For years, I have followed and supported the annual AIDS/LifeCycle ride, a trek that takes cyclists on a 545-mile, 7-day journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but never thought to participate myself. In 2014, this all changed.
My company, Bank of America, was a sponsor of the 2014 AIDS/LifeCycle and as bank employees, we had the opportunity to volunteer with the event. I was one of these volunteers, which gladly included cheering on and congratulating riders as they crossed the finish line. You could see the sense of accomplishment and pride on the riders’ faces. They were simply glowing after completing such a long journey and I admired their commitment.
However, the defining moment for me was when I saw my fellow Bank of America employees coming toward us. The bank had put together a team of 49 riders from across California and a few other western states to participate in the actual ride, making us the largest corporate team. The team decided to cross the finish line as a unit, and seeing the group riding in solidarity really touched me. Regardless of gender, sex, city, or department, my colleagues came together for one goal: to generate awareness for HIV/AIDS.
Right then and there, I told myself, “You can do this.” And a couple of months later, I signed up for my first AIDS/LifeCycle with Team Bank of America. It was knowing that I would not be alone in this journey and I would have my colleagues along for the ride that I finally felt ready.
I would also have my long-time partner Danny, who had participated in two AIDS/LifeCycle rides in the past, joining me for my first ride.
This trek would not be an easy one, but I knew I wanted to achieve two things: to challenge myself physically and, secondly, to do my part in bringing awareness and financial support to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS.
In 1990, I lost my cousin to the disease. That year, an estimated 1 million people in the United States had HIV while AIDS had claimed 100,000 lives. Yet, no one wanted to discuss AIDS or be associated with it.
Times have changed in the last 25 years, and now I can talk about my cousin more openly. It’s important to me that he is not forgotten. Riding in this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle is my way of helping those who did not, or still do not, have a voice.
Now back from my seven-day journey, I can honestly say that it was one of most incredible experiences of my life. I am humbled by the men and women who dedicated themselves to train, raise money, and commit to ride. They are a special group of people that you do not meet every day.
We also had a lot of fun. Each rest stop had music, entertainment, food, and everything else we needed to rest and relax after a day’s ride. And of course, I have to mention my first Red Dress Day, where everyone wore red to honor those we’ve lost and show our commitment to ending the AIDS epidemic. I wore my red costume proudly and remembered my cousin fondly with amazing people and new found friends around me.
That’s the magic of the AIDS/LifeCycle's self-described “Love Bubble” — the friendship and comradeship of the riders. I felt I was a part of something larger than myself. I was in a safe world of happy, kind, giving individuals all working together for a common cause.
This is when I realized that, in addition to all my other good reasons to ride, I was also here to help remove the stigma that still affects the LGBT community, especially those affected by HIV and AIDS. Living in a major metropolitan area such as Los Angeles, you are not always aware of the stigma that still exists, but it does.
I hope, one day, with the help of causes like the AIDS/Lifecycle, we can finally achieve acceptance and together expand the Love Bubble.
Joe Stones is Vice President of Business Solutions Consultation & Technology at Bank of America.