The handsome, fit man you see to the right (and in more photos below) is Jason Villalobos. Jason is gay and HIV-positive; when he was diagnosed he was also twenty pounds underweight, scared, and uninsured. Now, over five years later, he is feeling great and ready to go out on his third AIDS/LifeCycle (or, the Ride, as it is fondly known). That's a 545-mile bike ride each June from San Francisco to Los Angeles, organized by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. Jason credits the Ride with giving him a new relationship to AIDS, and himself. We think you'll be inspired by his story; and we hope you might consider becoming a part of this year's AIDS/LifeCycle, whether by riding or sponsoring a rider.
Jason comes from a Catholic family in Lompoc, Ca., a small town on the Central Coast in northern Santa Barbara County. His family had struggled to come to terms with his sexuality (Jason says, "My mom wondered things like, 'Will my son be allowed into Heaven?' and 'Will our family disown us?' You know, really heavy stuff like that."), but another blow landed when Jason learned he was HIV-positive after a routine visit to a health clinic. "I absolutely felt like my life was over when I learned that I was positive," he says. "A week later I was called in and told that I had full blown AIDS and that I was near the point of hospitalization.... I knew then that my life was over, and three months later I went home and told my brother how I wanted to be buried."
But Jason has amazing resilience. He was uninsured, but fortunately qualified for a program called ADAP, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which gave him medications and support. A lot of support. "I was under close watch after my initial diagnosis," he says. "I went in once a week, and I even got phone calls from my nurse practitioner asking if I had thought about hurting myself. I remember that first call and remember hearing the nurse gasp when I began to laugh. 'Why would I kill myself?' I asked, 'I am too curious to see what happens....'" Even so, Jason learned a terrible lesson from his diagnosis: "Because we now commonly view HIV as treatable, we don't think of it as the death sentence that it once was, and that's to our own detriment. Allow me to speak directly to your readers when I say—wear those condoms. Protect yourself, and don't think just because you may have slipped only once, that it means everything will turn out all right. You're worth too much to make the same mistakes I did."
With treatment, Jason returned to health and to himself. Before his diagnosis he had committed to doing the AIDS/LifeCycle; with his diagnosis, he had a new determination, one further fueled by the loss of a dear friend. "My friend Matthew died on the operating table in 2005, just before my birthday," Jason says, "after a 'routine surgery' went wrong. He was nearly 24 years old and he had allowed his AIDS diagnosis to go untreated. The following year, I dedicated my first ride and every one since to his memory. I wanted to do something for him, to take his memory and all of the hurt he went through and turn it into something good. And in so doing, I helped myself."
How much good he did himself can be seen in pictures of a fit, happy Jason, taken on the AIDS/LifeCycle:
In fact, Jason feels that that 545-mile ride from SF to LA has profoundly shaped his relationship both to AIDS and to his sense of himself as a whole—his identity. "When I was in high school, I used to get beat up and threatened for being gay, and that led to a low self-esteem. If you would have asked me then if I could ever do something like this now, I would have told you that I doubted that I'd live to even see this age," says Jason. "What changed? It was a very conscious decision that if I was indeed to live that I was going to do it my way. I opted for a life of joy, and though it wasn't necessarily the easiest road, I got there because I decided that I deserved it. I sought it out and I fought for it. I hate to sound like some terribly cliché after-school special, but I believe that we all have greatness within ourselves. Some people find it, but many others do not, but, c'mon, RealJock members know as well as I do that we're all capable of kicking some serious ass!" Oh, we know.
In the end, though, it all comes down to community—family, friendships, commitments. This is what the AIDS/LifeCycle is largely about: the idea that each of us becomes better individually by becoming stronger as a community. And community doesn't just mean "other gay men." As Jason says, "I'm no Lance Armstrong, I'm just a regular dude. I used to think, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm doing this,' but you know what? Heading out on my third Ride, I realize that this is something we're all capable of doing, and that's the confidence the AIDS/LifeCycle has given me. Because of my experience on the Ride and the support of the many friendships I have made that have lasted far after we bike into Los Angeles, I know that I can use my experience to inspire those around me, and that's an incredibly empowering feeling after so many years of self-doubt."
Here are Jason and friends on the Ride, giving a feel for the communal spirit that surrounds the event:
"I am proud of my family for supporting me even though we come from a town where it isn't always easy to say that you have a gay son," Jason concludes. "I am happy that my brother has an older sibling that he can look up to. And, okay, even though it may sound however it will sound, I'm proud of me, too." So are we. If you would like to learn more about the AIDS/LifeCycle, you can find info here. To visit the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and learn more about their many events beyond the Ride, check here. We look forward to checking in with Jason and other riders as the event gets under way.