Venita Ray
by Ruby Comer

Marquee Photo by Johnnie Ray Kornegay III

Photo courtesy PWN

“We build power, change culture, and transform systems.”

Landing on this bold quote one evening, while searching for a nifty pecan pie recipe on the Internet, halted me dead in my own tracks.

It’s from the Positive Women’s Network (PWN), which, as described on its website, is “a national membership body of women living with HIV and our allies that exists to strengthen the strategic power of all women living with HIV in the United States.” It’s the only organization of its kind.

I wanted to know more.

The next day I reach out to the praiseworthy organization’s co-executive director, Venita Ray. Right at its genesis in the eighties, the AIDS epidemic smacked Venita when it was still called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). She was twenty-eight then and living in San Diego, raising Monique, her teenage daughter (that’s not easy!), and had sobered up through AA meetings. One of her close friends, who happened to be gay, was diagnosed with the disease. This stirred her to hit the streets doing outreach, encountering women who were at risk for HIV from a partner injecting drugs. From 1990–1992 Venita performed this work, and along the way she lost several friends to the virus.

Raised in Oakland, California, until the age of twelve, her family moved south to San Diego. As a teen, she became pregnant and chose to defer her high school education to focus on parenting. However, substance use challenged her. Wanting to enhance herself and her child, when Monique turned six Venita refused welfare, surviving on low-wage clerical jobs. Yearning to be more evolved, she sobered up which freed her to make a wise decision—return to school.

In 1987 when Monique was a teen, Venita earned her GED while working full-time. With diploma in hand she headed to San Diego City College, a liberal arts school, and received an associate degree. Revved in hot pursuit of achievement, in 1993 Venita obtained a BA in Public Administration from San Diego State University (SDSU). The very next year this determined woman surged onward, moved to Washington D.C., and started law school at American University. In 1997, the graduate received her degree.

In 1999 she landed a position at the Office of the District Attorney for the District of Columbia in the D.C. Office of Planning, where she focused on neighborhood planning, land use, zoning, and economic development. As the attorney states, she was living the American dream—a dream life, a dream job, and had her dream home.

In 2003, Venita was diagnosed with HIV.

July 2017, New York City: The first meeting of the HIV Racial Justice Now Coalition that PWN cofounded. Photo by Johnnie Ray Kornegay III

The situation emotionally crippled her. Bereft, overwhelmed, it was an overpowering weight. In 2007, in the midst of a dark depression she decided to leave her beloved Washington, D.C., and moved to Houston, Texas, to be near her sister and her daughter, Monique, who’s a lawyer like her mom. Thinking death might be imminent, Venita yearned to be with her loved ones.

Dealing with the trauma, Venita soldiered onward. Through various sources the spirited lady reunited with that part of herself that yearned to live. She reached out and acquired a sturdy support system that “mothered me, inspired me, kicked me in the ass telling me I could when I didn’t even believe it.”

Venita even hired a personal trainer who whipped her into physical and mental shape! She was practicing yoga, weight training, healthy eating, and meditation. Soon her lab numbers shot up. The mystified doctor addressed it: “Whatever you’re doing, Venita, keep doing it!” She knew all too well what blasted those T-cells upwards. Venita had reclaimed her power!
At one point, she even marshalled her inner strength and trekked up Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro! While there, she visited a children’s orphanage for children who had lost their parents to AIDS-related causes. Venita credits Tyson, a captivating kid, for inspiring her. (Link to vid of Tyson, and others, listed at end.) Unable to stay in touch with Tyson due to a language barrier, Venita hears that the teenager is doing just fine!

After much work, Venita landed on the other side of the rainbow. She returned to work in a consulting firm, and also served on the Ryan White Planning Councils, Commissioner for Houston Historical and Archaeological Commission (HAHC), and various other roles as well. In 2014, she joined Legacy Community Health as Public Policy Manager, where she monitored HIV-related health policy and managed an advocacy training program for people living with HIV. In 2018 she hitched up with PWN.

Venita at Mt. Kilimanjaro

With undeniable resilience, courage, and chutzpah, Venita is an inspiration. The woman turned adversity into prosperity and along the way made it easier for others to tackle their HIV diagnosis. Such power, such strength—the woman crushed it!

With her magazine-cover glow and charismatic personality, Venita presses on speaking and training locally and nationally about issues that impact the HIV community. In 2016, Houston was inundated with a citywide campaign to end HIV—orchestrated by Ms. Ray.
On the intimate side, Venita is proud of her two grandsons, who call her Grandma Venita.
She hails Good Times as her favorite television show growing up, Cooley High and The Last Samurai as movies she could watch over and over, and a couple of her favorite divas are Cicely Tyson (who sadly passed earlier this year), Sanaa Lathan, and the dynamic versatile Angela Bassett.

Ruby Comer: So, Good Times was your fave TV show, huh?!
Venita Ray: I wanted to be a cross between Michael and Thelma.

How fun. That marvelous [creator] Norman Lear, my gosh…and Esther Rolle, John Amos, and Jimmie Walker. Pow! What a supreme ensemble. Take us back to when you first received the results of the HIV test.
My world went black on 4/2/2003 at 11:30 a.m. EST. I thought I was so open-minded and already knew it did not have to be a death sentence, even though I had already seen people die. I had lived a pretty tough life and thought the hard times were behind me, Ruby. So getting a call from my doctor after a physical asking me to come in and talk about one of my lab tests immediately sent up alarms because I had not had a test in some time.

2018 PWN Speak Up! Summit in Myrtle Beach, SC. Photo by Johnnie Ray Kornegay III

Wow, yes, yes how distressing.
My life crashed. I did not want to live with one more…ANYTHING! Now add to that a woman living with HIV was too much! I blamed myself for not doing better. No matter what anyone says, we are all open until it is you. I was off work for a month before I could even show up. I eventually sold my house, quit my job, and moved to Houston. I did not want to live with HIV!

Oh, Venita, I’m so sorry. Then you turned things around.
In 2007, I made the decision to either kill myself or find a way to move on. So began the slow process of recreating myself. I no longer practice law. In 2011, I went public. I spent a lot of tears over those years.

I can’t even imagine, Venita. I’m elated you landed on your feet and are now a role model for others. A wholehearted congrats! During this time did you ever seek out psychotherapy?
Yes, I tried it three times. The first time was in the first couple of months and I went a few times, but I just wasn’t ready. I did not see how talking was going to help. I just wanted the HIV diagnosis to go away. I did not want to accept living with HIV. The second time was probably in 2008. Again, I did not want to accept my status. I went to one appointment and the therapist told me that I was going to have to find value in the new path that was in front of me. I didn’t want to hear that and did not go back.

Finally, in 2009, I was ready and found the perfect therapist. I set specific goals because I was finally ready to accept my status and have relief from the pain. I had done some prior work on myself so this proved to be the final step in the process in seeking professional help.

What a relief for you, Venita.
I went for a little over a year then the therapist told me that I had accomplished my goals. I could continue coming but she felt that my path was to just continue the spiritual journey I had begun with yoga, study, and meditation. She helped me do so much to reconnect with my best friend, stop feeling ashamed, and let go of the past. It was life-changing!

Such a moving journey you’ve had, Venita. What has living with HIV taught you over the past eighteen years?
Each day is a gift. I think I knew it before, but really know it now. I am going to always be a little ghetto girl; I’m not trying to fully assimilate. It takes courage to face it everyday. It is not always easy. I get to decide what I’m going to do with it. My motto is: No excuses!

Venita’s healing;;;;

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Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]