June 6, 2014
Robert Gamboa, 37, was one of five brothers -- three were older, and the fourth was his twin. Born in Lubbock, Texas, to a conservative Catholic family, he didn't grow up wealthy, but always had what he needed. "I remember at one point, my twin Albert and I were about 12 when my mom sat us down and told us that if someone is gay, they are going to hell," said Robert. "We didn't know what that meant but we knew that we had to be fearful of something."
Although Robert says he and his brother were both straight A students, he called Albert the "good twin," and described himself as more of a troublemaker. Both attended the University of Texas in Austin. "When I went there, it was a chance for me to open up about my sexuality and be who I was," he said. Albert had essentially come out earlier in life when he was "caught in a homosexual act," but his parents never discussed it. During his time at university, Robert received a DWI (driving under the influence), which was the start of a dangerous progression to addiction.
After graduating and eventually losing his high-paying job due to the collapse of the tech industry in 2001, Robert decided to leave Texas and move to Northern California. "I felt more accepted being a minority and being gay," he said. "I felt happier in California and quickly found my first boyfriend." His twin remained in Texas. While celebrating Thanksgiving with some of his family who had also moved to California that next year, Robert's niece walked in on him and his boyfriend having sex. This was a pivotal moment in his life as the event that led to a deep depression. "I remember getting a call from my brother, who was so upset about what happened," he recalled. "It was a negative, typical Latino machismo conversation. I was asked to stay away from my nephews and interrogated on whether I had ever molested them. It was one of the most devastating conversations I had ever had."
With Christmas approaching, Robert was at a standstill. He needed to talk to his mother about the current situation with his family. "The conversation started off happy, as it always did when I called her," he said. "After telling her, she broke down, questioned her role as a parent and requested I didn't come home for the holidays." This was the last straw for Robert. "I felt abandoned and betrayed by the people I loved the most," said Robert. At that time in his life, the only person he could turn to besides his twin was his boyfriend. Unfortunately for Robert, this only created an even darker path. A few days later, the two celebrated New Year's Eve by experimenting with crystal meth. "I did it and it took me away from the misery I was feeling," he confessed.
The relationship eventually ended, but the addiction had truly just begun. Robert went through phases of heavy drinking and drug use while still holding his job -- until 2006, when he was fired due to his drug abuse. "I remember my boss at the time gave me $10,000 to get help and sober up." Robert spent the money on his addiction, leading him to more arrests, being raped and becoming HIV positive. He can't recall exactly how he became positive, but admits to eventually not caring about protecting himself while engaging in sex.
"I was very ambitious and motivated before my downfall," he said. By not taking care of himself, Robert was in and out of the hospital. In 2009, a judge ordered him to not leave the state and threatened prison if he was to commit another infraction. At the same time, his doctor gave him a timeline of six months or less to live if he continued on his path of destruction. "I felt like dying was my way out, it was perfect," he said. "My brother and my parents came to California to see me, and see what I had done to myself."
His brother Albert told him, "No twin of mine is going to give up." Robert admits to using one more time after his twin struck a nerve, but on Nov. 28, 2009, Robert stopped his drug and alcohol use and began to change his life. Soon after, he recovered his health, corrected his legal troubles and learned to have faith, gratitude and humility.
"For me, being sober one more day is a blessing, and a blessing is not a blessing unless it's shared," he said. Today, Robert is a prevention coordinator at a nonprofit in Los Angeles, as well as an appointed West Hollywood city official. He is giving back to his community and helping others, doing what he can do to save their lives, like his life was saved. "I was that person, I understand them, and I know how they feel," he said. "I can speak to the minority, the HIV positive, the addict, the jailed, and the lost."
Robert's life was back on track, but a sad secret was soon to be revealed about his twin brother. "He saw my life change. I did it because of him, but he didn't help himself," he said. Albert had given up on life and was chronically ill. During a hospital stay, his parents were informed just four weeks before his passing that Albert was also HIV positive. "I didn't understand why he didn't say anything," says Robert. "He was so ashamed of his status, and was broken hearted from contracting the virus from his then thought-to-be monogamous, long-term partner."
Robert rides AIDS/LifeCycle in memory of his twin brother who inspired him to live, but who lived in shame because of his own HIV status. "I ride for him and for anyone who has any shame about any disease, and especially for people who need hope." As a prevention coordinator, Robert is faced with similar situations involving guilt and shame on a daily basis, especially within minority communities. "They are so quiet about it and don't deal with it," he said. "Part of me [is] giving back [by] being confident and open about who I am and who I was. We all have obstacles in life, and we can all overcome them."
AIDS/LifeCycle is a fully supported, seven-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It's a life-changing ride -- not a race -- through some of California's most beautiful countryside. AIDS/LifeCycle is coproduced by the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and is designed to advance their shared mission to reduce new HIV infections and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS. This year, over 3,000 cyclists and volunteer roadies raised just over $15 million.
David Duran is a freelance journalist and writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at @theemuki.