PWA’s Friends For Life Bike Rally, celebrating its 21st anniversary this summer, is an annual one, three or six-day, 600-km cycling adventure from Toronto to Montreal to raise funds and spread awareness about people living with HIV and AIDS.
In 2007, John Sauriol participated in his first rally at the age of 61. Eleven years later, he hasn’t skipped a ride. Paramedic Dustin Seidler is embarking on his third rally this year. Now a team leader, he says he’s eager to become even more involved in the community.
Xtra spoke with Sauriol and Seidler about why the annual ride is so important to them.
Xtra: What inspired you to join the bike rally?
Sauriol: I tested positive for HIV in 1998. I was on disability and went on a medical retirement a year later. You normally only get that when they think death is imminent.
It took a while to recuperate, but shortly after I began volunteering with the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT). I heard about the bike rally when I was asked to join the crew, and I was like, “No, no, no, I want to ride.”
I was afraid I couldn’t do the fundraising. I got an email saying, “the race is afoot, you must raise $50.” My first thought was, “I will withdraw.” The second was, “I’ll get them the 50 bucks myself.” The third was something that someone at the rally said: “Just spam everyone in your email.” So I did that and I got $250. I could fundraise.”
Seidler: I was born and raised in Saskatchewan and moved to Toronto four and a half years ago. I knew I needed to be in a bigger city. Being in a small city without [LGBTQ2] communities was kind of challenging.
I was introduced to the rally through a few friends. I didn’t know anything about it and my education on HIV and AIDS prior to moving to Toronto was minimal.
But I was really looking forward to opportunities within LGBTQ2 communities and the rally was definitely something that I was looking for back home — to give back to my own community and to be part of something for so many people.
Xtra: How have your perspectives changed since your first rally?
Sauriol: Some years I ride for myself. Some years I ride for absent friends. The flavour is a little bit different every year. But it’s a community that brings me back year, after year, after year.
Seidler: It’s been really eye-opening to hear people’s stories, to be able to see so many people gather together in a fight to end the stigma against HIV and AIDS. I didn’t realize what type of community I was walking into. And John, you know firsthand, it’s so encouraging. Along the way there are all of these people cheering you on, and at every kind of fork in the road, you know there’s somebody there.
The community that I’ve walked into is a friends for life community.
Xtra: Did you have any connections to other generations of LGBTQ2 individuals before the bike rally?
Seidler: I’ve never had any intergenerational barriers in my life: my best friend growing up was my grandpa.
But last year, one of the riders came up to me and was like, “I’m so glad for all of the young riders, for being so inclusive of absolutely everybody on the ride, not just sticking to yourselves and to opening up and to talking to us old guys.”
It was such a nice barrier to have broken down. It doesn’t matter who you are, everybody’s family.
Sauriol: Someone on my team last year ended up on that team kind of by mistake. He was kind of worried because everyone on it was so much younger than him. And he found everyone so accepting, and he had so much fun that he wanted to come back.
Everyone’s experience is different, but that team is obviously very accepting of us older people.
I think it was last year they did a picture of people over 70. And I think there were seven of us, and all but two were riders. It’s amazing.
Xtra: What motivates you to continue year after year?
Seidler: After my first bike rally, someone I’m connected with ended up coming out to me with his HIV-positive status. It was the very first time that I had ever experienced that. It just opened my eyes to a whole world of what people could be living with.
I have been given the tools by doing a 600-km bike ride to be able to react in a positive, healthy manner that makes this person feel included and it doesn’t make this person feel any different, because they’re not.
Knowing that is the reason I come back every year — breaking the stigma and being a strong support for people who need it.
Sauriol: The whole issue of stigma is a biggie. A lot of it, I think, is self-imposed. I’ve always been very open about my status — I figure if I treat it as something shameful, I’m telling the world it’s shameful.
I’ve always treated it as something normal and been open about it. I love that we get a day to wear the “positive jerseys” [during the rally]. I always wear one.
Xtra: Why are these intergenerational conversations so important?
Seidler: Hearing stories like that and getting those types of stories out, John, is the exact reason I want to be part of this bike rally: to be able to bring that knowledge and put it into somebody else’s ear and change the way they look at the stigma themselves, or the way that people look at them with stigma.