Thanksgiving to World AIDS Day

Thank you. Thank you for acknowledging the power of a virus to ravage lives. Thank you for extending compassion to every human being, protec...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Risk Takers

My spin class recently ventured outdoors on a crisp, fall Saturday when halfway around the lake, Paul asked about the AIDS reference on my jersey. Then began to tell his story…

Pedaling and listening, I was finally able to answer the long awaited # 1 question in my ALC Top 10. The question I’m most frequently asked about riding is what keeps me going. My off the cuff answer tends to reflect my last ride – the sunny day, the camaraderie of my ride buddies, the scenery, etc. – but I struggled to find the common denominator in the many inspirations that keep me coming back for more, year after year.

Paul’s story began in a familiar way. This Midwest bike shop owner was ready to jump in and make a difference. He could have chosen to lend his bike mechanic skills to any number of charity events but Paul wanted to better understand his anxiety over this disease and the people affected by HIV/AIDS so he signed up to crew the world’s largest AIDS ride.

I took on that very ride for the first time this summer – the AIDS LifeCycle. Listening to Paul, my mind flashed back to the evening of Day 3. We’d arrived at our Paso Robles fairgrounds camp early enough for the sun to dry our wet towels hung over the tents before packing them away at nightfall. Our small team met early for dinner and enjoyed relaxing in the large hall with about 2000 other riders and crew waiting for the evening program to begin. Promptly at 7:30p, after our nightly update on the next day’s route and weather, the program began with remarks from a fellow ALC10 cyclist who spoke of his personal experience as an HIV+ man fighting AIDS in the early days, some 20-30 years ago. His description of those early struggles was meant to highlight how far we’d come by the efforts of such a diverse community of committed, caring individuals undeterred by the stigma of AIDS. The talk ended by recognizing today's community in this room of 2000+ cyclists and roadies – gay, lesbian, HIV+, young, old, transgender, gender-neutral and their “straight allies.” 

Paul knew the AIDS rides attracted a gay and lesbian community so he arrived in San Francisco with an open mind, withheld judgment and, over 7 days and hundreds of miles of flat tires and broken part replacements, was bold enough to admit his ignorance and accept their guidance to navigate this unfamiliar culture in a positive and caring way. Because Paul took a risk he soon no longer saw diseased homosexuals, he saw hurting friends. And Paul returned to help them, year after year.

Navigating the stigma of HIV/AIDS has challenged every prevention and treatment approach, worldwide, since the pandemic was first identified. Thirty years of HIV education programs have explained that HIV can spread by such acceptable activities as married heterosexual sex, a blood transfusion or a medical professional’s accidental finger prick yet the belief persists that the scourge of AIDS is due consequence for engaging in illicit or risky behavior. Hard to imagine it has been less than one year since Uganda considered a “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” giving government license to execute a homosexual infected with HIV.

Ironically, risk takers have been the driving force behind rapid progress to slow both the spread of HIV and its progression to AIDS: the San Francisco gay community exposing itself to call worldwide attention to a new, deadly pandemic; Ugandan midwives dispensing HIV treatments to every birthing mother in order to protect the newborn without exposing the HIV+ status of any one mother; the mayor who risks reelection to advocate for a clean needle exchange program; the teenage hemophiliac who went to court to overturn his expulsion from an Indiana public school; research scientists who reach a dead end only to test yet another theory. Fitting right in with these risk takers who make the most meaningful impression to keep me involved in these events are the unemployed woman taking time away from her lengthy job hunt to arise at 4am and serve breakfast to 3000 ride participants, the novice cyclist completing his first 100-mile day, the HIV+ peddler closely tracking his heart rate and hygiene, the elderly couple who empties their wallet to make a donation to a passing cyclist and especially those who risk opening their minds and their hearts to extend compassion without boundaries or qualifications.

This World AIDS Day, I invite you to take a risk. Take just one step further than you’ve gone before toward ending the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. Learn more about HIV/AIDS - how it spreads, who it affects, how it is treated. Teach a child. Volunteer. Reach out to someone affected by the disease and offer your support. You have an open invitation to join me on any AIDS ride. If I'm not already registered, I'll sign up to keep you company or simply help you prepare. Extend compassion without boundaries or qualifications and AIDS doesn't stand a chance.

Some favorite World AIDS Day resources: