On July 13 and 14 I biked 200 miles as part of the 2013 Ride for AIDS Chicago (RFAC). Although my 47-year-old body would have much prefered to eat a cupcake, throw back a few beers or attend a BBQ, I decided to spend the better part of the weekend on a bicycle raising funds for HIV-positive people and raising awareness that until there is a cure, the fight against HIV continues.
I logged over 1,000 miles on my bike this spring and early summer, so I was as prepared as I could be. Far too often this year, our training rides were in the rain or cold. Those Saturday-morning rides were brutal at times, and honestly, I missed a few when the temperature dipped into the 30s. Most of my friends, and certainly my dog Fred, were all still in bed during those early-morning hours.
Whether it was Fred's sleepy eyes peering out from under the comforter or friends' curiosity, the common sentiment was, "Why on Earth are you getting up so early to do this?" The answer was simple: Because I can. You see, for me, the ride was more than a commitment; it was a celebration of getting through tough times and a way to honor those who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. It was also a celebration of the dignity and courage that people living with HIV/AIDS show each and every day.
Last year was my first Ride for AIDS. I hadn't ridden a bicycle since I was a teenager. I decided to do the ride to commit to something outside myself, wanting desperately to break my self-imposed isolation and help overcome demons and internal struggles related my own HIV diagnosis. I met amazing people from diverse backgrounds who help me do just that. Were it not for the ride, I might never have had the honor and privilege of meeting my RFAC family.
These included Meg and Fred Valentini, a couple from Oak Park, Ill., who ride a tandem bicycle and captain Team PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Gays and Lesbians), and a married lesbian couple (sadly, in Illinois, we still have to say "domestic partners"), Yvette Pryor and Shannon Cunningham. Yvette whipped me into shape in killer spin classes, and Shannon's infectious enthusiasm made fundraising a breeze. My own team, Team CUR (Chicago Urban Riders), was an eclectic and spirited group of men, some HIV-positive and some not, who had a penchant for being or riding shirtless and looking good doing so. (My shirt remained on throughout.)
But no one's story hit home more than that of Tony Torres. Tony was out there every weekend, rain or shine, as one of the organizers of the training rides. He has been HIV-positive for more than 15 years. He decided to do the RFAC for the first time in 2010. A month before the ride he lost his job and hit bottom, depressed and worried about his future. During the ride he confided in a fellow rider that he needed help and was quickly connected to the folks at TPAN (Test Positive Aware Network), the sponsors of the RFAC. Within two weeks he had a case manager, a therapist, medications and food. TPAN was there for him then, and with the support of revenue generated by the ride, they continue to be there for him, as well as for other HIV-positive Chicagoans in need to services.
There was a moment in the closing ceremonies of the 2012 ride when HIV-positive riders wheeled out a riderless bicycle, symbolizing those who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. In that moment I felt like a fraud, unable to step forward and be open about my own status. I was afraid of being that public, that visible, especially as a physician. HIV stigma totally sucks. I had raised thousands of dollars for TPAN, referencing overcoming my cancer diagnosis and being oh-so-cleverly vague about other "personal and professional struggles." I couldn't just come out and say, "Hey, I'm HIV-positive and just kicked ass on this ride!" I was disappointed in myself for not being honest and vowed that next year would be different.
In 2013 I rode as an openly HIV-positive man. I now manage the stigma that used to paralyze me with unconditional love from my pooch, and with the love and support of my family and friends, many of whom are fellow riders. My 2013 ride was no longer about putting the past behind me; it was about the future, which is bright. So why did I ride? I rode because I can! I am lucky to be where I am today. Too many HIV-positive people live like I did, in the shadows, either unaware of their status, afraid to get care or afraid to be open with family or friends, for fear of being judged, discriminated against or alienated. This weekend I rode to support the amazing work that TPAN does for our community, and to take a step forward in my personal quest to eliminate HIV stigma through increased awareness and visibility. As the National HIV/AID Strategy celebrated its third anniversary, I stood next to that riderless bicycle unapologetic about my past, proud of who I am and excited about my future.