Staying Negative aims to emotionally engage, inspire and facilitate imagination in sexual health practices. The campaign profiles the real life stories of gay, bisexual and trans men who have sex with men (MSM). Men talk about all aspects of their life from coming out, relationships, sexuality and a broad range of other topics. While HIV and safe sex is an important part of all stories, it is not the exclusive focus.
Prior HIV prevention campaigns have traditionally focused on providing gay men with information that will encourage them to adopt safe sex behaviours. In reality, safe sex practices are influenced by a whole range of environmental and cultural factors. The campaign also provides an opportunity for HIV positive men to talk about their lives and discuss how their strategies to staying HIV negative were not successful. We understand that there is more than one way practice safe sex and adopt healthcare seeking behaviours, so let's be creative about it!
There are no real criteria for participants other than that they are MSM and happy to have their stories appear as part of the campaign. In addition to the personal stories, the website provides information on HIV/AIDS, sexual health, relationships and broad of the other relevant topics including domestic violence, drugs and alcohol and depression.
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Growing up, my childhood was wonderful. I grew up in the middle of the United States in Kansas. Looking back now it was a great place to grow up but at the same time there are also really bad things about it. When I was there it was nice but it was sort of oppressed in a way because it’s very conservative. My parents were very involved in the church, so I was always singing in choirs and active in the church group.I totally knew I was gay from a very young age of eleven or twelve and I was pretty lucky to even pass as straight. Even though I did plays and some musicals, I could sort of pass because I played sports, football and that kind of stuff. Back in the 70’s people just didn’t think much about it whereas now it’s almost like people are a lot more hip to what is gay. You just sort of learn to fit in.
I actually have a gay sister who is six years older than I am and she came out of the closet when I was about thirteen. She went off to college and she had a traumatic experience because she was actually outed by her psychiatrist to my parents, which is crazy! My parents reacted pretty negatively towards her. This was in the seventies and my parents pretty much freaked out. They didn’t take it well and I saw her suffer through that. That definitely scared me and so there was no coming out for me, it definitely made me very closeted all through junior high and high school.
I then went off to college in Indiana. It was funny because I was in the music school and it was filled with gay people. I was still just sort of traumatised by what my sister went through so it took me almost all of college to finally have enough courage to come out of the closet.
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My first sexual experience with a man was just so goofy and silly, but let’s just leave it at that. I definitely went through a phase of seeing whether I could change myself. Kissing girls was fine for me, there wasn’t anything bad about it but I just felt like a bit of a phony. I’ve talked to other gay guys and they’re like, “oh, I could never even kiss a girl.”
To me I could easily make out with a girl and I find it pleasant but it was like lying and I don’t like lying.
I did have sex with a woman in college and it was actually very nice. I felt bad because I knew I was lying to her but to me it was like, ‘oh, let me see if I can do this.’ I was able to do it but I felt awful because she was very sweet and I knew she had feelings for me but I was misleading her. Then I didn’t call her after we had sex and I felt bad about that. She would have felt rejected and I felt horrible, so I learnt from that lesson – to never treat a woman like that again.
The university I attended was quite liberal. The liberal environment really helped because I had a lot of gay friends but I still wasn’t personally ready to come out. I was very closeted with the sex I was having, it was very much like sneaking off to a dirty book store – that kind of thing. My first sexual experiences were very anonymous, it’s not like I had met a boyfriend and we started having sex.
In my last year of college I was starting to feel more comfortable because I was surrounded by gay people doing theatre and stuff, so I was like, ‘hey, I’m comfortable with this, I can come out.’ I was 23 when I moved to Chicago after college to pursue acting and I made a conscious decision not to be closeted there. I just decided to move to a new place and get it out there – it was great and very liberating! I started waiting tables and it was crazy fun times. I immediately made friends with tonnes of gay people in the restaurant business and I started doing more theatre. Once I hit 24 I was pretty much out and I started having sexual experiences that were more open like meeting guys at bars, dating and stuff like that.
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It is strange though because I didn’t come out to my sister until a few years later. For some reason I think we’d broken down trust a little bit. I wasn’t actually sure that she wouldn’t tell my parents right away and I was worried they’d freak out because they wouldn’t have grandchildren now with two gay kids! I think I felt a bit guilty, like I should have come out earlier, but if I did it would have made it worse because I wouldn’t have been ready.
So when I did come out to her, she was great about it; she didn’t go and tell my parents right away. She said, “I think you should tell them,” and when I did tell them they were actually wonderful because they had worked everything out with her. They eventually became fine with her and by the time I came out of the closet I had a breeze. They said, “oh no, we’re fine, we love you and everything’s great.” They had come a long way with my sister, she had to go through the hard stuff and I was lucky to reap the benefits of that.
Since my sister they’ve done a complete 180 and they’re total PFLAG types (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).They are now very vocal gay supporters, their politics changed, their view points changed, everything – so my sister and I are very fortunate in that respect. They left churches that weren’t accepting of gay people and so they switched congregations several times over that issue.
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That time period when I was coming out was really fun but there was still this fear that was around because I remember in high school seeing news reports about AIDS and it was so frightening that I immediately associated incredible fear with sex. This was when nobody knew anything about what it was like and so that definitely kept me closeted and not very sexually active in college. I was petrified because we knew so little – all we were told was that it had something to do with exchanging body fluids. That is why I’m alive today, I could have easily not made it because of my age.
I have lost over eleven friends to AIDS. In the 80s there was a lot of fear, misinformation, shame and stigma which definitely kept people closeted.
When I did eventually come out it was when ACT UP started so it was very liberating. ACT UP was an organisation in the US that started in order to go after drug companies and to get them to start coming up with better drugs to treat HIV. It was a protest group that would stage demonstrations in front of drug companies through civil disobedience like laying down in the streets and sidewalks because people were dying. That was very inspirational to me to come out of the closet because I realised people are dying, there’s no reason to be ashamed and this is something we have to deal with.
Things have definitely changed over the years. Just for me personally, I got to a point where I was tired of feeling fearful so when I did come out of the closet in the 80s I decided I was not going to be fearful. I wasn’t going to be scared about this anymore, I’m just going to live my life and I’m going to have a lot of sex because there is nothing to be ashamed of. I made sure that I was safe in order to protect myself. I also had to get over the stigma of being promiscuous because it was seen as bad. I think a lot of gay men just figured, ‘hey you know what, promiscuity is not bad, not if you’re protecting yourself. It’s only bad if you’re not protecting yourself and not protecting others.’
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So during the time that I had moved to Chicago in the late 80s waiting tables, I also started doing some theatre. My friends and I started a theatre company and we started creating shows through improvisation because we came from an improv comedy background.
The director of the theatre was bisexual and he was a big influence on me. He’s a great teacher, a great director and a really funny performer. Back then, with the whole bisexual thing, I never really bought it, but then through the years I’ve finally realised that there is actually such a thing and now the evidence scientifically has backed it up. Bi-sexuals in the US suffer a lot of stigma because they get it from the gay community and the straight community, so the more education about it out there the better it will be for bi-sexuals. They’ve done pretty definitive studies on this where they looked at genital stimulation or pornography and they found that there were more bi-sexual than gay people. Of course there were other parameters and it’s about getting the right sample but it was a really interesting study I heard about from columnist Dan Savage.
So going back to this director who was bi-sexual, he is a good friend of mine and other than him I was really the only gay guy in our theatre. This was in 1990 and everybody was really supportive of me, including the straight guys that we did improvisation with. I was lucky that I was surrounded by a lot of positive wonderful people and I made a decision – ‘fuck it, I’m just going to have fun!”
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I struggled a lot with self esteem when I was younger. I always had a weight issue and I even had an eating disorder so it took me a long time to be comfortable with being overweight. Especially back when I was in college and just after, I would sort of starve and do weird diets or crash diets which I know of course was not healthy. That whole body image thing was hard and I always felt like I needed to fit into that thing of, ‘oh, there’s no overweight, gay men.’
It wasn’t just a gay thing though, amongst both gay and straight people, the overweight ones have always been oppressed and I think they still are. It’s almost okay to still poke fun at heavy people and I definitely let it get to me a lot and it definitely affected my self esteem. It didn’t ever stop me from getting some though, I always had lots of sex, that wasn’t a problem which was great! In later years when I met my partner, I just thought ‘fuck it, I’m never going to be a 30-inch waist guy, I’m going to be okay with this.’
Now I look at it more from a health perspective and I would want to lose weight to be healthier but I don’t look at myself negatively as heavy any more. It took me a while to get there.
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My current partner and I actually ran around in similar circles back in the day and we were set up by friends. Everybody kept saying, “you should date him, you should date him.” We were both very attracted to each other but I think we were just too scared to ask each other out. When we finally went out it was really fast, like I knew really quickly about him because I had dated enough guys. I was sort of the kind of guy that would date somebody for three months then I would sort of cut it off because I was very career oriented and I felt that I just didn’t need a boyfriend.
When I met him I was sort of tired of dating, tired of going from guy to guy and whilst promiscuity is fun, you go, ‘yeah, I’ve done all that.’ I was ready to settle down by this time so we started dating and pretty soon after I moved in with him. It all happened so fast but then I realised that although I had been very sexually active, he hardly had been at all. I sort of realised very early on that a long-term monogamous relationship with him was probably not on the cards because I didn’t feel like it was fair to him. It wasn’t fair for me to go, “oh, hi, welcome. You can only sleep with me for the rest of your life.” I just didn’t think that was an option for us so we knew early on we weren’t going to be monogamous.
That’s the funny thing though, when you have the option to be open and not necessarily monogamous, you don’t actually take advantage of it very much. Almost all the male relationships I know that are open, tend to last the longest. Both people have to be cool with it though, you can’t just do it to please your partner. I think lesbian women find it harder to do but I’ve seen that straight couples are actually starting to learn that it’s an option.
My current partner and I have been together now for 20 years so I can say that the open relationship has worked for us! It’s a blast and we’ve had a lot of fun.
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I grew up during the time when AIDS was just hitting so I’ve always been good with safe sex. It may be a bit of a generalisation but it feels like with our younger people, they’re taking more risks because the reality of it all hasn’t hit them as hard. There’s nowhere near as much fear. When I was young the fear factor was at level 10 whereas now it’s probably only like a four or a three. I actually don’t think fear is the best weapon though. People need to be informed and understand what’s going on before making their own decisions. We can’t be too naive. If you’re a man with a virus for a long time, it will eventually take its toll. The statistics back me up on that and I know because I’ve got friends who have been on drugs for years and they’re doing great, but I hear them complaining about it a little and that it can be quite difficult.
All I could say to a young gay man is, yes we have science and that the disease is treatable now but it is never 100% fool proof. Also, why put yourself at risk, especially with the side effects of the drugs. It is also different in the States than it is here because you all have subsidised healthcare here, whereas in the United States, if you got an HIV diagnosis a lot of people would not be able to afford it. There is a little more fear there in terms of accessibility. I wish the US were much better with that stuff.
I also want to say to younger gay people that you should never let anybody make you ashamed of being sexual or having sex.
Not the church, your parents or your peer groups because there is nothing wrong with you and it is absolutely fine. Sex is a great thing but it’s also a great responsibility to yourself especially. Respect yourself enough to minimise the risk as much as possible. You don’t have to be perfect but also don’t be reckless. There’s a difference between maybe slipping up once in a while and completely disregarding safe sex guidelines. That’s when I would tend to wag my finger a little bit at younger people.
When Ben was 23 he moved to Chicago to pursue acting.