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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I was born in Mulgrave, on the outskirts of Melbourne. When I was 10 we moved to Langwarrin, out past Frankston, and I’ve lived in Shepparton since I was 20. I reckon I first knew I was gay when I was 12 or 13. Kids used to always call me faggot-this or poofter-that at an even earlier age than that, but I don’t think I knew what it meant or wanted to own that label back then because of all the shit that went with it; I mean, it wasn’t meant as a compliment!
I could tell I was different; I was hanging around with all the girls at primary school. I remember in Grade Six sitting on the oval with all the girls, singing and chatting and all that. But after that we’d go to the playground and hide in the tunnel and kiss each other, as girls and boys do – so I was straight, because I was kissing the girls! After primary school I went to an all-boys secondary Catholic college and of course that’s when puberty was kicking in and I found myself attracted to boys.
It was more important in my life to make my parents happy with me and proud of me as a person. I’d only ever heard bad words about being gay from my parents, so therefore I didn’t want to be gay, and for me everything started from home. It didn’t matter what happened outside, it was about feeling loved and supported at home - and gay didn’t work at home. I just knew that, because of snide comments my Dad – and other men - would make over the years.
So, because it certainly wasn’t OK to be gay at home, I didn’t therefore even acknowledge or think about being gay at secondary school, even though all the taunts and name-calling and being pushed up against the lockers and all that shit was happening. I didn’t come out until school ended – the end of Year 12.
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Progressively, from the age of thirteen, I found comfort in eating and in those six years I slowly changed from a very healthy, slim, Grade-6 kid to a very overweight Year 12 student. I was significantly overweight and very depressed. I was keeping all of my thoughts and feelings and emotions about who I was - let alone being gay - inside, so it was difficult.
I didn’t really acknowledge or experiment with my sexuality - my homosexuality - until I was out of school and felt that there was a safer place to do that. Even though it was an all boy school, which I guess should double the potential gay population, I just never went there. I had a few gay mates, but we never spoke about it.
I was born and baptised into the Uniting Church. My parents were not religious and never went to church, but they thought that a Catholic education would be better, so they sent me to a Catholic primary school and then a Catholic secondary school. Certainly the Catholic Church and the Bible and everything that came with my Catholic education didn’t encourage my homosexuality, so I’d say that made it harder to come out, for sure.
Not only was I being called a faggot, I was being called fat and ugly as well. I was also quite academic, so it was just easier to pick on the smart fat kid with whatever taunts they could throw at me. I realised that being overweight was probably not going to get me any love interest – it was just a bad place to be, full stop.
Feeling good about yourself is not necessarily dependent on whether you’re fat or skinny or whether someone’s attracted to you, it’s whether you like yourself and are confident and happy. I realise that now, at 29, but back then I didn’t really know who I was or where I was going. I just ate to make myself feel more grounded. I ate whenever I could. The only time I wasn’t eating was when I was restricted by being in the classroom. A box of BBQ Shapes and a tub of ice-cream each night was the norm!
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When I finished Year 12 it was like I was finally free to be who I wanted to be. I went on a significant regime to lose weight – probably a very dangerous, silly one – but I did it nonetheless and I thought, great, now I’m 18 I’m an adult; I need to own who I am and proclaim my sexuality to my parents.
I wrote them a letter that basically said: I know you love me and I know you want to be proud of me. I ask you to please choose or reject me. I gave them the letter and said: “Mum and Dad, I need to tell you something. I want you to read this letter and you can tell me what you think in the morning. Goodnight!” And I ran and hid in my bedroom, under the covers.
A little later I heard my father’s footsteps coming down towards my room. He opened the door and said: “We’ve read your letter and we’ll speak to you in the morning… SLAM!” So, I didn’t sleep much that night!
In the morning, when I got up and went to the kitchen, the first thing my father said was: “You do realise as soon as some guy sticks a cock up your arse you’ll realise you’re not gay, don’t you?”! I said: “Right. I think it’s time I move out!” So I moved out with some newfound friends. As friends go, they probably weren’t a very good choice, but I moved out nonetheless. That’s when I had far more flexibility and freedom to be a whole new person.
Wonderfully, horribly scary!
Through them I met a couple of gay people. Back then, at 18, this was such a huge thing. I remember back then it almost made me feel sick when this gay guy pecked me on the lips for this New Year’s Eve kiss! I had butterflies in my stomach; I was almost vomiting because it was such a wonderfully, horribly scary experience! Then two days later I was in some random schoolground with some ballet dancer guy having my first sexual experience in public! So that was pretty quick growth, from a peck on the mouth to giving someone a blowjob on the school oval! Classy!
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In my late teens I discovered the internet as an easy way to chat to people in the gay world without any need to expose any of that to my family, because they didn’t know who I was chatting to on the net. It was through the internet that I found some local gay people and chatted to them for a while. I didn’t dare go out and meet them for a while because that was still far too scary for me. I guess I was brought up too strictly to experiment or experience much too soon.
But eventually I took the train trip from Langwarrin to Prahran to knock on this total stranger’s door and there were three or four people there who were friends I’d made online. The door opened and their eyes were all on me in a predatory way and I thought: “Whoa, I’m not in the right place here!” But I went in and made friends with them. They wanted me to sleep with them but I didn’t – I was pretty firm on what I did and didn’t want.
Through them I met the people I lived with for a while. Mentally I was in a different place to them. They took drugs, they were pretty self indulgent and they didn’t really look after themselves very well. In comparison, I had more self respect and I didn’t particularly like the way they lived. But it was the only option I had at the time, so I went and lived there.
They would do stuff to my food
It wasn’t really a very safe place to live. They would do stuff to my food without me knowing and then they’d be watching me eat it and giggling away, so it wasn’t really a nice place to live either!
Although he didn’t agree with me being gay, my father helped me move in there. There was a lot of screaming and yelling and they were calling him a homophobe and all this shit and they called the police, so they weren’t very helpful in the process of reconciling my sexuality with my family.
My support network at that time was primarily online. I had lots of friends on IRC at that point, in Gay Melbourne chat room – that chat room still exists today. We’d throw ideas around. I don’t think I actually had a physical person – friend or family member – that I would sit with person-to-person and chat with about stuff at that time - it was all through the computer.
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I’m 29 now and I think it would have been 11 or 12 years ago that I would have had any sex education in secondary school and some in Grade 5 as well - and I can’t remember there being any mention of gay and lesbian issues in either of those, not even that gay and lesbian issues exist.
I remember the Grim Reaper ads (these were TV ads about the HIV/AIDS epidemic that screened in Australia in the late 1980s) but I was too young to understand what they meant. I always knew that gay and AIDS went together and I didn’t even understand the difference between HIV and AIDS until much later.
Condoms are evil!
In my Catholic education condoms were something people only used to stop a woman from getting pregnant, but you’re not supposed to use condoms in Catholic relationships, because you’re having a monogamous relationship, you’re meant to have children and because condoms are evil!
So, when it came to gay sex, with the limited gay sexual health information I had available, I probably assumed I wouldn’t need a condom anyway, because I’m having sex with a guy and he’s not going to get pregnant. Sure, I knew of diseases and stuff, but I guess at that age HIV and AIDS weren’t on my radar.
I was a serial monogamist
I was a serial monogamist; I’d go from one relationship to the next. I was in them for the long haul – I didn’t go into a relationship thinking: “I’m going to shag this guy and then go”, my heart and head were in every encounter I had. I’d meet someone and think: “I really like him; I really want a relationship with him”, and I’d be with him for a week, a month, three months or whatever. And because I was thinking: “This is going to be a long-term monogamous relationship”, I’d also think: “We don’t need to use condoms at all”.
Generally, in these relationships, condoms were probably used once and then you’d have the jokey chat about condoms: “Who likes them? No-one likes them. OK, well, I’m not shagging anyone else. I’m not either. OK, let’s go, we don’t need to use them”. I’m a very trusting person; I like to believe what people tell me. I’ve had my fair share of crabs and STIs along the way. People do risky things, I guess, sometimes for the wrong reasons, sometimes for the right reasons.
I needed someone to complete me
Only in the last couple of years have I reached the stage where I’m completely comfortable and secure with who I am now as an adult. This whole business of going from one person to the next - or, god forbid, of having someone in reserve that I’m flirting with in case this current relationship I’m in doesn’t work out! – that sort of behaviour really only finished a couple of years ago.
I think I was like that back then because I felt I wasn’t good enough as an individual and needed someone to complete me. It’s nice to have someone, that’s the obvious reason of course, but only in the last couple of years have I been able to recognise my own strengths, skills and great qualities as things that I can stand on my own with. I like to be able to say to someone ‘I love you and I need you in my life’, but at the end of the day we can all survive on our own if we have to.
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In the past I put up with a lot of shit that I shouldn’t have put up with and that other people wouldn’t. I have a wonderful partner now, but back then I used to put up with stuff because I thought I had to, but now I know how good a relationship can be. I think I’m a very positive, enthusiastic and reasonable person and I give a lot in a relationship, but I also want a lot from a relationship.
One of the guys I had a relationship with had had a hard life. Because of that, he had a lot of baggage which he brought into the relationship and wouldn’t let it go. I remember one instance when we were driving along the road and I reset my odometer on the car because I thought that would be a really nice place to have a picnic for our local gay group. He looked over at me and started screaming at me for resetting the odometer so I could meet some imaginary guy at a beat in this spot in the country, because that’s what I must be doing! He was very paranoid and controlling and that’s just one example of the sort of thing I had to put up with daily. And I thought I had to put up with it, because it was his baggage and you help people with their baggage in relationships.
He’d get violent too
He’d get violent too sometimes, elbowing me, throwing objects at me, kicking holes in the walls… I made him fix those! I made him accountable for his stupidity as I saw it. Here I am trying to apologise for someone else being abusive to me but he’s had a hard life so he thinks that physical violence works when I know it doesn’t. He smoked a lot of pot and that didn’t really help his mental state. He was just very insecure and took it out on me, sometimes physically, but it was never really bad.
I think it gets to a point in a relationship – and I know this sound arrogant – where I’m putting up with more than I want to and I’ve helped them to where they can stand on their own and so the relationship can end.
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I’m confident that cycle is now broken. I think my current partner is fabulous and I love him to death. He’s probably the best partner I’ve ever had. He won’t tell you this, but we met on Myspace – he thinks that’s really corny! I was quite happy to be single at the time. Because I had been brought up in this rigid family values shit with all these rules and had a history of attracting needy people I thought: I’ll just go out there and have a bit of fun.
So, when he messaged me on Myspace, I was like: “Yeah, yeah, nice to meet you; I’m off to work, chat to you soon, send me an SMS”, and within five minutes, while I was driving to Melbourne, he sent me an SMS.
We started chatting on SMS and suddenly, instead of driving back to Shepparton that same night, I drove to Bendigo where he lived instead and stayed at his house that night.
We had sex – that was pretty random, casual and fabulous. He was a very lovely, sweet, gorgeous guy, so although I’d been shutting myself off from having a relationship, here was this wonderful person. We spent some more time together, had sex a few more times and then really started the relationship. We have been going out almost eight months.
I was going to the clubs in my late teens but I soon got over that, significantly. I just don’t enjoy it any more. These days I find the internet a really easy, fun, stay at home, fairly safe way to meet and chat to people. It also gives you some level of privacy if you want to – so I really haven’t had to travel to Melbourne to satisfy my social or relationship needs. But in saying that, I haven’t really slept with a lot of people in Shepparton or had that many relationships, probably only about five or six. All the others have come from the internet and have come from all over the place.
But now we have a huge gay social group here in Shepparton with about 60 paying members and 200 email members, so the network’s growing – but that’s the social network not my sexual network!
He was bisexual
When I met him, he had only just come out. He was all for safe sex, no questions about it, which was good. At that time he was bisexual and now he says he’s gay but if we ever broke up he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of having sex with a woman. He is twenty and that he’s still exploring who he is growing into as an adult.
He’s having a pretty difficult time at the moment given the fact that about two years ago he had a terrible situation happen to him in Shepparton at a Christmas event where he was drugged and taken home by someone and raped and that’s rather traumatic for him.
Because that was one of his first gay sexual experiences, with that comes a lot of issues and baggage. With my support and encouragement he has continued to deal with these issues. He has sought professional help and is moving forward from this traumatic experience. He wants to get some professional help and he did at the time, but not enough – issues like these can hang over people’s heads for the rest of their lives.
My current partner is probably moving in in about a month, which is really nice. He lives in Bendigo, which is about an hour and a half away, and I live in Shepparton, so we’ve both made significant investments in terms of petrol and time! His family have embraced him and me extremely well, as have his friends, surprisingly well for a regional community.
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I moved back in with my family about three months after I moved out. By then they basically had time to get their heads around me being gay. I said I’d move back home but it was going to be by my rules, and straight away, pretty much, I was able to have guys stay the night. I don’t put up with shit from my family; I tell them how it is! I’m a good person and I deserve the respect.
They were pretty cool with it. They like my current partner and they’ve met all my significant partners over the past ten years, Some they’ve liked, some they haven’t liked. To be honest, I think they’ve been more reserved about telling me whether they do or don’t like my current partner than any other partner before. I don’t know whether that’s because I haven’t asked or because they haven’t had to complain about him, whereas other partners I’ve had…! They care; they’re a very caring family; Dad just blew up when he first found out I was gay, but he got over it. I couldn’t ask for a better family.
They let him stay overnight
I remember the first time I had a guy stay over, when I was 18; he was 17. They were really OK with that, they let him stay overnight in my bed - they didn’t know him, which was pretty cool, going from being totally homophobic three months earlier to accepting it OK. Then, when I got a boyfriend and was obviously having my first significant sexual experiences with him, my parents didn’t make things difficult for me with him, because I think deep down my mother knew all along that I was gay – I did some pretty camp stuff in my time…!
At the time, my father took it a lot harder that I was gay than my Mum, but I think he now handles it better than she does. I think she worries about HIV and what if I gets bashed and stuff like that. They would always ensure that they threw in a comment about using condoms.
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I don’t see myself as being in a high risk category for HIV/AIDS. I’ve always tended to think the people I choose couldn’t possibly be HIV-positive. Sometimes I think I live in a crazy, made-up world in which I think I’m immune from HIV because overall I’m a very healthy person.
We don’t use condoms
I’m in a monogamous relationship now and we don’t use condoms. We’ve been together eight months and we’ve both been tested for HIV/AIDS at three and six months. We know we’re monogamous and we’re committed to that, so it’s not an issue now, but when I was younger I wasn’t so careful – with a new partner, we’d use condoms once, then have a chat about whether we thought there was any chance either of us was HIV-positive and we’d stop using them simply based on what we’d said to each other, rather than going and actually getting tested together.
I’d like to think that if I’m sleeping with someone that they’d tell me if they had something. In the past I never really had HIV-positive people around me, so I thought HIV isn’t really an issue and I thought, well, how can I get it then? But I had someone I’d slept with several years ago ring me recently and tell me he has since become HIV-positive. Since then another person has told me they are HIV-positive too. He was actually in a relationship with an HIV-positive guy for a few years and he stayed HIV-negative the whole time he was with that guy. And then, after they split up, he went out and did some stupid thing with some person and he’s now HIV-positive as a result.
So I do know people who are HIV-positive now, but I didn’t back then. I have a very good relationship with our gay and lesbian friendly GP here in Shepparton and he tells me there are HIV-positive people in Shepparton but I’m not really conscious of it. I guess that’s because it’s harder to be public about it in a regional area.
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When I first came in contact with UnitingCare Cutting Edge, I found out they have this Diversity program running, which was the gay support group for young people in Shepparton. I wanted to meet other young gay people so I joined when I was about 21 and I finished up running the group. They needed someone, so I volunteered. UnitingCare is a community agency to support disadvantaged and marginalised people. It’s an agency of the Uniting Church.
I believe the Uniting Church is the most progressive church around gay and lesbian inclusivity. I’m part of the Uniting Network Australia, which is a network of GLBT Uniting Church congregation members nationally who meet every two years for a conference. We talk and some of us lobby for inclusivity within the church.
UnitingCare appealed to me because I’m Uniting Church, even though I don’t go to church often and have never really been a part of it, but I grew up with a Catholic education so the Christian values all sort of blended well. I’ve done that for a few years now. A lot of the people that come through Diversity move on to Melbourne and think it’s better. They say, “What have you got up here? Once you’ve screwed everyone, what’s left?!”
To be honest I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about Shepparton; there’s definitely the need for the Diversity group up here. I can definitely see the need for gay people to leave here and go to Melbourne, because there’s not a lot of exciting gay or lesbian opportunities in our town. Still, I have a really happy public life as a gay man in Shepparton. There was a photo of Chris and I in the local paper just last week, promoting a World AIDS Day walk Diversity has organised.
I have moments running Diversity where I think: “Is this all necessary?”, but then we have fabulous celebrations like our Halloween party and the support of the council and the community. For example, the council is putting a photo of our Diversity group marching at Pride March on the greater Shepparton Council calendar and is making one month Diversity month. I feel fulfilled doing this work but it’s nice to be recognised. People sometimes send me emails or nice words of thanks and praise and it helps!
Why I told my story
The Staying Negative campaign appeals to me because it helps people and I like helping people! I’m aware of a few young boys in Shepparton who go and meet the truck-drivers down at the truck-stop for quick blowjobs in their cabins or whatever and the guys who use the beats around here do all sorts of risky behaviour. If they can learn something from this website, and my story, about how to look after themselves, then that’s great.
Postscript (June 2009)
Since these interviews, my parnter and I have become engaged (we are planning a big white wedding in a rainforest for when it’s legal in Australia). We have been together now for 14 months, and are looking at bringing a child into the world (surrogacy in India). We are happily living together in the country: Damien is now working in training/development (alongside his community work), and Chris is still working with people with disabilities. We plan to stay in the country, possibly one day soon moving to Echuca or Bendigo. Socially, spiritually, mentally and emotionally, a wonderful balance is available “in the sticks”, just as it is in the big smoke. We encourage you to drop by Shepparton for some good coffee and yummy SPC fruit real soon!
Damien was born in Mulgrave and he lived here til he was 10 years old.
Damien moved here when he was 10 years old.
Damien moved to Shepparton when he was 20 and still lives there now with his fiance.