She turned to the LGBT community when diagnosed HIV-positive, and has been giving back to us ever since.
By Brandon Wolf
Photo by Brandon Wolf
Dena Hughes has always been a person on the move. “People tell me that as soon as I could walk, I was everywhere,” she says. Sports helped her channel some of that energy when she was growing up, but she still seems to have an endless supply.
Even being diagnosed as HIV-positive at the age of 21 didn’t slow her down. With her typical optimism, she turned a huge lemon into lemonade. “Dealing with my health situation brought me into close touch with Houston’s LGBT community, and that has been an enormous plus in my life,” she says.
Although her mother lived in Beaumont, Hughes was born in Seattle while her mother was visiting relatives there in 1971. Houston’s Meyerland area became her new home at the age of three, and she has put down roots there that remain today. Her mother was a nurse for years, and then moved into the oil and gas industry’s geo-science field.
Hughes’ elementary-school days were focused on gymnastics, and she longed to become the next Mary Lou Retton. She was a good gymnast, but found the bar to be the most challenging. “I learned how to land back on the bar after a back flip by not landing on the bar. Missing the bar is a powerful motivator to get it right,” she recalls.
By middle school, the gymnastics classes had become too expensive, so Hughes switched to running track and working out at the local YMCA.
In high school, she became involved in volleyball and dancing. She also loved to roller skate. There was a roller rink nearby where parents felt safe dropping their children off on Saturday afternoons. When Fame City opened nearby, weekends became even more special.
Hughes was especially fond of her classes in black history. She was fascinated with
Harriett Tubman—an appropriate choice in light of the recent announcement that Tubman will be replacing Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bills.
She loved socializing, and from a young age learned the value of allies—those special friends who are always there for you, and you are there for them. By the time she graduated from high school, she had a sizeable network—friends from elementary, middle, and high school; friends from church; friends from the roller rink; and even friends in Beaumont whom she saw when visiting her grandmother.
Off to College
Hughes spent her first year of college in San Antonio at St. Mary’s University, majoring in theater and drama. She was a member of the college’s volleyball team. But after the first year, she grew lonely for Houston and moved back.
At age 19, she entered the University of Houston as a sophomore, and chose a career path in journalism and public relations. “That was when my life really started,” she says. She joined a sorority, did well in her classes, and had an active and happy social life.
The path to happiness lay before her as she entered her junior year. She was happy, healthy, attractive, and loved her classes. She had no idea that a very dark cloud lay ahead—one that would change the course of her life forever.
In late 1991, Hughes got a call from her best friend. “That man that you were dating a couple years ago has been diagnosed with HIV,” her friend said. She suggested that Hughes get a blood test, just to be sure of her HIV status.
Hughes visited the university clinic and asked for an HIV blood test. Then she waited for two weeks for the results. “It was a long two weeks,” Hughes remembers. She spent the time mentally reviewing what little she knew about AIDS. “I knew it affected gay men, and that wasn’t me. I knew it affected intravenous drug users, and that wasn’t me,” she recalls. “There was no conversation in the black female community about AIDS, so the whole subject was rather remote to me.”
Dealing with the Bad News
Hughes showed up at the clinic to get her test results, and the doctor who greeted her asked her to come back to her office. “I noticed that her face wasn’t very relaxed,” Hughes says.
The doctor told her, “I’m so sorry, Dena, but you’ve been diagnosed as HIV-positive.” Hughes remembers that day, December 14, 1991, vividly. “After I heard those words, I felt like I was falling—falling backwards—and that there was no one to catch me. The doctor was still talking, but as I looked at her I couldn’t hear any words. I only saw her lips move.”
After leaving the clinic, Hughes called the friend who had advised her to get a test. She then told a second friend, but otherwise kept the news to herself throughout the holidays. There would be time enough to deal with it in January, and she wanted her Christmas to be free of anxiety.
But it was a lonely secret. Unlike the gay men in Houston who had a strong support network in place to deal with an HIV diagnosis, Hughes had none. She had no idea where to turn or what to do. And the thought that kept running through her mind during that holiday season was “Who would want to marry a girl with HIV?”
A month after the diagnosis, Hughes told her mother and stepfather, Carolyn and Tom Russell. They were both totally supportive. Her stepfather went to a bookstore and bought every book he could find about HIV, and began to immerse himself in the subject. Her mother provided spiritual support.
Hughes had a healthy T-cell count of 1,300, so she decided not to begin the medication regimen yet. (She finally began taking retrovirals in 2013.) She also decided to be open about her status. “I began to tell the people who knew me. It was up to them how they wanted to deal with it,” she says.
Faced with a serious health issue, Hughes knew she needed to connect to a community that was already expert. She also needed a community that would be open and receptive to her. Houston’s LGBT community fulfilled both of those needs.
In early 1994, Hughes became Dena Gray, marrying a good friend after their relationship deepened. Having a baby wasn’t on the agenda, but she did become pregnant.
This was the only time she turned to medications, taking AZT until her daughter Kandace was born in November 1995. Kandace was tested for HIV, and the results were negative. Although the marriage didn’t last—the couple divorced in 1996—the friendship remained.
Hughes had dropped out of school after she became pregnant. But once her life was again stabilized, she returned to the University of Houston to earn her degree in 1997.
One of the groups Hughes had initially turned to was AIDS Foundation Houston. Her dynamic personality and her speaking effectiveness were quickly noticed, so she was asked to volunteer as a health educator and community speaker.
Hughes was hired on to the staff of Bering Omega in 1997, and then went to work for the People with AIDS Coalition in 1999. She also became a member of the Harris County Ryan White Planning Council, and served in various capacities with other AIDS organizations. From 2002 to 2005, she worked on the staff of former Houston City Council member Ada Edwards.
A state of emergency in Houston’s African-American community had been declared in 1999 by mayor Lee Brown, when demographic studies showed an alarming increase in HIV cases. Hughes worked with everyone from church pastors to civil rights activist Quanell X to address the problem.
Hughes had the ability to bridge gaps and work with communities that were not dealing well with AIDS. “You have to meet people where they are at,” Hughes says. “But the important thing is to stop the transmission of the virus and provide treatment for those who are already living with it.”
From 2005 to 2008, Hughes worked as a housing and community development program manager for the City of Houston. She then served as the executive director for Bread of Life, Inc., for two years. In 2010, she returned to the City, working as a program manager in the Department of Health and Community Services.
In the spring of 2011, Hughes was notified that she had been chosen as a White House “Champion of Change.” She flew to Washington DC and, along with a dozen other recipients, spent a full day with President Obama’s top AIDS advisors and policy makers. Upon her return, Mayor Annise Parker honored her with a “Dena Gray Day.”
Finding Love Again
In February 2012, Hughes met Daniel Hughes on the HIV Dating Online website. In August they were married. Both of them live openly as HIV-positive.
The next year, Hughes left her job with the City to work full-time with the resource-management and consulting service she had been building up for several years. Today, she and her modern-day “Brady Bunch” family live right next to the house she grew up in, where her mother and stepfather still live. Her family now includes her husband and seven children—her daughter, her husband’s son, a grandson, and stepchildren from her former marriage. None of the kids are into labels, and consider everyone to be an equal member of a happy family.
The household also includes two dogs. Lou looks like an exotic canine breed, but in reality is just an affectionate little creature with some dermatology issues. Riley, a German Shepherd, is known for slipping through an open door at lightning speed. “He doesn’t go anywhere—just walks up and down the neighborhood sidewalk. But once he’s out, he’s hard to get back in,” Hughes says. Thus, the front door now leads to a holding area with a second door.
Hughes is an upbeat, animated person. As a mom, she can be firm when she needs to, but she’s not one to dwell on things. “How long am I usually angry?” she asks her daughter. “About a minute,” comes the reply.
Reflecting on Her Life
Looking back, Hughes admits she has had an interesting and challenging life. She understands how people relate to each other and to the world. She indicates with circular motions of her hands the different groups in her life—her women friends, black friends, HIV friends, and LGBT friends, church friends, professional friends, parents, and family.
She starts to draw lines in the air with a finger, explaining the intersectionality of all the groups with her at the hub. Then she shrugs her shoulders slightly and smiles, indicating that “it all just works out.”
Compassion and concern for others is an integral part of Hughes’ nature. So is her genuine affection for Houston’s LGBT community.
When her name was announced as a Pride marshal in April, Hughes says “It just made my heart so happy.” The fact that she is not LGBT makes an award from that community even more meaningful. Her eyes start to mist up as she ponders the honor. “I felt a bit like Sally Field at the Oscars—‘You like me. You really like me!’”
Although her husband, Daniel, was in Virginia on business and not able to attend
the announcement party, he will be riding with her in the Pride Ally Marshal convertible on June 25 as it makes its way down Bagby Street. As people call out her name and wave, Hughes will discover just how vast the network of community allies is that she has cultivated over the past 25 years, by being there for us in so many ways.