Pedal for the Living

March 24, 2014, 11:35 am

(Guest Post! Ian Lekus is a lecturer in LGBT Studies at the University of Maryland and an LGBT Thematic Specialist for Amnesty International USA. He is writing Queer and Present Dangers: Sexuality, Masculinity, and the Sixties, to be published by the University of North Carolina Press. He’s here to tell us about a bike ride that for him brings together memory and hope, the past and the future, in equal amounts. Thanks, Ian.)

Pedaling 65 miles under cool blue skies, at the very beginning of a New England fall, I have plenty of time to ponder all the history that brought me back to Cape Cod for my second Harbor to the Bay AIDS Bike Ride. The September before, I had committed myself to my greatest physical challenge to date: biking from Sagamore to Provincetown in support of Community Research Initiative’s cutting-edge work to make HIV medications safer, less expensive, and more accessible to all who need them. After raising $11,000-plus and surviving my first metric century ride, I’m back on the road once more.

Walking my bike across the Sagamore Bridge, I dedicate my ride in the memory of those gone too soon, of those loved and lost by the some 360 donors who stepped forward over the past two years. In memory of Michael’s cousin, Paul’s closest friend, Amy’s first boyfriend. Of my own next-door-neighbor from early childhood, Matthew, five years older than me, who never had a chance to escape the oncoming storm of the early epidemic.

Ghosts of those gone but most certainly not forgotten ride along with me. But as the flat first few miles give way to the sharp hills of East Sandwich, I recall the words I’d adapted from Mary Harris “Mother” Jones: mourn the dead and pedal like hell for the living. Jones’s credo guides both my own historical research & current-day political activism.

These days, there are more and more reasons to be optimistic in the thirty years war against HIV/AIDS. Just for starters, current HIV medications have greatly extended the life expectancy of people living with the virus. PrEP (Pre Exposure Prophylaxis), when taken as prescribed, reduces HIV infection by more than 95%. Perhaps most remarkably, two babies born with HIV appear to have been cured through aggressive antiretroviral treatment (though cautious researchers prefer to describe the infants, who continue to receive HIV medications, as “sero-reversed”).

And so I keep pedaling on the narrow roads winding through Barnstable and Yarmouth, dodging SUVs out for a weekend tour of Cape Cod’s colonial past. My own history places me in a thin generational sliver, too young to have borne the brunt of the epidemic’s first wave, to have attended dozens, even hundreds of funerals for my friends … but too old to take AIDS for granted as a seemingly permanent feature of our political and sexual landscape. I was 11 when the first reports of a new disease surfaced, 15 when Rock Hudson died, 17 when ACT UP first demonstrated on Wall Street, and about to turn 20 when, upon coming out as gay to my father, his first words were, “Have you been tested for AIDS?”

In that instant, Dad’s response caught me utterly off-guard. Now, that moment, from another fall day nearly a quarter of a century ago, is a staple when I teach the history of the epidemic to undergraduates. It is truly a different era than when I came of age, I marvel upon as I speed along the Cape Cod Rail Trail – itself completely transformed from the days when railcars provided the main transit of freight and passengers from the Cape to Boston, Providence, and beyond.

Brewster and Orleans pass by, as I reflect on how my students try to make sense of the world in which I grew up. Though they understand that men who have sex with men face particular risks of HIV infection, my father’s automatic leap from gay to AIDS is barely intelligible in their experience. Instead, for many of them (mostly born from 1992 to 1994), “AIDS = Africa, Africa = AIDS.”

That deeply entrenched mis-equation can be difficult to disrupt even for students choosing to take a course designed to do just that. But then, they also have no recollections of a world before retroviral medications, of a highly visible domestic epidemic, or of AIDS activism making national headlines in the United States. Often, they first learned about AIDS from RENT – the 2005 movie, not the original 1994 Broadway musical.

For at least a few of them, “ACT UP, Fight AIDS!” is a merely lyric from RENT’s “La Vie Bohème,” not an activist chant urging protestors to “fight back” against the apparent indifference of America’s political and scientific leadership. ACT UP’s ongoing legacy appears right up the road, and I pull into CRI’s Eastham pitstop, receiving the warmest welcome from a mix of staff and ride-day volunteers. Sanju and Deb offer me water, Gatorade, orange slices, bananas, granola bars – all the necessities of long-distance riding. I relax into Julia’s massage chair for a few minutes, as she melts away some of the muscle tension built up over the first forty miles.

Behind them, another CRI volunteer is recording short interviews with other cyclists. He is filming for a short video, “Why I Ride,” and so I wander over. I tell the camera how honored I am to be riding for this nonprofit community-based organization founded in 1989 by members of ACT UP Boston and local scientists. Like the Treatment Action Group that spun off from ACT UP New York to accelerate treatment research, CRI’s research data has been critical to the FDA’s signing off on of a majority of HIV medications ever approved. I’ve also led discussions on the history of the epidemic for CRI’s community advisory board, and I’m utterly inspired by their commitment to HIV prevention and treatment education among low-income residents of Massachusetts.

The most daunting segment of the ride looms ahead. On my first Harbor to the Bay, the rolling hills of Wellfleet and Truro nearly did me in. Somewhere in those nine miles of hill after hill after hill, one knee all but gave out, leaving me to pull myself home with my other leg. I did make it through, though I truly began to wonder whether it would ever end.

I try to banish those memories as I leave the rail trail behind and begin climbing. Once more, I summon thoughts of all those who have supported my ride, and of the dozens upon dozens of friends whose lives are improved immeasurably by HIV medications. I’m also very fortunate to be taking the hills with my teammate and training partner, Pete, whose greater experience on similar terrain proves invaluable this time around.

This leg of the route is hardly a picnic the second time, but my greater technical skills using momentum from one downhill to climb the next make Wellfleet and Truro manageable enough to wonder, “wait, that’s it?” when I reach the turnoff at the end of the nine-mile stretch. Even the last nasty climb – a sharp rise after the dead stop of a 90-degree right turn – seems much shorter on my second ride.

From that moment, exhilaration trumps exhaustion. The light breeze from Cape Cod Bay cools me as I pedal the last few miles, just a few hundred feet inland from the beach. And then: the “Entering Provincetown – Established 1686” sign, the the final curve in the road, the sight of the Harbor Hotel, the sound of the crew cheering and cowbells ringing to welcome us in, an arc of balloons evoking the red ribbon of AIDS awareness over the finish line. The end is, at long last, in sight.

There are many more histories of HIV/AIDS yet to write, many more students to teach. Because of that, and because the end of HIV/AIDS might, maybe, just possibly be in sight, I’ve recently signed up for my third Harbor to the Bay ride next September. So as winter gives way to spring, it’s once more time to start training, to mourn the dead, and to keep fighting like hell for the living.

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