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Champions in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

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Mary Fisher

Mary Fisher is an American political activist, artist, and author well-known for her 1992 speech, “A Whisper of AIDS,” at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, Texas.

Fisher was born on April 6, 1948, in Louisville, Kentucky, and soon moved to Metro Detroit. She contracted HIV from her second husband, artist Brian Campbell, and tested positive in 1991. Despite the stigma aournd HIV/AIDS in the early ’90s, Fisher chose speak out about her status. She allowed the Detroit Free Press to publish her story on the paper’s front page. As a result, the Republican Party invited her to speak at their 1992 convention in Houston, Texas. Fisher’s impassioned speech encouraged the Republican Party to deal with HIV/AIDS compassionately and to accept that HIV affects us all.

“We may take refuge in our stereotypes, but we cannot hide there long.  Because HIV asks only one thing of those it attacks:  Are you human?  And this is the right question:  Are you human?” Fisher founded the Family AIDS Network, a support group for families affected by AIDS. In October 1992, President George Bush appointed her to the National Commission on AIDS. She has also funded the Mary Fisher Clinical AIDS Research and Education (CARE) Fund which supports AIDS research and promotes public education about HIV/AIDS. She is on the leadership council of the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS and served as a global emissary for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Fisher has also created income-generation projects abroad that employ HIV-positive women. Women are taught to make handmade jewelry and earn profits from its sale.

 

Rae Lewis-Thornton

Rae Lewis-Thornton is an activist and motivational speaker living with HIV.

Lewis-Thornton was born on May 22, 1962. In her early 20s, after donating blood for the Red Cross, she was informed by them that she was HIV positive. In an effort to keep her status a secret, Lewis-Thornton would rip the labels off her medicine bottles to prevent others from finding out.

In 1992, her immune system weakened rapidly, and her HIV became AIDS. As a result of the decline in her health, she had to abandon what was a promising political career. She had served as Senator Carol Mosley Braun’s 1992 senatorial campaign advance coordinator, Illinois state youth coordinator for the 1988 Dukakis Presidential Campaign, and national youth director for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns.

Soon after leaving her political career, Lewis-Thornton met Susan Taylor, the then-editor in chief of ESSENCE magazine at the Black Women’s Expo in Chicago. This meeting led to Lewis-Thornton landing on the December 1994 ESSENCE cover with the text “I’m young, I’m educated, I’m drug-free, and I’m dying of AIDS.” This cover was an immediate sensation. Lewis-Thornton said, “We made history. We changed the face of women with AIDS. We showed Black women that they were at risk for HIV. It was one of [ESSENCE’s] best selling Decembers.”

Lewis-Thornton celebrated her 50th birthday on May 22, 2012. As she said, “You have to make a fundamental decision on whether or not you’re going to allow [AIDS] to take everything from you, or if you’re willing to fight for your life.”

 

Phindile Sithole-Spong

Phindile Sithole-Spong is a 23-year-old South African international speaker, media strategist, writer, and consultant working to “rebrand HIV/AIDS.”

When Sithole-Spong was four years old, she began to get inexplicably and frequently ill. Her mother died of a respiratory illness when Sithole-Spong was eight years old. When Sithole-Spong was 16, she was diagnosed with shingles – an infection of the nerve endings and the skin that normally affects the elderly and those with weak immune systems. Although this was unusual, Sithole-Spong and her adopted mother didn’t think much of it.

In 2008, Sithole-Spong was rushed to the hospital with an extremely high temperature. Further testing revealed that she was infected with AIDS, which she later learned she contracted from her parents. She spent some time feeling that she had already lost her battle with the virus and considered suicide. Shortly thereafter, she began her college career at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Sithole-Spong began writing, which gave her the confidence to share her status with her fellow classmates. After completing college, she authored a piece in the February 2012 issue of Elle South Africa titled “HIV, Sex, and Me,” with the goal of giving “HIV/AIDS a face by sharing [her] story and rectifying common misconceptions about the virus.”

She currently works with corporations and schools to create comprehensive programs about HIV/AIDS and advises on sexual health education and media campaigns. On World AIDS Day last year, she moderated the Planned Parenthood Global Fighting for the Healthiest Generation webcast, a live discussion among young HIV activists responding to questions submitted from youth around the world.