by Ruby Comer
Where did he get that winning smile?—I’m aghast.
Planted here at an AIDS Life/Cycle event that took place before the lockdown and the ride went virtual, I espy this chap surrounded by others, basking in his cascading infectious energy. For me, it’s like a bee to honey. I buzz over.
His name is Patrick Gunn, and I learn that he’s completed three rides! I can’t even hop on a bike, let alone an over-500 mile trek. OY! Bless these people who participate.
I also discover that Patrick has recently co-founded a new LGBTQ+ travel company, Vacaya. Through their ReachOUT program, the company lends support to LGBTQ+ organizations (including the HIV community) wherever they are docked. Vacaya’s byline is: “When you travel with Vacaya, you don’t take from the world, you give back to it.”
In a flash I learn that Mr. Gunn’s two major passions are traveling and philanthropy. Sounds well balanced to Ms. Ruby!
Patrick is also active with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Homeless Youth Center, which
provides many essentials, including an education program, addiction recovery services, counseling and support groups, and HIV testing and counseling.
Born in Lafayette, Indiana, to a military father and homemaker mom, Patrick Gunn and his sister moved around a lot growing up. His teen years were spent in a small Central California town of hard-working folks in the agriculture industry. Fearful to come out in a small town, he spent his teen years in the closet. Patrick studied business administration in San Diego and San Francisco, and his career has been in marketing leadership. On the domestic front, he’s married and has been with Michael for seventeen years. They live in Santa Monica with Luca and Bella, their Golden Retrievers.
As I ready to leave the affair, Mr. Gunn slips me a winner, “The epidemic impacted my development as a gay youth.” Okay bub. Follow me. I thrust open the huge heavy doors and we wander out onto the balcony of Greystone Mansion. It’s a Tudor revival mansion tucked in the slopes of Beverly Hills and is the former home of the Doheny family. It’s definitely worth a sightseeing trip! Teaser: there was a murder, and many films have been shot on the premises.
Ruby Comer: [Patrick and I settle on the balcony, leaning against the marble ledge that overlooks the stunning manicured lawns of the estate. I open my pink parasail to block the sun’s rays. Must protect this youthful skin.] Okay, Mister, please elaborate more on what you told me inside.
Patrick Gunn: Well, Ruby, I was born in 1968, and came out of the closet later than the youth today. I was twenty-nine years old. An uneducated fear of contracting HIV was one of several major factors that kept me in the closet for so long. This may not be as dramatic or uncommon a story….but for me, it had a big negative influence on my ability to claim my rightful place within the gay community and stand up for who I really was.
Wow, I can certainly understand. I’m sure many of my readers will be able to relate, Patrick.
In the eighties and nineties I was young and less knowledgeable on the subject, so those words conjured up fear and possibly a death sentence.
Yes, of course! Scary times. You recall how you heard about the epidemic?
It was likely in my early teen years. I recall a pit in my stomach whenever any gay-related topic would come up in conversation. As a closeted youth, I always worried that someone in the conversation would ask me a direct question that would somehow out me…my biggest fear. [He brushes some pine needles off ledge.]
Gee, how hideous to experience. Not living who you are is truly [I pause for effect]…the worst. What was your motivation to ride in AIDS/LifeCycle?
I’m a person who loves to give back to communities of which I am a member. As a youth, I was inspired to become a lifeguard. In my early twenties, I worked on a college study abroad program to encourage young people to learn from travel. And after I came out of the closet and moved to Los Angeles, I was inspired by all of the programs that the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center offered to the community. So I volunteered to mentor homeless youth. Since I was a cycling enthusiast, the AIDS/Lifecycle was a logical place where I could give back, by raising awareness, money, and be with my people.
Connection. I like your M.O. Looking back on your ride, is there one moment that stands out?
There could never be just one moment, Ruby. The ride is filled with inspiring stories from the people you meet along the way, both riders and supporters. It’s those small gestures of kindness that people—in the ‘love bubble’ as they call it—provide to one another to encourage and inspire each other to strive for their own personal best, as they go through their LifeCycle journey.
I wanna hear about the best lesson you learned while riding.
[He breaks a second] Stay to the right, pass on the left, always signal, obey traffic laws, and wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands!
[I chuckle, smiling] Very cute, Patrick, and very worthwhile. What motivates you… [He waves his hand, politely interrupting.]
Before we go on, I must tell you, I was also a press representative for the AIDS/LifeCycle. [I express surprise and motion for him to go on.] For a person who came out late in life due to fear of stigma, volunteering for an AIDS charity multiple times was the culmination of overcoming that fear. [He glances at the fountain in the English garden then quickly refocuses.]
The AIDS/LifeCycle organization likes to put a local face on press coverage from the towns we ride through. So since I lived in one of those towns up until graduating high school, I volunteered to speak to the local press. Up until this time, I had not come out to many of my high school classmates. Many of them had either never left the town or they returned to live there after college. The article that appeared in the local paper was sort of my coming out to them. [He brightly inhales.] The positive response I received by those that reached out to me via Facebook afterwards was very heartening.
What a wonderful story. I can’t wait to read it. [Look for the link at the end of the article.] What prompts you to be charitable?
To give back stems from my belief that those who have been given much, much is expected. I have been fortunate in my life to always have a roof over my head, supportive loving friends and family, and good health. Until everyone in our community can say the same, there is much work to be done. And if we all share in that effort, the world can be a better place.
Oh…my…dear, you’ve said a mouthful. Tell me more about Vacaya’s ReachOUT.
We are so passionate about ReachOUT, Ruby! It’s one of our key differentiators but more importantly, it’s the right thing to do. One of the things I love the most about the program is how it impacts the communities in which we visit.
How do you specifically do that?
We partner with local organizations, then offer our guests an opportunity during their vacation to give back to those communities we visit—either with a bit of toil, or financially. Through our “Voluntourism Shore Excursions” those relationships strengthen. Having social-impact as the goal, guests will engage in local communities such as provide backpacks to poverty-stricken children, donate cabins to worthy causes of the passengers’ choosing, or making inexpensive but effective water filters and delivering them to needy families. This all is spearheaded and in partnership with Vacaya’s cruise liner or resort hosts.
….Do you provide condoms as well?
Yes, on the ship and at the resort to our guests, indeed. To date, we’ve not done a community outreach event that included condom distribution, but we’re open to all ideas.
Nifty. Name some upcoming Vacaya trips.
We had planned the Lisbon Pride Cruise for June until we had to cancel it. But we still have Iceland in August, and a Mexico resort in October.
Adventurous journeys. I wanna come! Been dying to see Iceland. [He sweepingly opens his arms and motions for me to come. I grin then there’s a short silence.] Patrick…kudos to you for crafting two joys into one—exploring the world while helping others.
By sharing our stories with the communities we help, we change hearts and minds and make the world safer and more open-minded. Our tagline: Open sea. Open mind.
Pedal upfront with Patrick on AIDS/LifeCycle: https://www.thecalifornian.com/story/news/2016/06/08/riding-save-lives/85578184/.
Ride alongside Patrick supporting his causes:
Jump aboard a trip and trip the magic in someone else’s world as well at: MyVACAYA.com or Facebook or Instagram @myVACAYA.
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].