If you’re a gay person in San Francisco or Los Angeles, chances are you’ve heard of or participated in the AIDS/LifeCycle. Otherwise, this annual event tends to fly under the radar, and receives relatively little publicity given its size and significance.
For those who don’t know, AIDS/LifeCycle is a fully-supported 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The ride raises money and awareness for AIDS treatment and research, with the goal of ending the AIDS epidemic once and for all. The event is in its 16th year, and has grown to include over 3000 participants this year. Additionally, over 600 volunteers will handle the massive logistics effort to transport so many riders down the coast of California.
The ride serves an important role as the primary fundraising tool of the AIDS Foundation and LGBT Center. But it also works to end stigma and increase visibility of this cause.
Today, I embark on my 2nd AIDS/LifeCycle (ALC) journey. As I prepare to ride out, I reflect on the path that’s brought me here.
The Rainbow Dinners
About 4 years ago, I was living in small-town Arkansas. There, I started attending an LGBT-affirming church where I met some of the first gay people I ever knew. One was a landscaper and long-time parishioner named John. The other two were Esther and and Megan, a lesbian couple (one of whom I went to college with).
The four of us became fast friends and decided to start a series of dinners called “Rainbow Dinners.” Our idea was to start a community of LGBTQ people in our town where we could be ourselves among like-minded, safe people. This was, unfortunately, a rare feeling in our conservative town. We planned to start small and invite more people as we made more connections.
Our first rainbow dinner was just me, John, Esther and Megan. After much laughter and great food, the topic of romantic histories came up. We asked John to regale us with some tales from his youth. After a few lighthearted stories of short-term boyfriends, he became very serious. It was evident that his story had reached a troubled place. And indeed it had-the AIDS epidemic.
Through tears, John started to tell us about how, one by one, the people closest to him started to get HIV. He told us of how they were kicked out of their homes, refused service at hospitals, and ignored by their government. They were ultimately left in the care of their lovers or friends who had to slowly watch them waste away. John had lost lovers, as well as close friends in the epidemic. And as he shared one story where he held his best friend’s hand as she passed away, he couldn’t continue any more. The dinner ended on a solemn note as John stepped away from the table to compose himself.
Connecting the Dots
The evening left an indelible mark on my heart. I had just come out only a few months prior, and knew relatively little about how the AIDS crisis devastated the LGBTQ community. Suddenly it became very real. For the first time, I connected my story to part of a larger history and a larger community outside my own. I finally understood that my affiliation was not only to my family and ethnic background. It was also to the long, rich, difficult and tragic history of sexual minorities around the world. I felt connected to the stories that John had shared. And I started to recognize how easy my story was, as an LGBTQ person coming out in 2013, when compared with how difficult it was back in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2015, I became part of a tight group of LGBTQ associates at my company. I discovered that they had participated in ALC for multiple years in a row. Initially, I was against doing the ride. I proudly considered myself a runner. I liked the autonomy and individuality of running. All I needed was myself, my shoes, and a place to run. Biking seemed much more complicated. It required an expensive bike, all that equipment, and funny riding outfits. Bikers always seemed to take themselves too seriously, and they were always getting in my way when driving my car! It seemed more like a cult than a sport, and I didn’t have the urge to join. Yet, peer pressure ultimately worked. And I decided that I liked my colleagues enough that I wanted to see what this crazy ride was all about.
My First Ride
My first training ride was awful. I told myself that I’d do the ride, but I’d do it on my old hybrid bike. But after that first ride where I literally pulled over a half mile from finishing and started crying, I knew I needed a real road bike. Several thousand dollars later, I was a real biker. Complete with a sleek, lightweight road bike, and a slew of funny outfits. After a few rides, I started to get into biking. I had to learn that it was a whole different thing than running. Biking was about community. About going places where you couldn’t normally go. About seeing your corner of the world in a new way.
My first ALC experience was a blast. The ride is perhaps best described as gay summer camp for adults on wheels. For months I’d heard of the famous ALC “Love Bubble”. Experiencing it firsthand was life-changing. Never have I seen a more loving, supportive, playful, and joyous community. For 7 days, we rode our bikes, gawked at the beautiful scenery (and I’m not just referring to the California coast), ate amazing food, laughed uproariously, and shed tears of joy and (occasionally) pain. We supported each other, loved each other, and experienced the indescribable feeling of camaraderie that only a 7-day ride can foster.
San Francisco is on the verge of being the world’s first major city with no new infections of HIV, thanks to the amazing work of the SF AIDS Foundation, and it’s an honor to support their mission.
Why I Ride
This year, I have the privilege of service as the Captain of Team Walmart. And I feel a personal responsibility to help my team raise as much as we possibly can to end this epidemic. I believe that putting all our efforts behind eradicating this disease is one of the most important things we can do. But my primary cause for riding stems from the stories John told at our Rainbow Dinner all those years ago.
I ride for the tens of thousands of brave LGBT people who faced this infection with no support from their families, their health care system, their insurance and their government. I ride to honor their memory – for the lives they lived, and the lives they could have lived. For the sons, daughters, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, lovers, and friends they were, and should have been for much, much longer. I ride for them, so that we won’t forget what they went through. And so that we can honor their legacy in what we stand for, and how we live.