Ride With Me!
Activist Jason Bennett Charts a New Route to Raise Awareness About HIV/AIDS
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alex Ray
The first thing you notice about Jason Bennett is that luminous 500-watt smile that instantly lights up his face every time you greet him. Jason is one of those men who smile with their entire faces—his mouth widens to its full side-to-side stretch in a gap-toothed grin, his cheeks scrunch up, and his eyes shine out at you from across the room as he enthusiastically waves. He greets everyone with a childlike exuberance and openness that immediately endears him to people. It’s a natural skill that he has honed through thousands of hours of volunteering in our community. It’s one of many skills he has needed to develop and perfect over the years.
On February 1, 1970, Jason was born in a very small town in Georgia—Pine Log (population less than 12,000), a town so small, Jason told me, that “there’s no stoplight or even a post office”—and he lived there for another thirty years. His father, a twenty-five-year Air Force veteran, and his mother, a homemaker, separated when Jason was three years old. “Neither one of them remarried,” Jason told me. “My mom and grandma raised me. I finally located my dad in the mid-1980s in Fresno, California.” His father died in September 2003 from complications after a bronchostomy; his mother died less than a year later in October 2004, of kidney failure, having survived cancer of the uterus for more than a decade. Jason remained with his grandmother in Georgia for another six years.
Born with cerebral palsy, Jason’s halting speech and physical movements made him the target of other kids’ meanness from an early age. “Other children judged me for my stuttering problem and for the way that I walked compared to them. I was bullied and called ‘retarded’ throughout my childhood years. But despite that, I graduated third in my class of ninety-six students at Adairsville High in 1988!” It was not the last time that Jason would defy people’s expectations.
In September 2010, Jason decided to put Georgia behind him—well, not entirely; he is still a die-hard Bulldogs fan. But he decided to leave rural America for planet San Francisco. “I first visited San Francisco in the late 1980s as part of a Greyhound trip to Fresno with my Mom. I knew I wanted to come back.”
Unfortunately, “ten days after I arrived in San Francisco, on October 3, 2010, I received my HIV diagnosis at the Castro Street Fair. My initial treatment was at Tom Waddell Health Clinic. Positive Resource Center helped me connect with HIV services in San Francisco. PRC helped me with filing for SSDI. PRC also referred me to SFAF, Shanti, and Healing Waters.”
That’s a lot of information to digest—and it’s an example of how quickly Jason can get ahead of you and challenge you to keep up. Let me help: The Castro Street Fair is an annual celebration, on the first Sunday in October, birthed decades ago by Harvey Milk, a legendary street fair that raises money for various LGBTQ charities. Often, groups like Alliance Health Project at UCSF or others set up free HIV testing booths at fairs like this one. Jason took advantage of that free testing. After his positive test, he received his first treatment at the Tom Waddell Health Clinic, part of the San Francisco Public Health Department, named for Dr. Waddell, an Olympian who was instrumental in creating the Gay Games. Positive Resource Center is a local ASO that provides incredibly useful information about services available here, employment opportunities and training, and other hands-on services, including, for instance, their referral of Jason to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) and the Shanti Project.
And he immediately began repaying those groups for their generosity.
He continues to repay it, and to do way, way more, today.
When I ask Jason to estimate how much time he spends volunteering every week, he says, “Approximately ten hours a week.”
I know that to be an extremely conservative estimate. It seems that every time I go to an HIV-related LGBTQ event here in San Francisco, there’s Jason—working it! If someone is raising money for one AIDS-related charity or another, Jason is there, pitching in.
“I first began volunteering with Shanti,” he tells me.
Gregg Cassin, Director, Honoring Our Experience, Shanti, shares about the activist: “Jason is one of our most beloved community members and a shining example of the power of love and altruism. On a regular basis Jason inspires each of us to go beyond any of our limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, and make the contribution only we can make. I am grateful to Jason for the countless hours that he’s volunteered but also for generous support and counsel he’s given me personally.”
“Shortly after, I became involved with organizing, planning, and creating the Bridgemen,” Jason shyly added.
Shares Alex Ray, “I’m the Program Coordinator for Bridgemen, a community engagement program of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation that provides gay, bi and trans men opportunities to [engage in] community service projects together. I first met Jason at a Bridgemen volunteer event. I saw him again very soon thereafter at another volunteer event. And then at another and another. I quickly realized how deeply committed he is to serving his community. Whether he is washing dogs, feeding the homeless, gardening in a park or painting a hospice, you can always count on him to show up with a smile on his face, ready to work to help someone in need. His steadfast willingness to help and his dedication to the community are an inspiration to me and to the entire group. We are so fortunate to count him among our ranks!”
“I love meeting new people and helping others. Volunteering helps me to focus on others who need my help.”
Have I mentioned how humble Jason is? Or how strong and indefatigable? For five consecutive years, 2014 through 2018, Jason has ridden in the AIDS/LifeCycle SF-to-LA Ride—545 miles of pedaling through fifty-eight towns, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He has wonderful memories of those rides—”Opening Ceremonies at the Cow Palace! Red Dress Day on day 5! And the Candlelight Vigil on evening six on Ventura Beach!” were obvious favorites. And he’ll probably be riding again in 2019.
But come 2020, Jason has planned an even more ambitious cross-country bike ride. Jason’s “Disability AIDS Ride Home” will begin on Valentine’s Day 2020 and will take him (and other volunteers, he hopes) from San Francisco to Pine Log, Georgia, where Jason will host a two-day volunteer work event at the Pine Log United Methodist Cemetery, where his family are buried. Along the route, which will include a stop in Plains, Georgia, the home of President Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity, Jason hopes to raise funds for and meet with various charitable groups to help create long-term affordable housing solutions for people with HIV/AIDS, the permanently disabled, and the chronically homeless. Toward that end, he has created “J.A.S.O.N.”–Jason’s AIDS Survivors Outreach Network.
“I need help with route planning and places to stay. I will need corporate sponsors and volunteers for RVs, food, bike mechanics, medical and media people, etc. I need funding for my 1023 Application Fee and to purchase an electric bicycle. I also need grant writers. And I’m recruiting as many riders to join me as possible. Who wants to ride with me?”
In a preliminary bus trip to set up contacts and meet with potential beneficiary organizations for his 2020 trip, this spring Jason visited Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Washington, DC, Boston, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Austin, and Houston. In August he will return to Boston, New York and Washington, DC, for more preliminary groundwork, and later this fall, he will explore possibilities in Denver, Portland, Palm Springs, and Seattle.
Jason also told me, “I want to help as many nonprofits as possible in 2020 after I turn fifty on February 1. I plan to target specific nonprofits such as United Cerebral Palsy and Habitat for Humanity, other disability nonprofits, AIDS nonprofits, homeless nonprofits.”
Happily, Jason continues to thrive as a valued and deeply loved member of the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS communities here in San Francisco. He has recently moved into his first apartment, after years of living in one SRO or another. He has also recently had to exit a study at the UCSF Positive Health Program, after one year of replacing his usual ART regimen with monthly injections of cabotegravir and rilpivirine. Although his viral load has remained undetectable, his T cells have been trending downward and the medicines’ side effects have gotten to be too much, so he has left the study and is back on his previous regimen.
Always the altruist, Jason told me, “I have no regrets for participating in this study. I would encourage anyone who is eligible to enlist in studies to help find more treatment options for individuals like me with HIV and AIDS.”
Asked what he would say to someone newly diagnosed with HIV and to other long-term survivors like himself, he responded, “I want to encourage anyone newly diagnosed to seek support groups and ask questions when you find trusted support. Ask for help! And to other long-term survivors, let’s continue to tell our stories. And live life to the fullest every day!”
He said it, of course, with that wide open smile.
If you’d like to help Jason finance the Disability AIDS Ride Home, you can donate at his GoFundMe account at https://www.gofundme.com/1023-application-fee-and-electric-bicycle. You can also help by mailing donations to J.A.S.O.N, 508 Sutter Street, Suite 637, San Francisco CA 94102.
For more information about photographer Alex Ray, follow him on Instagram @alexray_eyes.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.