This article, written by Susan Freed, originally appeared on June 22, 2016 in The Advocate. Freed is a Los Angeles resident and senior vice president at Bank of America.
I just completed my third AIDS/LifeCycle, a 545-mile, seven-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Finishing this ride gave me an amazing sense of accomplishment. Every ride brings different experiences and emotions but each made me feel elated at the finish line. The AIDS/LifeCycle ride, the annual event to raise money and awareness in the fight against HIV and AIDS, is not an easy trek. During the journey, I was overwhelmed with feelings of comraderie and love from not only my colleagues, but also a group of more than 3,000 riders and roadies from nearly every state and 17 countries.
Unfortunately, that feeling was stifled momentarily the morning after the ride when I heard about the tragedy in Orlando. As an LGBT ally, I was saddened, upset, and stunned by the news. It felt especially personal to me after spending a week with an amazing group of people celebrating diversity and inclusion.
Then I read about the outpouring of support and solidarity from communities around the world in the aftermath of the event. It reminded me of the sense of community I felt during AIDS/LifeCycle. Within the AIDS/LifeCycle “love bubble,” it didn’t matter if you were gay, straight, white, black, rich or poor — we were all just people acknowledging each other as people. You felt nothing but positivity, support, and respect. I truly can’t decide whether I learned more about diversity or inclusion during this ride.
The support also reminded me about the people I met during prior AIDS/LifeCycle rides over the years and the impact they’ve had on me. One of my fondest memories took place during the event. AIDS/LifeCycle was the longest bike ride I have ever completed, and it includes steep descents; I’ve always struggled with descents. Upon reaching a steep hill along the ride, I was terrified. My heart was racing and I didn’t know if I could do it. Everything that could go wrong crossed my mind. What if I ride off the cliff on the side of the road? What if I can’t stop? What if I hit gravel and fall?
A rider nearby must have noticed my anxiety because he came up from behind to offer words of encouragement. Another rider joined him, and then two became five. They were strangers who slowed down just to help me get down safely, and I will never forget that moment. This is what community is all about — supporting one another through a tough journey, whatever the journey may be. We make each other stronger and help each other do our best.
I thought about the colleagues I rode with for the past two years, along with countless other colleagues at Bank of America, especially as a member of its LGBT Employee Network. But more than that, I thought about the importance of diversity and inclusion, having volunteered for last summer’s Special Olympics in Los Angeles as part of Bank of America’s partnership with the World Games.
However, to find out that the bank was encouraging people to take seven days off to participate in the ride and allowing eligible associates paid time off to volunteer with nonprofits and at nonprofit events such as AIDS/LifeCycle was astonishing to me. We had 49 riders on Team Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the largest AIDS/LifeCycle corporate team for three years in a row. It was great to meet other employees that I would not have been able to know, from Nevada to Miami.
I have given a lot of thought to the reason I participate in AIDS/LifeCycle. I do it mainly because it benefits the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. These agencies continue to provide critical services and education needed to meet the growing needs of our community. Since the AIDS epidemic began in 1981, 1.7 million Americans have been infected with HIV and more than 617,000 have died of AIDS-related causes. In California alone there are 151,000 people living with HIV. More than two-thirds of all Californians living with HIV reside in Los Angeles County or the San Francisco Bay Area.
The hard reality is that people have AIDS, and people are sick. Although at times it’s really tough, all I have to do is move this bike, I can do that. Don’t get me wrong — it hurts, it hurts a lot, but it’s the least I can do in the grand scheme of things to help raise funds and awareness for those affected by HIV and AIDS. Ultimately, this brings more awareness to the other important issues that the LGBT community continues to face.
During this reflection, I realized more than ever just how powerful a diverse and inclusive community can be. My hope is that I can impact others and can foster an environment where everyone feels included and safe to be their true and whole self. I believe we’re on the right path, and I continue to hope we will get there because in the end, love wins.