When I was asked to write this post, I had about ten thousand things to say about women and trans folk at the Friends for Life Bike Rally in support of PWA Toronto. So many of them are positive, glowing even. It’s an extraordinary experience for everyone who touches it. But there were also things I wished were different, or if not different, then more expansive. I want to write something here to convince you that YOU, the people who are underrepresented in this beautiful collective, women and transfolk especially, have a place there. I want to write it in a way that does not diminish, or critique or get all up in its face about what it is. I want to write something that will bring more, so it can be more. It is already so much.
While many readers that follow the blog know this already, for those who don’t, the Rally is the biggest yearly fundraising mechanism for PWA (People With AIDS) Foundation, Toronto. The origins of the organization are best summed up with this entry on their web site:
Since 1987, the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation has been helping men, women and children live with HIV/AIDS. We are a community-based non-profit registered charitable organization. After the discovery of the HIV virus in 1983, AIDS Service Organizations formed to address the major trends of the disease: to help prevent the spread of HIV and to care for those dying from AIDS-related illnesses. In 1986, in response to this emerging trend and frustrated by the public’s focus on AIDS prevention and lack of services for people already infected, four gay men living with HIV/AIDS began meeting to discuss ways for people living with HIV to stay healthy and live with dignity. They formed a coalition with a mandate to provide practical, direct-support services to people living with HIV/AIDS using a peer-to-peer model. This coalition organized the structure of the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation and, on May 11, 1987, the Ontario Charitable Letters of Patent were granted. At the first Annual General Meeting in 1988, membership elected a nine member Board. With the ongoing improvements in treatment options since the mid-1990s , the number of AIDS related deaths have drastically decreased and the needs of people living with HIV became increasingly complex, necessitating expansion of services to our clients across Toronto and the GTA.
Having spent the week with these folks, I can attest that they practice what they preach. It is a hands on organization with a huge number of devoted staff and volunteers. 8 of the 9 board members rode this year. I think that speaks to the ethos more than anything else.
Why I Did It
I was intrigued, as many of you might be, by the tremendous amount of fun that I saw Sam having through my Facebook page. It was a strange juxtaposition of tremendous adversity (there were really bad storms and rain that year in addition to 100 km per day) along with the formation of a collective that not only had a purpose but had this magic thing. I wanted to be a part of that thing even though I had never been on a road bike in my life. Now, I was predisposed to be outdoorsy. I love canoe camping and I saw this as similar. Instead of carrying a canoe over portages, I would have to ride a bike long distances. Both those things suck while you are doing it and feel great after. So how bad could it be?
I was also inclined to the cause. As a Queer identified woman, I am connected enough with gay male community to know the toll the disease took in the 80’s. I am also aware of the many members of that community who are currently living with HIV and living well. This is only possible with good treatment and supports. PWA is dedicated to making sure that happens for as many people living with HIV as possible.
As more than Queer, as feminist, as politically aware, I know that HIV affects more than the gay male community. The Public Health Agency of Canada’s website says this:
Gay men and other men who have sex with men is the group most affected by the epidemic, accounting for 48 per cent of the estimated 65,000 individuals living with HIV infection in Canada at the end of 2008Footnote2. People who use injection drugs comprised a further 17 per cent of the estimated total, and women represented an estimated 22 per cent of individuals living with HIV in CanadaFootnote2. Aboriginal persons account for a disproportionately high percentage of individuals living with HIV infection in Canada, as do people from countries where HIV is endemic.
HIV thrives where there is powerlessness, poverty and discrimination. The organization is tasked to reach into all these communities and it needs resources to do that. So as a person with access to resources, if I have to do something as nuts as riding 660 km in a week to get $2800 for them, I’ll do it. My goal next year, by the way, is $4000. The group of just over 300 riders and crew raised just over One Million. So I was below the average. . .and I’m competitive. . .enough said.
Why I LOVED It
I did it because I wanted the physical challenge and was inclined to the cause. I LOVED it because extraordinary people sucked me in to a week long intentional community that was irresistible. At first, the overwhelming number of people-mostly-not-like-me was a bit daunting. Don’t ask me how I forgot that this was going to be 80% gay men who’ve known each other for years (and look outstanding in spandex). But I’m a big girl now so I hung on, hung out and was myself, watching for opportunities to connect. They happened pretty fast. It helped that I had a few friends, and one in particular who let me stick like glue. But even if I hadn’t had that, the overall group ethos of support and inclusion is pretty intense. I’m certain it’s the kind of place I could have gone to my team lead, or any team lead and said, “Hey, I’m freaking out because I don’t know many people” and they would grab my hand and say, “Come meet my friends!” That totally did not happen at my summer camp when I was 13 years old.
The environment is cultivated to be so safe that on Thursday, we had “Pos Day”, where riders and crew who were HIV positive were invited to get a Pos jersey and be out about their status all day to everyone. The idea was to encourage love and support instead of common fears of rejection and exclusion. It also breaks down ideas of “who is Pos and who is not”. It was a beautiful day. I mean, who does that? The Bike Rally does.
But Can You Do It?
Short answer for all of you. . .yes. There are some basic things you need. The biggest one is time. If you are thinking of doing it, sign up and start riding now. There is nothing like time in the saddle to make you faster and stronger. Official training rides start in the spring and many people only did those. I’d recommend doing more but you can do it with that basic commitment. People do this on high end triathlon bikes, racing bikes, mid range road bikes (me), basic road bikes, hybrids and steel clunkers. Your choice of bike is based on your circumstances and what you want to achieve. I personally couldn’t fathom being on the road for more than 5 hours a day so I had speed requirements. However, the folks who did it on hybrid bikes and came in later seemed to be having just as good a time as me. It’s all what you are used to and the ride accommodates everyone, The oldest rider was 76. Every body, every body composition did that ride. There were injured riders who wanted to complete so they took it easy. No one gets left behind. This is the ultimate “no drop” ride.
If you are concerned about “gear”, ask around and see what you can rustle up that is used or loaned. Cyclists seem to like nothing more than to addict one more person to the sport and if they can rope them into the Rally, it’s mega extra points.
I said all of you didn’t I? Don’t want to bike? Crew! There were 100 crew supporting 200 cyclists. There is a job for everyone. . .road support, wellness, equipment handling (known as rubbermaid rustling), food. The operation is huge. You can find a place.
Why Should You Do It?
This is the Three Thousand Three Hundred and Thirty Three Dollar Question isn’t it? Why am I jumping up and down saying, “Do the Rally! Do the Rally”!?
Aside from my inner teen who wants all my friends and the cool people to come with me and have fun, I do have a further agenda. My best guestimate is there are about 20% non cis-male identified folks on this ride. That makes sense, given the demographic of the reach of the disease and the community out of which PWA was founded. This ride has been and continues to be about gay men and their allies standing up for each other, making some noise and raising a lot of money. It should continue to be about that. . .and more. There are a few nights for the stories to be told. There were stories of devastation and loss. There were stories of hope. I think all the stories were from and about MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) folks. I really wanted to hear stories of others, even if they weren’t personal stories. I wanted it to be more because the disease endangers more than who is primarily represented in the ride. But, I don’t want that to happen because I complain about it. I want that to happen because, over time, the people who participate in the ride become themselves, more diverse and bring those stories with.
If it’s just a dream right now for the HIV positive immigrant woman to ride with us, I still want to carry her in my heart and maybe tell her story, or rope one of you in to tell her story. If the IV drug user can’t ride, which one of you can carry his picture in your pocket, knowing what you are doing will help collect the resources to keep him healthy? If so many of this land’s First Nations are suffering from this disease among all the other indignities, can any of you stand for them, if only for this? I just have this feeling you could, or could start.
So that’s my pitch. Come ride with us. Come participate in a week of magic and love and bicycling. Promise to do something so crazy, people will toss you $25 just to see if you can. As Sam said to me so many times. . .”Of course you can.” The power of that simple statement is extraordinary, because I did, and you can too.
PS-I registered again so sponsor me here if you want to.