Supporting Nonprofits Focused on the HIV Epidemic and LGBTQ+ Equality

David Piontkowsky - June 25, 2020

Earlier this month, I got up in the morning and set out on a 30-mile cycling ride around the community in Florida where my husband and I have been since March.

If not for COVID-19, on that morning, I would have been beginning a 545-mile ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the AIDS LifeCycle (ALC), an annual event that increases awareness about HIV and raises funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. It would have been my seventh consecutive year participating in the ride as part of Gilead’s team of about 30 cyclists.

The ALC is a truly inspiring event that takes place every June at the start of Pride Month. On the first day, thousands of riders, volunteers, friends and family members gather at the San Francisco Cow Palace for an opening ceremony. An aisle runs through the middle of the venue and people living with HIV carry a riderless bicycle to the stage to represent all those who have died because of the virus. It’s incredibly moving and reminds us why we’re there.

Over the next week we ride an average of nearly 80 miles a day and spend our nights at camps staffed by volunteers. I have always appreciated the juxtaposition of the ride in that, at one moment, I’m surrounded by a community of 3,000 riders and supporters and the next, I’m out on the road on my bike, alone with my thoughts for dozens of miles at a time.

While I ride, I often think about the people I have known who died of HIV/AIDS. I met many of these individuals in my first career as an attorney practicing employment and healthcare law. I spent a lot of time working on employment discrimination cases involving  LGBTQ+ individuals, as well as legal issues related to HIV.

Toward the end of my time working as a lawyer, it seemed like I was losing a client to HIV/AIDS nearly every week. I decided to go to medical school largely because I needed a break from the devastation I saw the virus cause. But then companies such as Gilead began introducing the first wave of therapies that have helped transform HIV into a manageable chronic condition for most people. This shift inspired me to become an infectious disease specialist and renew my focus on HIV.

In recent years, there has been encouraging progress in both areas where I have focused much of my career – LGBTQ+ equality and HIV/AIDS. I was particularly moved by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week that LGTBQ+ individuals are protected from discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In HIV, treatment and prevention knowledge have continued to improve, and a future functional cure seems more attainable than ever before.

Still, there is so much to be done. This is why the work of nonprofits such as the Los Angeles LGBT Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation is so critical. These groups are on the front lines of working to support the health, wellness and social justice of the communities they serve. Events such as the ALC are important opportunities for these organizations to raise awareness and collect funds that help enable the crucial services they provide.

At Gilead, we have furthered our support of both organizations by providing each with a $100,000 donation through our Gilead CARES initiative to provide funding to Gilead grantees to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately half of this $20 million fund has been committed to supporting organizations around the world working on HIV and LGBTQ+ issues.

Many individual bicyclists are still finding creative ways to continue fundraising even with the ALC canceled this year. A number of us are commemorating this event that has come to mean so much to us by riding the 545 miles over a longer period of time.

I’ll miss the irreplaceable feeling that comes with crossing the finish line in downtown Los Angeles, but when I finish the 545 miles I’ve committed to this year, I know I’ll still be reflecting on how far we have come and feeling optimistic about the progress we can continue making together.

David Piontkowsky is a Vice President at Gilead and leads the company’s Global Medical Affairs Therapeutic Area team.