Olympic freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy considers himself fortunate to be a gay man in 2019, given the era where he came of age.
“I can’t help but feel lucky and privileged basically because of my age that I am at a point in history where I’m able to be out in sports and have a career and live my life as a gay man and not really have any of the repercussions the previous generations had,” Kenworthy, 27, told Outsports.
“Had I been born 50 years earlier, there’s a very high likelihood that I would have died of AIDS like so many incredible gay men did.”
With a keen sense of history and a desire to give back, Kenworthy is embarking June 2-8 on the annual AIDS/LifeCycle, a six-day, 545-mile fund-raising bike trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The event is co-produced by the Los Angeles LGBT Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation and raises money and awareness for people living with AIDS and HIV.
“I just feel like I owe it to the community to … honor all those that we lost and fight for future generations and hope to find a cure for AIDS and just to raise awareness and destigmatize it and raise money for people who are HIV-positive,” said Kenworthy, a 2014 Olympic silver medalist who came out in 2015 and competed at the 2018 Games as an openly gay athlete.
Kenworthy notes that “75% of the people who are HIV-positive are at or below the poverty line in the U.S. and the medications are very expensive and a lot of insurance companies for people who already have it won’t insure you because it’s a preexisting condition.
“It’s kind of a vicious cycle, so I want to do everything I can and raise as much money as I can and as much awareness as I can.”
While great medical strides have been made against HIV and AIDS, there are still an estimated 1.1. million Americans living with HIV and about 15% of those don’t know they are infected.
“In 2016, gay and bisexual men accounted for 83% of HIV diagnoses among males, although they comprise only 4% of the U.S. male population,” reports amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. “At the end of 2014, an estimated 615,400 gay and bisexual men were living with HIV. One in 6 were unaware of their infection.”
Scariest of all, “gay and bisexual men aged 13 to 24 accounted for 92% of new HIV diagnoses among all men in their age group and 27% of new diagnoses among all gay and bisexual men in 2015.”
It’s younger people and their ignorance about HIV that is motivating Kenworthy to ride and raise awareness with his 1.6 million followers on social media.
“I think it’s such an important issue,” Kenworthy said, “and I feel that so many people think that HIV and AIDS are something of the past that they don’t put a lot of emphasis on it or think that it’s something that we have completely under control with [drugs] Truvada or PrEP. It’s just not the case
“There has been a spike in new infection rates among young people because people aren’t educated on the topic or getting the proper education at school, and I feel that because we don’t talk a lot about HIV a lot there’s a huge stigma around it. The lack of kids being uninformed is the reason more people are becoming infected. People are naive to it. I feel that it’s an important problem, especially in the gay community.
“I think that people assume that PrEP is the answer and also feel like people assume that everyone is on PrEP and don’t ask anybody’s status ... It isn’t something that should be taken lightly and it’s something that people should be educated about and practice safe sex and that doesn’t just mean taking PrEP. There’s no cure yet. But we have to keep talking about it. When I was a kid, I just didn’t know much about it. I wasn’t taught in high school. I was in the closet and I was just so naive.”
Kenworthy is embarking on the trek despite never having ridden a touring bike before. Along with boyfriend Matt Wilkas and other friends, Kenworthy will ride in a group as Team Worthy and they have been taking practice rides to build up their endurance.
Riders must raise at least $3,000 to participate, but Kenworthy has set a much higher bar — $1 million. He has set up a fund-raising page and to date has raised $104,000, an impressive number by itself, though Kenworthy said that with the $1 million pledge, “I might have bitten off more than I can chew.”
“I’m hopeful we’ll come up with a decent amount more, but I’m not sure if I’ll actually hit the million,” Kenworthy said. “But I’m pretty proud of whatever we’ve raised.”
Kenworthy will be riding a custom-painted Cannondale bike, decked out appropriately in rainbow colors. A second identical bike is being auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the AIDS ride.
Kenworthy is still skiing competitively and hopes to make the 2022 Olympic team. He also has a budding acting career and is a sought-after speaker. But the AIDS ride might be the most rewarding thing he does this year.
“This ride is so special because so many people have fought so hard to raise the money they’ve raised and on top of that they have this massive physical challenge of the six-day ride,” he said. “I know that’ll be physically demanding, but I kind of already expected that.”