Dena Gray is a native Texan and has lived most of her life in the Houston area. “As a teen, I grew up pretty typically in a two-parent household with a large family in Beaumont which is a wonderful southern town.”
In the late 80’s and early 90’s Dena attended college at the University of Houston. “I was a member of a sorority and had two close college girlfriends. We had a great time back then going to the clubs and the parties. After graduation, my plans were to move to New York and become an actress even if it meant waiting tables” said Dena.
One day in 1991 when Dena was 21, she got a call from one of her girlfriends that started out with a “Girrrl…” a conversation starter Dena described as loose code for “have I got something to tell you!” Her friend went on to tell her that a man she used to date had AIDS and was in jail.
Dena said, “The initial shock didn’t allow me to put on my deductive reasoning hat and all I had were questions. How did he get it? He was in jail so I wasn’t going to ask him. Back then HIV was ‘gay, white and over there’ I thought as an African American female living in the south.”
She went to the University of Houston health clinic to be tested and waited a long 2-weeks for the test results to come back. She was called and asked to come in to see the doctor. “The doctor told me people with HIV could live 5-to-10-years” Dena said, “My focus shifted from my dreams of being an actress to getting married and having a family.”
Dena married her husband in 1993 who was HIV negative but knew her status so it wasn’t an issue. “The doctor told us that it was easier for a man to give HIV to a woman than it was for a woman to give it to a man” Dena said. Shortly after their marriage, Dena became pregnant.
What was being pregnant with HIV like back then? “Well I have to put you back in 1993…not 2012. Pregnancy and HIV was a debatable topic back then. AZT was the only thing available and I went on it to save my baby. It was a challenging experience because of the mindset. Everybody had a comment or a position. People who knew that I was HIV positive would see that I was pregnant and say things like ‘What are you thinking?’” Dena said. Dena’s daughter was born negative and at 17, is still negative! “We followed all of the guidelines and had my daughter tested on a regular basis right up until Kindergarten. Her father is still negative too.” Dena said.
As with most, if not all, of our Positive Profile people, Dena is a believer in educating yourself. Dena said, “I’m known as the ‘Loud Black Chick’ by some people. If I’m somewhere and I don’t understand something, I’ll get up and ask. You can’t simply rely on what you find online, there’s too much bad and inaccurate information out there along with the good information. Sooner or later we have to get past the social stigma and have a verbal conversation with someone.”
Dena’s biggest piece of advice to someone who is newly diagnosed is, “Go at your own pace” she said. “There is paperwork out the wazoo, along with doctors, nurses and social workers asking questions that are very personal. You have to take it at a pace so you can sustain yourself. Bring someone to appointments with you. Tell the doctor you have to think about it if you do. It is a lifelong decision. Everybody is different and their relationships are different – so take it slow!”
Dena has been involved in community activism and advocacy for over 15 years and has found that some of the personal touch has been lost in the HIV community, particularly in communities of color. She said, “Around the mid-90’s, 95-or-96, when HIV moved to the African American communities, the people who cared and had been working from the heart were slowly pushed out by people with degrees and the industry became very clinical.” For her part, she is very involved in the community. “Everybody who knows me also knows I’m HIV positive. I spoke with a woman the other day that is 47 and just tested HIV positive. She said to me ‘I can’t breathe.’ So when you can’t breathe who’s there? We need people willing to be there from the beginning until they can breathe again.”
Dena was re-married in August to Daniel Hughes who is also HIV positive and now has a growing, blended family of her biological daughter and four stepchildren.
Dena started her own business in 2009 and continues to educate the community on HIV. She said, “I feel like I’m at a jump-off point where everything is new. I’m going to stay in the HIV community. My husband works in the HIV community as well, but he’s more of a businessman. We recently started speaking together about living with HIV and it is going very well so we might like to take that further – I’m ready for new adventures!”
Copyright 2015, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
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