In 1995, I was a junior in high school and my life was dramatically changed by the fact that one of my older brothers was in a fight for his life against AIDS. I grew up in Wyoming, where most people at the time would have told you, “AIDS doesn’t happen here.” But my family knew that wasn’t the case at all.
My brother Michael was in his early 30s, and instead of feeling sorry for himself, he used the time he had left to share everything he had learned about life with the next generation.
I spent a great deal of time learning from Michael, and during that time he encouraged me to join my high school’s speech team. I never really saw myself as a public speaker, but he would often remind me of the power of our voices and how they can be a tool to create change in the world.
As I sat down to write my first speech, it was clear to me that there was only one topic I wanted to speak about, only one thing I wanted to help change. I wrote about how AIDS had impacted my life and my family, and how I wanted to educate others about how HIV existed everywhere, even in Wyoming.
That year I went on to win every speech competition that I entered. But winning competitions wasn’t the end of the road for me. While attending a meet, I was approached by a local community leader and asked if I would consider traveling to several high schools in the state to share my speech with my peers. During this tour, I met Ryan White’s mother, who like me, was moved to use her voice as a means of educating others about HIV/AIDS. I volunteered when the Names Project brought the AIDS Memorial quilt to my hometown. I continued to speak to anyone who would listen, and my brother Michael could not have been prouder. Sadly, in March of 1997, my brother Michael lost his fight against AIDS and my family would go on to add his panel to the AIDS quilt.
My activism has taken on several forms since that time of my life. Many people remember me as the friend of Matthew Shepard who led the angel protest against Fred Phelps. I have worked at national LGBT organizations, campaigned with some of the best activists in the country and was again using my voice to create change in the world. In 2003, I found myself in a Sirius Satellite radio studio in NYC and I have been there ever since. You may have heard of my silly little radio show, called Derek and Romaine. If you know the show, you know it is the furthest thing from serious, but we still understand and value the need for taking time out from our antics and our busy lives and work schedules to give back to the community that has given us so much love and support for the past nine years.
Back in the early days, Derek and I used to participate in a small AIDS walk in New Hampshire. We found that with encouragement, our listeners would donate to the causes we cared about. So last year, when my former GLAAD co-worker and now executive director of the NYC LGBT center, Glennda Testone, found her way onto my show to talk about their annual AIDS ride, I knew that I needed to help.
Now, I am a self-proclaimed fat ass with a desire to spend most of my time sitting on said body part, so riding a bike was notan option. However, our very fit show producer Amber Hall was more than ready to cycle for the cause, and Derek and I put our full support behind her. With the help of our listeners, we quickly reached our goal of $30,000.
I knew we could do better. So I volunteered to turn my words into action and support the riders by working as a crew member on the ride. The end result was an uplifting $50,000 in donations by our listening audience.
During the course of the ride, I found myself reflecting on my brother Michael. I couldn’t help but be moved by the riders at the tail end of the group struggling to keep riding against all odds. They were the ones who received my loudest cheers, because I knew they were digging deep as each hill approached. By the end of the ride, I was a changed person and I knew that I would be riding the next year, even if my ass was against it.
So here I am. I will not be the most athletic rider in Cycle for the Cause this year. In fact, I may be that rider who is the last to arrive at the end of each day. But in the end, I know that my brother Michael will be right there beside me, encouraging me to keep pushing and keep riding.
I know this, just as I know the “Derek and Romaine” listeners will help us reach our fundraising goal of $100,000. With their support I know that I can bike from Boston to NYC.
I know all too well the impact a small number of people can have on the world when they work together to create change. This year I will be riding for the one issue that has driven me for so many years. This year I will Cycle for the Cause so that one day we will see the end of AIDS.
ROMAINE PATTERSON is the co-host of the nationally syndicated SiriusXM OutQ radio program, The Derek and Romaine Show, and a member of Team OUTSPOKEN. Support this rider and the Center’s HIV/AIDS-related services by visiting CycleForTheCause.org