Earlier this year, when Dena Gray Hughes learned she’d been chosen as a Houston Gay Pride marshall, she told Out Smart magazine she felt a little like Sally Field at the Oscars. Honored that Houston’s LGBT wanted to recognize her as an ally, she couldn’t help but think of Field’s 1985 Oscar acceptance speech: “You like me. You really like me!”
Not that this was the first time her contributions have been recognized. Back in the spring of 2011, Hughes was invited to the White House, where she was named a “Champion of Change,” and spent the day with some of the country’s leading HIV/AIDS experts and policy makers. Upon returning to Houston, she got a hero’s welcome, complete with the mayor declaring it “Dena Gray Day.”
Hughes met her husband Daniel in 2012 on an online dating site for people living with HIV. Now their blended, seven-children family live next door to the house she grew up in (where her mother and step-father still live).
Hughes, who’s been HIV-positive since 1991 says at first she was stunned by the diagnosis because “I knew [HIV] affected gay men, and that wasn’t me. I knew it affected intravenous drug users, and that wasn’t me. There was no conversation in the black female community about AIDS, so the whole subject was rather remote to me.”
Hughes still isn’t a gay man or intravenous drug user, but these days she sees their issues intertwined with her own. She’s created an extended network of friends and colleagues including a mix of people living with HIV, LGBT folks, church friends, and of course, her extended chosen family.
In 1999, with HIV spreading like wildfire among African-American communities in the South, Hughes, as chair of Houston’s HIV Prevention Planning Group, joined others calling for the kind of mobilization rarely seen without a hurricane or other natural disaster. Remarkably, public officials listened. The Houston City Council and representatives of the Harris County and Texas state governments declared HIV a state of emergency in the African-American community. More than just a public awareness proclamation, the declaration opened the way for government funds to be diverted to HIV prevention efforts.
A state of emergency task force was created and under the leadership of Hughes (who served as the chair for several years) and others, it rolled out HIV prevention campaigns focusing on HIV education, testing, and treatment among African-Americans. Their “It’s Real” campaign garnered national attention and featured everyday people — both positive and HIV-negative.
The task force had a lasting impact, in part by sparking the creation of other task forces, focused on Houston’s Latino, women, and youth communities.
Hughes went on to serve as Director of Advocacy for the People With AIDS Coalition, where she oversaw Project LEAP (Learning, Empowerment, Advocacy and Participation), a program that helped people participate in and gain decision-making positions on the Ryan White Planning Council, the Community Planning Group, and nonprofit organizations that provide HIV services. Project LEAP, which still exists today, trained a new generation of leaders addressing HIV issues.
In 2000, the Houston Chronicle included Hughes among the “new faces of AIDS,” and she parlayed that publicity to further increase HIV literacy by conducting workshops, presentations, and trainings on HIV and HIV prevention. She spoke locally and traveled across the country to visit churches, college campuses, and businesses.
Since then Hughes has worked for the City of Houston Department of Health and Community Services, with a two-year break to serve as the executive director for Bread of Life, an organization serving the homeless. She continues to see how other people’s needs intersect with those of the HIV-positive community — and to expand her family: she says, “I am so grateful for the love and support of my amazing family, both my biological and my HIV and LGBT family. We are a crazy tribe. I couldn’t have developed into me without them.”
The feeling is mutual, say fans like Fiona Dawson — director of the documentary film Transgender, at War and in Love, and a leader in the (recently successful) fight to lift the military ban on transgender service men and women. The two activists worked together at Houston’s nonprofit HIV service provider, Bering Omega. Dawson credits Hughes with “changing the narrative” about HIV and “decreasing stigma of the disease by pulling various intersections of humanity — LGBT, people of color, women, socio-economic, etcetera — together to be empowered through the narrative of HIV.” years in prison.