Vaughn Frisby

“Those who make the worst of their time most complain about its shortness.”—La Bruyere

Sadly, this describes your Ruby to a “T.” I’m always spouting-off about how fast time flies. “But… it… does!”

Case in point, I met Vaughn Frisby over a year ago as he was prepping for his first AIDS/LifeCycle (ALC) Ride in 2018. I wanted to honor him with a story about his journey. Before I knew it, Vaughn’s second ride (this year) came and went. What happened, Ruby?!
Vaughn always says, “Every day of your life, you have the right to choose what you will accept and what you won’t accept. And that’s the craft and art of making your own life.” Thanks, Vaughn!

This cyclist was raised in Willingboro, New Jersey, and currently resides in San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park. He’s director of individual giving at SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association), a nonprofit regional urban policy think tank. Vaughn manages the fundraising events.

The epidemic made an early impact on Vaughn. While he was in elementary school, his aunt died of AIDS-related causes. He does the ALC in her memory. Vaughn also rides because he is living with HIV and a person of color. Last year his mother, Madlyn, volunteered as a Roadie.

One time I asked him what one word comes to mind when he thinks of the epidemic. He replied, “Resilience.” That word also applies to this man as well! In 2010, when his doctor diagnosed him with the disease, the doctor emphasized, “You have HIV…it does not have you.” That has been Vaughn’s mantra ever since.

Vaughn is an avid world-class traveler, though he started off scooping ice cream at Friendly’s (an East Coast restaurant chain). He claims Istanbul as his favorite city, with Copenhagen coming in a close second.

After I attend a seminar at San Francisco AIDS Foundation, I meet Vaughn at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. We sit under a flowing Monterey Pine and briefly discuss his favorite film from last year, Black Panther.

Ruby Comer: What a joyful fun-filled film! I saw it twice. [I pause looking around this

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

magnificent piece of land.] I just learned that this park is even larger than New York City’s Central Park! I did not know that. [I tilt my head in a witty way and pop my eyes. Vaughn chuckles.] Tell me, what is the origin of “Frisby”?! If I’m not mistaken, that was a Twilight Zone episode with Andy Devine playing Mr. Frisby!

Vaughn Frisby: It’s a British surname. It was given to my family when we were slaves in the nineteenth century in Maryland.

Oh my gosh. Beguiling. So what motivated you to do the AIDS/LifeCycle?
As a person of color living with HIV, I wanted to show the world that there is nothing wrong with being gay, black, and HIV-positive. Further, I have the unique opportunity to buy a bike and the other relevant gear, train, and take a week off of work. I also wanted to do it for all those who cannot.

Dazzling. I applaud you my friend. And your mother came along as a Roadie….!
She had a fantastic time, Ruby, and still keeps in touch with her tent mate and her fellow medical team roadies. [Vaughn glances at the windmill just beyond us in a patch of red tulips.] It was really special to have her on the ride for my first AIDS/LifeCycle, as she’s been there for me every step of the way—from testing positive to now.

What a powerful relationship you two have. Lovely. Why do the ride again?
For me, it’s the overwhelming sense of community. There was never a moment where I felt alone, or wanted to be alone. The latter is unique because I do enjoy alone time.

Before the ride this year you did a half-marathon?! Are you crazy?! [We both laugh.]
Yes! I ran the Vancouver half-marathon the first weekend in May. My legs really hate me. [He tosses a wink with his velvet brown eyes.]

Initially, what were your fears about the Ride?
Well, I learned how to ride a bike only a few months before the ride, so my initial fear was—I hope that I can actually do this. [I shake my head in awe.] I also have an insane fear of heights, so there were many moments where I was silently screaming pedaling downhill.

Many people I know have taken this challenge and they’ve reported that it changed their life. What’s so special about the ride?
It may sound cliché, but the candlelight vigil on Day Six really drives home why we do this. I mean, the mission of ALC is always front and center, but it can get a little lost in all the fun you are having each day, so the vigil for me was a moment of reflecting on why I chose to do this crazy adventure in the first place.

One of these years I’m going to do it, Mr. Frisby! [He nods powerfully.] What was the most difficult period?
I think the hardest part of my journey was letting go of some of my professional goals. When I tested positive, I was in the process of working on my Master’s degree in international development. I had goals of working overseas for an NGO or maybe working for a governmental organization doing aid work. [He lets out a long exhale.] That all had to be shelved when I tested positive because the idea of living overseas just seemed too far out of reach. So, yeah, closing that chapter, which had not yet even begun, was the hardest part. And I know that’s selfish and that a lot of people deal with much tougher issues, but that’s my honest answer.

Absolutely. Tell me about your aunt who died of AIDS.
It was a well-known secret. It was mid-nineties, and she was estranged for many years. My family was a deeply religious and no one would say those four letters. Of course, this had deep implications when I came out as gay at the age of fifteen. Testing positive was my family’s number one fear…and…well, here we are.

By the time you came of age, the cocktails had been established and HIV was no longer a death sentence. Even so, HIV was still a dangerous virus. Here you are a teen, with raging hormones, how did that play out for you?
Okay, fun story. I went to a very religious middle school and followed that up by attending a Catholic high school. So health class was a mix of misinformation and scare tactics. This was the early 2000s in suburban New Jersey. There were no apps. During that time, I approached sex with a healthy sense of fear, but hormones won out.

That’s cute, and a very familiar story to me. When you date, how do you broach the STI topic?
I bring it up if/when I think I like the person. I try to approach it as something that is just a …fact…of…my…life.

What motivates you to give?
While I am no longer religious, I was raised that way and a big part of my upbringing was giving back to others through our church. While we were not rich, by any means, it was instilled in us that there’s always someone you can help. You can impact someone’s life in the smallest of ways. So, thanks, Mom.

You are a fundraiser expert. What one thing makes a successful fundraiser?
Don’t take the “No” personally. This also helps in dating too!

[I ripple off a few chuckles.] Poo on rejection…which is a part of life. What’s the biggest blockade we have facing HIV today?
The cost of healthcare, and treatment to those who are on the frontlines.

Holy Mary Mother, indeed! [Shaking my head up and down furiously.] The black community…. [I purposely hesitate], any idea how we can better reach them? I know, I know, it’s a loaded question.
Not sure if I can address this, but I do know that there’s still a lot of stigma in the community. [He squints briefly and looks away]) I am happy to see more queer African-American stories being told in the media, but that does not always trickle down to the individual communities. If you are scared about being seen as gay, getting tested probably is not something you’re going to do regularly. I sometimes feel that by focusing on the high infection rates among young African-American men only enforces that stigma. [I shoot him a burst of recognition.] We should normalize testing and find ways to play safer as a means of treating everyone holistically—not just because you are at risk.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].