Until he started training, Eddie Martinez hadn’t ridden a bike since he was a kid. He admits sheepishly to being afraid to ride on the street alongside cars. He says he’s facing his fears and doing the 545-mile epic ride in honor of two friends who both died of HIV/AIDS.
Martinez, 48, will join the close to 2,800 people (including cyclists and volunteer roadies) participating in the 2017 AIDS/LifeCycle. The ride is a seven-day, 545-mile bicycle ride June 4-10 from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the HIV/AIDS-related services of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. AIDS/LifeCycle has raised more than $236 million since its first ride in 2002, making it the largest fundraiser for HIV and AIDS in the world.
An East L.A. native whose parents emigrated from Mexico, Martinez is the executive director of Latino Equality Alliance, a non-profit organization that does outreach in the Latino community for LGBTQ youth and their parents. He’s been involved in this kind of work for more than two decades.
“I was a club promoter in the ‘90s, I met a guy who wanted to build an AIDS monument in Lincoln Park [The Wall: Las Memorias], I started helping him, and that was my introduction into fundraising and activism for Latino and LGBTQ issues, particularly HIV/AIDS,” he says. “While working on the monument I learned about the generation before me who lost huge circles of friends, like 50 to 70 people. It’s unimaginable.”
“Around that same time, I met this guy and we became close friends. We came out at the same time. But, he got caught up in addiction and was [HIV] positive, and his body just couldn’t hold on anymore and he passed away. His name is on that AIDS monument. I’m riding because of him.”
Cedric Terrell, 31, is a Marine veteran and professional photographer. He’s riding for his ex-boyfriend who is HIV positive, and to shut down HIV’s racial disparities – Terrell is African American.
African Americans make up about 12 percent of the total U.S. population, yet account for an estimated 45 percent of new HIV infections nationally. African Americans also account for 40 percent of everyone living with HIV in the U.S., and 53 percent of AIDS-related deaths According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 2 gay and bi black men will become HIV positive sometime in their lives. In L.A. County, African Americans continue to account for the majority of new infections.
“I’ve lost more friends to HIV than I’d like to count. I’ve been involved in activism since high school. I wanted to do something,” Terrell says.
When he and his ex were dating, Terrell entered a drug trial at Whitman-Walker Health Center in Washington, D.C. He volunteered to be a test subject for a trial drug similar to PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis), a drug that people at higher risk of exposure take daily to lower their chances of getting infected with HIV.
Terrell is also riding in honor of continued HIV/AIDS research.
Although first discovered in 1981, the AIDS epidemic is far from over.
In the seven days it takes the riders to reach Los Angeles, more than 500 people in the U.S. will become infected with HIV. One out of every eight people living with HIV nationwide is not aware of their status. Currently there are 1.2 million people living with HIV nationwide and an estimated 39,000 will become infected this year.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s HIV research is aligned with the National HIV/AIDS strategy — focusing on intervening at every stage of HIV infection, from testing high risk populations, to linking newly diagnosed people to HIV care, starting them on HIV medications as soon as possible, supporting and increasing adherence to their antiretroviral medications, and ultimately reducing their HIV viral load to undetectable levels. The comprehensive approach is a complex but promising strategy for reducing “community viral load” and ultimately ending HIV/AIDS as an epidemic in the U.S.
In early 2000, Martinez was at a softball tournament in Palm Springs. He was pitching. The score was tied, and bases loaded. The batter stepped up, Martinez pitched, the batter hit, and before he could get his glove up, he blacked out. Martinez was hit in the face by the ball. His jaw was crushed and he lost teeth. His coach was there to hold his hand through it all.
“I loved him. He was there to care for me in that moment and I’ll never forget it,” Martinez says.
Martinez’s coach was HIV positive, and died of complications from AIDS. Martinez says he’ll be thinking about him on the long ride.
Martinez’s father lives in Sacramento, and although he knows his son is gay, they’ve never talked about it. “There’s a cultural barrier in the Latino community. There’s machismo. You just don’t talk about that,” he says.
One of six children, Martinez says his mother accepts and loves him unconditionally, but he has not yet told her that he was diagnosed HIV positive in 2003.
“I’m not public about my status. It’s not easy to let the world know. But, also I don’t want my mother to worry about me. I’m good. I take my meds. I’m healthy,” he says.
“I want to come out, but I don’t want to be the poster child. I don’t want it [AIDS/Lifecycle] to be about me. I want it to be about the people we lost. I want it to be about a tool to educate the next generation.”
Martinez’s team, the “Cyclepaths,” has already raised over $70,000. The money will fund programs such as the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinic, which offers people living with HIV comprehensive free or low-cost primary and specialty medical care. About 2,900 people receive care at the clinic each year — 42% of them identify as Hispanic or Latino.
“Despite the environment we’re in, you have to learn to be inspired. As we raise money for HIV/AIDS and other social issues, if we stay active, change can happen. You only have one life. If there’s an opportunity, take it,” he says.
This year will be Esther Kim’s fifth AIDS/Lifecycle ride. Kim doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone who is HIV positive.
Kim, 31, was diagnosed in 2001, just after graduating from her graduate program. She was a single mother, Korean American, whose father is a Christian pastor.
“I couldn’t tell anyone because I wasn’t in a community where it was talked about,” Kim says.
“The shame and fear of being rejected. For me it was so shameful. I felt like I failed my son. I allowed this to happen to me. On top of that, I was afraid I would jeopardize my dad’s position as a pastor. In the Korean community we never talked about this, and it’s not talked about in the Christian community either. It left me isolated. I chose to be isolated, suffering silently.
“My first ride was an eye opener for me. I met so many people who were HIV positive; people who were doing something for the cause. They were being proactive. They had a voice and they were sharing their stories. They looked happy,” she says.
Kim says she rides for several reasons. In part to give back.
“When I was first diagnosed I was so lost and scared, these organizations were there to help me. If they weren’t there, I don’t know where I’d be. Now I’m in a place where I’m more financial stable, I can train, and raise awareness, and ask friends and families for donations. I want to help overcome the stigma,” she says.
This year’s ride is especially momentous for Kim. It’s her first publically coming out HIV positive.
“If I can help just one person who looks like me and is HIV positive, I’m willing to speak up and share my story. Maybe, they won’t feel so alone and they will find the courage to get the help they need.”