Just over 25 years ago, a rag-tag band of about 500 cyclists and 100 volunteers rolled into West Hollywood after spending a week on the road from San Francisco. We could hardly believe it—we had raised a million dollars from our friends and families to provide critical medical services at the Center to people with HIV and AIDS!
This is what I reflected on, just a few weeks ago, as some 2,340 cyclists and 700 “roadie” volunteers crossed the finish line of this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle. It surely would have seemed like a pipe dream in 1994 that in 2018 we would raise $16.6 million for the HIV and AIDS-related services of the Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
It was, as always, an astonishing and inspiring feat—more so given the longevity of this event. For 25 years (eight years as California AIDS Ride and 17 as AIDS/ LifeCycle) we have been riding and evangelizing to raise scores of millions of dollars for HIV care, prevention, and education.
As usual, I was with the participants every mile of the way. I’ve done it on a bike three times, powering myself home. Every other time I’ve traveled in a motorized vehicle, visiting all of the rest stops and lunches, cheering on cyclists, thanking volunteers, and doing my best to entertain folks and put the whole thing in context each night from camp stage.
So much has changed since our first ride in 1994. Back then, AIDS was the No.1 cause of death of adults in this country. Our state-of-the-art Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinic was just a year old. The stigma that surrounded HIV and AIDS was intense and often debilitating. LGBT people had become far too accustomed to death and dying among our young friends, and it often felt like we were in the fight alone. California would not pass broad non-discrimination protections for LGB people for another six years (10 years for trans people). The prospect of marriage equality seemed like an impossible dream.
Twenty-five years later much in our world has changed.
In 1994, 49% of the public felt that homosexuality should be discouraged by society. Today, 70% believe it should be accepted and majorities in both political parties support acceptance (86% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans). And marriage equality is the law of the land.
We’re also no longer alone in the fight against HIV/AIDS. While it was an almost-entirely LGBT crowd of courageous participants on the ride in 1994, the group is about 30% allies today. They get a huge dose of queer culture on the ride, and I always feel like we’ve created allies for life as a result of our experience together.
Of course, the AIDS/LifeCycle is an athletic accomplishment, but the most powerful transformation is that—no matter our age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status—over the week of riding and working together, we become a community dedicated to one single goal: making a difference in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
And we have made a difference. Today AIDS is no longer the No. 1 cause of death. Thanks to the advent of new medications, ever improving treatments, and organizations like the Center that make sure people who need care get it, HIV is now a chronic, manageable disease for most Americans. While stigma has not disappeared, it has certainly diminished for many. Best of all, now a pill taken once a day can prevent HIV infection and vastly reduce the likelihood of transmission. (For more information on pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which is 99% effective in preventing HIV, visit PrEPhere.org)
But this doesn’t mean the crisis is over. In the most recent year reported by the CDC (2016), nearly 7,000 Americans died because of AIDS-related complications, 18,160 received an AIDS diagnosis, and nearly 40,000 were newly diagnosed with HIV. And, more than 15% of those living with HIV don’t know their status. HIV continues to disproportionately affect our community. Gay and bisexual men account for 67% of the diagnoses nationwide and over 87% in Los Angeles. Within this group, the greatest rates of infection are among gay and bisexual men of color, especially young Black and Latino men. Transgender women are also at great risk. According to recent statistics, around a quarter of all transgender women—and more than half of Black transgender women—are living with HIV.
These sobering facts clearly signify that we must remain vigilant. It takes hard work to ensure that our community, especially those most at risk, get the care they need. Our staff continues to work with commitment and compassion, and our AIDS/LifeCycle riders and roadies continue to rise to the challenge. For 25 years, we have battled headwinds and brutal hills, experienced political and social upheavals, and suffered electoral setbacks. Through it all, one thing endures: The Center remains as dedicated to the fight against HIV and AIDS as we were in 1994.