Delta Sigma Theta’s Disrespect for AIDS Activist Hardly Reflects Sisterhood

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This week, AIDS activist Rae Lewis-Thornton was inexplicably booted out of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense to me.  In a passionate and revealing video that she released to the world, Lewis-Thornton says that the Executive Director of the sorority, Rose McKinney, took issue with some “inappropriate pictures” on Lewis-Thornton’s website.

The word “inappropriate” got my attention, but from the way Lewis-Thornton describes it, the pictures were of her and other honorary members dressed in ceremonial clothing.   She says she was scolded like a child for not removing the pictures fast enough.  Lewis-Thornton also says that, without warning, she received a phone call from the national president stating that she was no longer a member of the sorority.

Since the release of her statement about the incident, Ms. Lewis-Thornton’s video has gotten over 40,000 views.  I’ve received scores of emails and phone calls from members of the sorority , who are outraged over what happened to her.   Some of the Deltas seemed to feel, as Ms. Lewis-Thornton claims, that her dismissal may be the result of discrimination and disrespect for her work as an AIDS activist. Lewis-Thornton is correct in her assertion that it’s hard to imagine other honorary members, such as Ruby Dee, being treated in the same way.

I reached out to the national headquarters of Delta Sigma Theta to see if they’d like to make a statement.  I was told that someone would respond that night, but the response never came.  One can’t help but speculate that there are those in national leadership who don’t feel it necessary to address the concern that they may be discriminating against a dying woman who hasn’t done anything wrong.

The national office of Delta Sigma Theta owes its members an explanation.  Ms. Lewis-Thornton is, arguably, the most highly-respected HIV/AIDS activist in all of black America.  With the HIV/AIDS rate climbing to dramatic levels among black women, the last thing the sorority needs is the perception that its leaders are turning their noses up at those who are openly and boldly addressing the issue.  This is disrespectful to the members of Delta Sigma Theta, to Ms. Lewis-Thornton and to the scores of black women who suffer in silence after receiving disappointing results on their latest blood test.

The appearance of discrimination against a leading black female HIV/AIDS activist is painful to see in a world where infected women are shunned and dismissed by bible-thumping hypocrites who care nothing for their fellow woman.  Delta Sigma Theta was a sorority built on the powerful concept of sisterhood, and I am personally offended to see any sister treated this way.

Delta Sigma Theta’s leaders are given their power and financial support from members who’ve chosen to trust them with this power.  It is a democracy, not an aristocracy, and not a platform for people to settle petty personal agendas.  Ms. Lewis-Thornton was outspoken at the time she was asked to be an honorary member of the sorority, so its leaders should not be surprised that she is outspoken today. But as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said, “Well-behaved women rarely get a chance to make history.”  Lewis-Thornton is making history, and I can think of few women more worthy of the honor of being a Delta than a person who has given her life to rising above the stigma of living with AIDS for the last 15 years.

It’s time for Delta’s leaders to explain their side of the story, because right now, they are looking like a pack of bigots.  That’s not what this sorority is all about and we should all be disappointed.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and author of the forthcoming book, “The RAPP Sheet: Rising Above Psychological Poison.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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