John Pierson of Long Beach is among thousands of Southern Californians riding in AIDSLifecycle, a 545-mile bicycling fundraiser in which participants need to collect a minimum of $3,000 in donations toward HIV/AIDS prevention. PARENTAL WARNING: Pierson references unprotected encounters at the end of this piece, posted this late Wednesday, Day 4 of the ride.
We reached the halfway point on our trip today! After leaving camp around 6:45 this morning, we reached the top of the second of two hills known collectively as "The Evil Twins." Not only were they not terribly evil, the views of the Pacific Ocean along the Central Coast were spectacular. The ride south from Paso Robles, through San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach, into Santa Maria was beautiful.
Speaking of beautiful, we learned more great things from the leaders of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center. Lorri L. Jean, CEO of the LAGLC, spoke about the demographics making up our AIDS Lifecycle participants this year. The oldest rider is 82. The oldest roadie is 83.
But the most poignant statistic, in my mind, is that we're split nearly 50-50 between gay and straight riders.
When the ride began in 1994, it was primarily gay cyclists riding. Over the years, as acceptance of homosexuality has grown, the stigma attached to participating in a "gay" ride has decreased. As Jean pointed out, we're all playing for the same team and that team's goal is to end HIV/AIDS.
Neil Giuliano, CEO of SFAF, spoke about President Obama's recent endorsement of marriage equality for same-sex couples. He pointed out that the more you empower a group of people, the more open they are about discussing aspects of their lives. Encouraging people makes them more comfortable to learn and ask questions, which in turn trickles down to talking about things like HIV. It's not an easy conversation, but can be made easier by encouraging and empowering people to look out for their health.
Following Mr. Giuliano's speech a rider, whose name I regretfully didn't catch, strepped up to tell his story of why he rides. Three years ago, he met a man at a bar and they had sex without a condom. When all was said and done, the rider's partner asked him how long he had been HIV positive. The truth was that he wasn't HIV positive, and had just had unprotected sex with someone who was. It's an important thing to discuss HIV status with your partners, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. Fortunately for the man who spoke to us tonight, he was referred to the SFAF, and learned about Post-Exposure Prophylaxis. PEP, as it's commonly known, is an HIV treatment, taken twice a day for a month, that allows for the possibility of not contracting HIV upon exposure only if it is started within 72 hours of contact. It's not a guarantee, and doesn't always work, but it can help.
There is a stigma against people who are HIV-positive, there is a stigma around discussing your status. It's so important, now more than ever where HIV is no longer seen as a death-sentence diagnosis, to be open about your status. HIV is very real, and people continue to contract it every day.
To learn more about people who work to eliminate the stigma surrounding people who are HIV-positive, look up Positive Peddlers at www.pospeds.org . They're a group of cyclists working to improve the lives of HIV-positive individuals.
And to learn more about HIV, and to get tested, those who live in and around Belmont Shore can go to the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Center - The Center - on 4th street, next door to the Art Theatre. While not a beneficiary of the funds raised on the ride, The Center is a shorter drive and provides free HIV testing Monday-Friday from noon until 9p.m., and Saturdays from noon-3 p.m. you can find them online at www.centerlb.org