One 21st birthday that’s not being celebrated in a bar will be Saturday, Oct. 6, as Whitman-Walker Clinic presents its annual AIDS Walk Washington. Instead, AIDS Walk is celebrating by adding a 5K run to the lineup.
”We were trying to broaden the appeal of the event, and people were running anyway,” Dave Mallory says with an ”if you can’t beat ‘em, recruit ‘em” laugh. Locals will recognize Mallory as both the director of AIDS Walk Washington and Capital Pride, also a clinic-sponsored event.
”Registration is going really well,” he adds, noting that by midweek about 4,500 people had registered to walk or run. ”We’ve passed the half-million dollar mark, which puts us ahead of this time last year.”
While AIDS Walk Washington may be celebrating its 21st birthday with a slew of $25 checks — or the $15 registration for students — this party also has a relatively well-known name on the guest list.
Chip Arndt, who garnered a measure of reality-TV fame when he and then-husband Reichen Lehmkuhl won CBS’ The Amazing Race 4 in 2003, is coming to D.C. to serve as grand marshal. It’s a party circuit he’s familiar with, having gotten involved with a number of AIDS Walks and AIDS Rides — among a slew of other philanthropic endeavors — even before winning the reality show’s $1 million jackpot and notoriety with Lehmkuhl.
”We have a choice,” Arndt says. ”You can either sit back and say, ‘I’m really lucky. I can be gay and it’s not a big issue,’ or you can look at the country you live in, look at the people around you. We all want to feather our own nests, make sure we’re safe and that we can pay our bills. But there’s a time in anybody’s life — when you’re 16 or when you’re 60 — when we all step back and say, ‘I want to help.”’
Whether it’s as a board member of the Gay American Heroes Foundation, heading the gay Freedom Democrats in Miami, advising the Matthew Shepard Foundation, or helping an array of other GLBT-related organizations, Arndt has made his choice. The philanthropy comes on top of his own business in e-commerce, borne out of his Harvard University MBA — Yale was just for undergrad.
Though obviously driven, Arndt managed to take a little time off on the eve of the Gettysburg-Manhattan ”Braking the Cycle” AIDS Ride last week to talk about where he’s been and where he’s going.
METRO WEEKLY: Where are you, exactly?
CHIP ARNDT: We’re in Gettysburg, Pa., where the Gettysburg Address was given.
MW: Like in a tent on a battlefield?
ARNDT: The old AIDS rides would do all the tent stuff. [Laughs.] Riding a hundred miles a day is enough on the body. So I’m in a Travelodge on the strip of what could be called ”Historic Gettysburg.”
MW: I’m looking at your donations page, a reference to you as ”The Chipster.” Is that what friends call you?
ARNDT: People can call me anything they want — just don’t call me ”Betsy.” [Laughs.] My real name is Willis. A lot of people call me ”Chip” or ”Chipster.” I’m a thoroughbred WASP from Lyme, Ct. I have the exact same name as my father. Literally I’m the ”Chip off the ol’ block.”
MW: Does this all go back to the Mayflower, perhaps?
ARNDT: My family came over here, I think, in 1750 — the German-Dutch migration.
MW: In the midst of this WASP family, you came out. How old were you?
ARNDT: There are two answers to that question — for most people, I think. One is coming out to yourself. Then there’s coming out to the next person, who could be your best friend or a parent — somebody who’s not gay. The first part is hard enough.
The epiphany for me was when I was 17. It was very, very clear when it happened. [A friend and I] went to Boston for the day. We were on the subway and I felt this energy behind me, this person staring. I turned around and this stunning guy was staring at me. We stopped the next stop and I said to my friend, ”Wait here. I’m a little lost.”
I looked over my shoulder and this guy was following me. I went down this stairwell and just pretended I was looking for directions. We got to the bottom of the stairwell and he grabbed me and put me up against the wall and kissed me. I was feeling all these emotions at the same time: excitement, shock and ”I’m going to get beaten and killed because I’m in a public spot.” The guy said, ”I have to see you again.” I said, ”Uh, I live with my parents, but here’s my number.”
It ended up he was a dancer for the Boston Ballet. He was 23. I came up to Boston two weeks later and we met. We kissed and all the rest of it. I was appalled and shocked at what I was doing and I ran out of the room, got back in my car and drove two hours home, all they way saying, ”I can’t believe what I’ve done! I’m a terrible, awful person!” And I went back into the closet for years.
Today, anybody under 35 will think, ”There’s the Internet. There’s information all over the place.” I’m 40. Back then, there was nobody. There was no Internet. It was hard trying to figure out what it all meant. You were on your own. And Lyme is not exactly a thriving metropolis.
MW: Coming from the privilege of your sort of ”country club” upbringing, being groomed for a certain future, what sort of wrench does being gay throw into the machinery?
ARNDT: I went to some good schools and I think there were expectations. I was the one who got into Yale. There were always expectations. I dated women a lot in my teens. I was almost engaged at Yale. But plenty more people have more traumatic stories about coming out. The only hard part for me was that I didn’t want to disappoint people.
I had some skills that were pretty good, lucky enough to have a good education, play golf and hit the ball 400 yards, so all these people kind of wanted to be around me. So when I said I was gay, it was kind of like, ”So what? We like you for all these other reasons.” It was easier for me to introduce that concept and then go from there. Once I had them as friends, they accepted me. Then it becomes a lot easier to stand up for others who are gay but are maybe not accepted as much.
MW: So is Lyme 2007 a progressive place? Are you ”hometown boy makes good”?
ARNDT: It’s the same as it was. It’s a quaint town of nice people, and I don’t think they think one way or another of it. As long as you’re responsible and take care or yourself and you’re smart, I don’t think they really care about anything else. It’s kind of the old style, stay out of my pocketbook, stay out of my bedroom, and just be a responsible citizen. Those are the values I grew up with.
MW: Does your gay identity make you more empathetic? Does it make you more of a philanthropist than you would have been if you were straight?
ARNDT: I credit Yale for that. When you go to an institution and you surround yourself with the people, the students there, your day-to-day interactions, it changes you.
When I graduated Yale, Marian Wright Edelman, the head of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, spoke to our ”class day.” The following day, at our graduation, sitting President George [H.W.] Bush spoke. They’re perceived to be radically different people. Bush comes from a preppy background, born in Connecticut, Kennebunkport, blah, blah, blah. Marian Wright Edelman is an activist, dresses in African-type clothing, and is battling for children every single day. They said the exact same message: ”You all sitting here, it’s not your right to go into the world and make a difference. It’s your obligation.” That’s a very powerful message to hear from two people who have been very successful and who come from radically different political philosophies. They are telling you the same thing: You can go through life and be fabulous and do your thing and take care of yourself, or you can realize you’re part of humanity and a global citizen. You can make a choice.
Regardless of whether I was gay or not, there would be some mantra, some cause to pick up for the simple reason that our society is not perfect, nor will it ever be. There are kids struggling every day with things like literacy or leukemia or whatever. I hope everybody does their part. It can be small. It can be big. I’m really just trying to do my part. I realized that when I do my part, I somehow affect someone else, and then they want to do their part. It just builds. It’s the classic, Niagara Falls starts with a drop of water. I’m just following in the footsteps of people who’ve been doing this for thousands of years.
Amb. James Hormel, Frank Kameny, Tim Wu, and Chip Arndt at Equality Forum
(Photo by Michael Bedwell)
MW: This drive of yours, do you wield it the same way whether it’s on a trading floor with Morgan Stanley or in fighting HIV/AIDS?
ARNDT: The passion, the message, who you are, should always be the same. Someone asked me, ”Why did you pick HIV and AIDS?” I said, ”I didn’t pick it, it picked me.” I had five friends in New York I loved dearly, and they died in my hands — two in the hospital and three in Hospice care at home. I was living it then. I was in the tail end of the first crisis. Now there all these young 20-year-olds who think that AIDS is HIV, and if they get it they’ll just take a pill or something. When I was in my 20s, people with HIV/AIDS weren’t living with it, they were dying with it. It was a completely different mentality.
I think part of my generation, and much more the generation before me, the reason they get so angry is — like Larry Kramer said — ”What am I waiting for? People are dying.” This is not, oh, wait four or five years and something will happen. In four or five years, half my friends were dead. While we’re not dying as much, a lot of people are [still] getting infected.
People who are progressive understand how society’s evolved, that no great society has ever stagnated. When they stagnate and rest on their laurels, that’s the first day they start the slide to failure. All great societies are about progress. So when we as leaders sit back and say, ”No, we don’t need any more rights for people,” ”No, it’s okay, we don’t need anymore technology,” it’s like, what do you think? That what you’re living in today is exactly what’s right and beautiful and the best we can do? America wasn’t founded on that principle.
MW: With your history degree from Yale, that perspective, would you say we’re still making progress?
ARNDT: I hope so. Progress is about moving forward and going back, moving forward and going back. We’re all making this big deal about the Christians versus the Muslims right now and ”jihad,” and stuff like that. Has anybody asked the Chinese what they think? Or the Indians? They represent three quarters of the world’s population. It’s amazing how we compartmentalize things and think it’s just about us. That’s one of the big problems with people in the United States today, being xenophobic, not understanding that we are truly global citizens, whether you like it or not.
This is realpolitik. Simply, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it’s understanding where you are right now. And right now, go to Facebook and you can have friends in Amman, Jordan. You can have friends in Israel and friends in China — whether or not the Chinese try to block you. The information flow today is ridiculous. The majority of people, once they start talking to each other, I think, do not want to live under theocracy. That’s the battle going on in the Muslim world itself. That’s why the United States is a [secular] society. We’re not a theocracy. If we were, we would sacrifice the individual liberties and freedom of thought and all these other things our Constitution embraces. It’s one of the battles of our time. Again, realpolitik: You’ve got to understand where you are.
Bringing this all back to HIV and AIDS, there are as many people with HIV and AIDS as there were 25 years ago when Larry Kramer and ACT UP and all these people were screaming, trying to get government funding. And you don’t hear about it. It’s no longer sexy, no one cares. It’s on the back burner. You have smaller AIDS Rides. The Ryan White Act is funded, but barely. It was actually under-funded if you take into account inflation and the amount it needs.
A frightening aspect is that we’re talking about an event that’s helping a clinic — in our capital — that was about to go bankrupt and close two years ago, if I’m not mistaken. How in God’s name could anyone with a conscience in Washington, D.C., a politician of any sort, pick up the newspapers and see this happening and not do anything? I don’t get it.
We’ve got to stand up. The communities that are affected by [HIV/AIDS] most can’t be quiet about it because you can take a few pills if you’re rich. What if you’re not rich? It’s our responsibility to stand up for each other.
MW: Tell me more about your own response, ”CPR to AAA,” or ”Chip’s Personal Response to AIDS Across America,” this $100,000 pledge.
ARNDT: I do two AIDS Rides a year and one or two AIDS Walks a year, so I just thought it was more practical to roll them all up into one drive. The money goes to the organizations based in the cities hardest hit by HIV and AIDS: New York, Washington, Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
I’d been doing this anyway. Why not just wrap it into one campaign and utilize the functionality of MySpace and Facebook? I’ve only been doing it for six months. I just started it. I was able to raise $10,000 from people I don’t even know. I definitely want to reach the $100,000 goal.
This is a way to expose people to [the fact] that this is still here. It’s not going away. I looked at this as an, ”I can do it, so why not?” I can take the little mini-celebrity I have to the next level. It’s not going [to reach $100,000] this year, so I’m just going to roll it over.
MW: With this professional, philanthropic drive, how do you power down? Is this AIDS Ride you’re about to make a welcome respite?
ARNDT: It is a respite. This is not the simplest of rides, but it’s time to think. You need time to get away from the phone ringing.
I just started another company in Boston about three months ago. I’m actually working on the Barack Obama campaign. But ”powering down,” I’m no different than a lot of people who, after the day job, they go and volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters, or they go to a reading class somewhere, or they go to the hospital and visit the elderly or kids with leukemia. I don’t think I’m unique. There are thousands of me out there, probably doing much more work than I am.
MW: I’m guessing we won’t find you sitting in front of the TV for a couple hours with a bag of chips. ARNDT: Oh, that’ll definitely happen as long as the Red Sox are on. And college football — it’s hard to pull me away.
I am stretched a little thin at times. I was lucky to be married to someone in the military, because you structure your day. You wake up. You eat for a half hour. You read the newspaper. You take a run or whatever. People would be surprised how much time in the day they have to actually accomplish things.
MW: Do you have any ties to D.C. aside from serving as grand marshal for AIDS Walk Washington?
ARNDT: Oh, yeah. I love Washington. When I was at Morgan Stanley, I lived there — in a very nice hotel — for six months. I lobbied on behalf of Wall Street. I spent a lot of time in D.C. I love it. The idea of government, of people communicating to protect each other’s rights — or take others’ rights away — it’s a wonderful, intellectual process.
MW: I don’t know when you were here last, but now we’ve got a gay sports bar for you.
ARNDT: Oh, Nellie’s, yeah! [Owner] Doug Schantz is a good friend of mine. Believe me, I’m 40, I’ve been around the globe.
MW: Speaking of the globe, were you able to do anything indulgent with your Amazing Race winnings?
ARNDT: My sister died of ovarian cancer last year, and she has three kids, so there was a certain amount of money that was used to help with that situation.
At the time [I received the prize money], I immediately bought a custom set of golf clubs. A year later, I bought a Ducati motorcycle, which was fun for a couple of years, but I’ve sold it. I had some frivolous stuff.
Again, I’m a bit of a boring, frugal New Englander. We all have certain stereotypes that we uphold. I grew up in a town that when you had money, you didn’t talk about it. When you did certain things that were worthy, you just did them. I’m flattered you’re talking to me, but I’m doing this simply because this is what motivates me every morning.
MW: Any romantic involvement you can talk about?
ARNDT: [Laughs.] Several. I have somebody special in my life, who I think highly of. I’m at a point now where I’m focusing on building my business, because it gives me some security going forward. Hopefully, I’ll be with this person. I’ll leave it at that. We’ll see.
MW: On another front, I’m somewhat surprised you haven’t run for office yet — unless you have and I just missed it.
ARNDT: I will always say I don’t know what the future holds for me. I’m going to continue to take this one day at a time. I’m very highly involved, for very obvious reasons, getting a Democrat elected president. I’m just hoping on the next year and a half on getting Miami to turn out in the biggest numbers possible so we can at least guarantee Florida for the Democrats. That’s my focus right now. What that leads to, who knows?
MW: With AIDS Walk Washington, specifically, do you have any invitation or challenge for readers of Metro Weekly?
ARNDT: The challenge is: Wake up. You can be a hero simply by walking. Put in $25.
I think people just need to get out of their reticence. ”Aw, I don’t really make a difference.” ”My vote doesn’t make a difference.” ”Oh, it’s just another AIDS Walk and $25 doesn’t make a difference.” You’re right. If you don’t show up, it doesn’t. But if 10 people wake up tomorrow and say, ”My $25 will make a difference,” that’s $250. That’s a lot of services for some people.
There’s another reason to do it: learning to love your community again. I travel the United States all the time, and I am shocked — even in Lyme, Ct. — how people don’t look at each other as much anymore. We’ve lost our sense of community.
It’s up to you to decide how you want to contribute. You want to go to an AIDS Walk? You don’t? Fine. Contribute another way. Go help people with breast cancer. I find it hard to believe that at some point in that cycle of your life, you don’t wake up and feel as though you want to give back to your community. As serious as I sometimes am, I think people can have as much fun contributing and being a part of their community as they can just taking care of themselves.
AIDS Walk Washington is this Saturday, Oct. 6, at Freedom Plaza. The opening program, featuring the Gay Men’s Chorus and comments from Chip Arndt, begins at 9 a.m.; the 5k Run begins 9:30 a.m.; and the walk kicks off at 9:45 a.m. Online registration is available until 5 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5, at www.aidswalkwashington.org. For registration the morning of the event, go to the The Warner Building at 12th and E Streets NW. For more information about Chip Ardnt’s ”CPR to AAA,” visit www.myspace.com/chiparndt.
2007 AIDS Walk Route Map