. “And so then she began this awesome journey to use her body and her experience as a living sacrifice, as a model. She declared the sickness. And she also declared war on AIDS. And no one has been a more informed advocate.”
Rae started going into high schools to tell her story. “Sometimes I’d ask, ‘How many of you guys would have sex with me?’ They’d all raise their hands. And that’s when the work would start: ‘How did you get it, what did you do?’” With her telegenic looks and preacherlike delivery making her a popular speaker, she began traveling around the country taking on bigger engagements, appearing on TV and in magazines, determined to save others from her fate. “I heard her speak when I was a sophomore in high school, and it changed my life,” says Luke Burke, now 27 and a senior coordinator for MTV news. “She doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Point-blank, she scared me. When I casual date now, I don’t generally have sex. If I do, it’s definitely safe—it’s a big deal to me.”
As far as sex went for Rae, after being diagnosed, she didn’t date for at least a year. “I was young, attractive, and had the worst disease of my century,” she says. “And because of my past, I was not prepared for any more rejection.” Deciding she was morally bound to reveal her status, she became much more careful; she had to really like a man, and condoms were required 100 percent of the time. When she met Kenny Thornton, she thought he fit the bill. Jackson married them in 1994.
With Kenny—a man around her age, way short of rich, forget the Armani or Mercedes—Rae broke all her rules. “I was so afraid to die alone. And I had no family,” she admits. But Kenny was an ace caregiver, which became crucial when she was on the road, because she suffered three bouts of PCP, going now from size 6 to 0, the virus taking her down to the bone. “She was as sick as you get,” says Cohen, who became a principal investigator on the largest study of women and AIDS at the NIH—the Women’s Interagency HIV Study (WIHS)—which Rae joined at the start. (One of its findings would be that a third of HIV-positive subjects, like her and Sharon, had been sexually abused as children, with twice as many suffering domestic abuse—a continuum of violence that, the researchers suggest, may increase the likelihood of behaviors that lead to infection.)
Not surrendering to the disease was all Rae could think about. “Even on bad days, I’d just get my butt up, comb my hair, put some lipstick on, and pop on some earrings, because a diva never leaves the house without earrings. There were no illusions that AIDS had control of my body. I couldn’t give it my spirit.” Still she knew her end was near. “I was literally keeping a breakneck schedule trying to speak to everybody I could before I died.”