Once a teen mom with a drug problem, Venita Ray got clean, raised her daughter alone, worked full time, and put herself through law school. “I thought that growing up in an alcoholic dysfunctional home, becoming a teen age mother at 15, dropping out of high school, getting sober from drugs and alcohol at 28, and being a single parent working every day and going to school at night for 10 years to eventually obtain my law degree were the greatest struggles in my life,” Ray tells Plus now. She was wrong. What came next would be.
In 2003, she was a 44-year-old African-American woman with 18 years of sobriety who had just started her dream job as an attorney in Washington, D.C.; then she was diagnosed with HIV and, she says, everything changed.
Although it was a struggle, Ray says now that she was able to come to terms with her HIV diagnosis and be open about her status “because of the courage of others before more. It is my honor to know that I can be that source of inspiration for others.”
That’s why six years ago, helped start A Day With HIV, which fights stigma by encouraging people to photograph those living with or impacted by HIV once a year on September 21st. Positively Aware magazine publishes some of the photos, and now partners with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote A Day with HIV as part of CDC’s “Let’s Stop HIV Together” awareness campaign. The power of these images: of people at work, families at play, friends and lovers caring for one another, demonstrates, Ray says, “We all — positive or negative — live with HIV.”
Ray now works with Houston's Legacy Community Health as a public affairs field specialist. She developed and leads the health provide's Positive Organizing Project, which trains HIV-positive people to become political advocates.
“I love that I get to help other people living with HIV find their voice and unique role to participate in the HIV movement,” says Ray, who is extremely proud that she gets to use her skills and training as an attorney in her job. “We all are at different places in acceptance of being HIV-positive and deciding where and how to get involved. I love watching others go from shame to acceptance to realizing they are part of the movement of strong activists around the world.”
Januari Ford works with Ray at Legacy and tells Plus, “Ray is also working to facilitate a city-wide end of HIV/AIDS plan, which will be launched on World AIDS Day [December 1st] of this year. Ray also sits on the board for the Positive Women’s Network, and is working on establishing a branch here in Houston.”
As she contemplates the future, Ray says she wants to build a political army, “first of people living with HIV, and then of our supporters and allies. I want to build real political power among people living with HIV. I want to see the end to the practice of criminalizing people living with HIV. I want to see a real commitment [from] all the powers-that-be to ending AIDS and HIV. We know what to do. We know the real problems but yet we fail to act on what we know.”
Her political slogan? “No more diagnoses! No more deaths! Not one more!”