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 came from a home with a lot of domestic violence and alcoholism in Brisbane. It was a very narrow-minded community. I got a lot of anti-gay abuse at school and from my family so childhood was quite a homophobic experience.
I acted more gay when I was young but I got kicked around so much I trained myself out of it; I tried to butch it up. The homophobia was pretty hostile. People would swear stuff out of cars and chase you down the street. There was a lot of bullying at school.
My family teased me about ‘acting like a poof’ since I was four years old ‘cause I’d sing, draw and dress-up. I didn’t realise I might be gay until I was 14 or so though. I guess I knew when I started getting turned-on by guys in movies and magazines, but my denial was so strong I didn’t acknowledge it to myself.
I was often depressed and suicidal in my teens. I was anxiety-ridden and scared of being caught-out. I started drinking heavily when I was 15. I was smoking pot and hanging out with other kids who were alienated for different reasons.
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I used to binge drink a lot. I went to nightclubs pretty early ‘cause I was tall and I could look older and get in. We had fake IDs so I’d go out dancing and pick up girls. We wouldn’t fuck but we’d do all the rest. I guess I was trying to prove that I wasn’t gay.
There were a couple of times when I got beaten up to the point where I was bleeding and I was almost unconscious. A guy jumped out of a car with a machete once and chased me down the road with it. Sometimes I’d have to leave school ‘cause of the bullying.
In those days teachers and principals didn’t intervene much – they just looked at you like it was your problem. Like you shouldn’t be gay or you should stop acting so gay. So that was pretty fucked. I couldn’t handle all the crap so I left before my final year and went back when I was 19 to finish it off.
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There was a guy who was more of a friend of my brother’s than he was of mine and we were sharing a house with some other people. He was the first guy I really fell for. I had it really bad. He rode a motorbike and he was a couple of years older. He played football and I thought he was really hot. He was also from a big Catholic family and one of his brothers had died of AIDS.
I think he knew I was into him and he’d play up to it and fuck with my head. We’d go riding on his motorbike and go out drinking and stuff. Then one night we drank a bottle of rum and had sex. I thought it was great, even though it was pretty short-lived. It’s what I’d wanted for a year but afterwards he couldn’t deal with it. He felt really ashamed and we started to fight. Then everyone realised what we were fighting about. But he just made out like he was straight and he was drunk and I’d put the moves on him.
Things were so uncomfortable. It felt like one of us had to go. So I moved to New Farm which is the gay area up there. So it didn’t feel like it was my choice to come out when I was ready. I lived in New Farm for a year and shared a flat with an older gay guy who was really depressed, drank loads of vodka and listened to Nick Cave a lot. I started going to gay bars on my own. I remember
feeling really weird and out of place, like I didn’t belong there. I tried to talk about my sexuality with my mother but she just thought it was a phase. It never really sank in. At one point she got me a Christian social worker who was into ‘conversion therapies.’
One night I took her out drinking. We got totally drunk, I mean she was absolutely shit-faced and then we went to a gay club and I lost her on the dance floor. She was out there dancing with these drag queens and the next thing she was off in the bathroom throwing up. But even after that I still don’t think she really thought I was gay.
I was pretty homophobic internally as well. A few friends tried to encourage me but I felt so wrong about it. I couldn’t relate to the images of gays in the media. I had long hair and wore flannelette shirts back then. I was terrified of HIV. Every time I had oral sex I was down the clinic getting tested. I was constantly having HIV scares ‘cause I felt like it’s what I deserved and what was inevitable.
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I got into a Social Work degree at Sydney Uni so I moved there when I was 20. I had a lot of fun but it was pretty crazy. It was just that whole Sydney thing; lots of parties, lots of drugs. Most people I knew in Brisbane were working class bogans and Sydney Uni was so middle-class and I felt really intimidated. I couldn’t communicate in classes. I felt out of my depth, I didn’t have the social skills or the confidence. So I dropped out after six months. I shared houses with a lot of straight people in Newtown and Surry
Hills. My first true gay friend was a guy I met at a coming-out workshop at ACON. We both loved ‘Prisoner’ and ‘Ab-Fab’. He introduced me to Oxford Street and ecstasy and we had a lot of fun but things went downhill pretty quick.
I started a Bachelor of Arts/ Social Science at UTS and I found it easier to fit in there. It was a bit more down to earth than Sydney Uni. When I was 25 I went to India and Asia for six months to get away from it all. I went trekking in the Himalayas and cleaned out my system. When I got back it was kind of a fresh start. Then a friend introduced me to her housemate who was a bit of a wild guy. I guess he was still into the drug scene, whereas I was trying to get away from it.
I knew he was trouble but he was pretty charismatic and it was the first time I really connected with someone so I just went for it. We were living together within a few months. It was a Sleazeball weekend when I started feeling sick – like a really bad flu. It didn’t feel like a regular flu and I knew something was wrong. I’d never had unprotected sex before, but because we were together, I thought it was okay, I let my guard down. We only had anal sex once and that was my first time.
So I had a test and it came back positive. I remember being paralysed with fear – like it was the end of the world. Some of the staff at the clinic were great but some were pretty rude – like they were sick of young guys turning up positive.
I felt really judged by them, even though they didn’t know me or my circumstances. The GP who diagnosed me said the average life expectancy was 7 to 10 years so that freaked me out.
Then I had to tell my partner. I knew that he had it and that he’d given it to me but I knew he’d never had a test. He was really pissed off when I told him ‘cause I think deep-down he knew he’d been doing a lot of risky things but he was living in denial. He thought I was stupid for having the test and we were better off not knowing.
I thought he’d be supportive and we’d deal with it together. But to have him turn around like that was really tough. He was almost suggesting that I got it somewhere else and it was nothing to do with him. That was a big slap in the face.
So we had this tug-of-war for a couple of weeks and I didn’t know what was going to happen. He went out and did heaps of meth and I took a lot of sedatives and threw pots and pans around. Then he got tested and found out he was positive. He said he wanted to stay together and make a go of things but his way of dealing with it was just to keep doing drugs and pretend it wasn’t real and I couldn’t do that.
Then a lucky thing happened. I’d applied to finish my degree in San Francisco six months earlier and I got an acceptance letter in the mail. I’d completely forgotten about it. It was just a long-shot. I didn’t have much money aside from the plane fare and I didn’t feel physically or emotionally up to it. I think if he’d wanted to get off drugs and face up to things I probably would’ve stayed with him. But, looking back, I’m kind of glad that he didn’t, and I’m glad that I saw his true colours because it made me jump on the plane instead.
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I didn’t know there was decent treatment. I’d never met anyone with HIV. I’d never really looked into it because it always freaked me out. So to me it was a death sentence. Everyone in my social circle treated me like I was dying. I had no interest in medication anyway. I didn’t trust that sort of thing. So I guess going to America felt like a bit of a death trip to me.
It was interesting to be in San Francisco back then. It was illegal to travel to the US as an HIV-positive person and I had to lie on the visa papers. The virus was so omnipresent there too; one in three gay men were positive at the time. I saw guys everywhere who’d been on the older drug treatments. They had incredible deformities like pregnant stomachs and hollow faces. That freaked me out and made me think, “I don’t want to touch the stuff”. There was a lot of activism against pharmaceuticals, like graffiti saying ‘AIDS drugs are poison.’ I didn’t know what was going on.
I heard about a cheap hotel in town that was gay-owned and operated. So I got a room and a lot of guys in there had HIV. Most of them had had it for a long time and they were all pretty sick. I remember a guy across the hall carrying his partner to the bathroom all the time. So I went from having no experience of the virus at all to this ‘AIDS epicentre’ and that was pretty freaky.
I started working in a sauna and a lot of the staff were positive, even though no one talked about it. There were a lot of guys with obvious symptoms and it made me think that that’s what was going to happen to me. I didn’t have any idea you could live a long, healthy life with HIV back then.
I felt pretty run down most of the time but thinking back it was probably just fear and work and study; being too broke to take care of myself. It was twice as expensive as Sydney and the pay was eight bucks an hour. I couldn’t afford to get sick. Having HIV made me change my lifestyle completely.
When the course finished I did a road trip with a friend to New Orleans. We drove through 26 states so that was pretty cool. I stayed in New Orleans for a month and flew to New York for two more months. I didn’t want to go back to Australia but I was running out of money and my health was getting worse and worse.
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I didn’t know anyone in Melbourne but I didn’t want to go back to Sydney. And I’m kind of glad ‘cause it suits me. It’s a much better city and it’s much easier to get by. It’s a much friendlier place. It’s also much more creative which is great ‘cause I’m into creative writing. I lived in Sydney for six years and I had a great time but it never felt right.
I didn’t use any medication for six years and that was because I didn’t want to rush into it. I wanted to explore my options. I thought there was a lot more to the picture than just the virus. I think psychology, emotions and nutrition are just as important when it comes to health. The drugs might keep you going but I don’t think you can really thrive without taking that stuff into account. I got into yoga, meditation and healthy nutrition. I was using a lot of natural medicine, Chinese herbs and acupuncture – that was really working for me. I did a lot of counselling. I was healing physically, emotionally and spiritually.
None of this sat with the doctors very well. Their whole approach was purely scientific and they dismissed anything I said about emotions and nutrition playing a role in my health. They were completely down on natural therapies and were wrapped up in drugs and test results. I felt bullied to do things their way so I stopped seeing them altogether.
I was healthier than ever for six years. I don’t think I went to a bar for five years though. I didn’t have sex for five years. I mean I was living like a monk. I was meditating and exercising and living on brown rice and vegetables and carrot juice. I felt great but it was a bit of a drag sometimes. It was a bit lonely too because I felt like I had to isolate myself to live like that. It was too hard to be in the gay scene around the drugs and the booze and I was over it anyway.
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I was cruising along really well but then my immune system started to crash. A lot of stuff was going wrong at the time. I had nowhere to live. I was having trouble with a few relationships. It was just one of those years where things weren’t going well and I was under a lot of stress.
I was really exhausted but I had no contact with the medical system. I had a lot of night sweats and I was losing weight. Then I got rushed to hospital with 10 T-cells. I had PCP which is AIDS-related pneumonia and MAC, which is kind of like tuberculosis. I was in hospital for a month. I weighed 55 kilos.
They started pumping me full of antivirals and antibiotics. I was on 25 tablets a day. It was foul – like having cleaning fluid poured down your throat. The side-effects were horrendous. It often felt like a choice between keeping food down or taking the drugs ‘cause as soon as I’d eat I’d just puke.
It was probably the lowest time in my life. I didn’t know if I’d get better and I didn’t really want to ‘cause I was so depressed. I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes. I was in and out of hospital for more than a year with complications, trying to find the right combination of drugs. Eventually it all came together.
Now I use a blend of natural medicine and antivirals. Having a healthy lifestyle and a positive attitude are just as important as the medication you take. I think an integrated approach is the way to go. I can get away with a lot more now. I can have a few beers. I can treat myself now and then.
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I’m in a really good place with HIV. The first couple of years were the hardest emotionally. And it’s often a tough journey emotionally. It creates a certain amount of isolation, anxiety and depression. I think a lot of positive people go through that.
My writing has become a big inspiration. I think half the problem in the past was that I didn’t know what to do with my life and I didn’t have the self-esteem to do it. Being in Melbourne and being diagnosed with HIV has given me time and space to think about what I really want. It’s so important if you’re HIV-positive to have a sense of purpose so you’re not dwelling on it. I write theatre, magazine articles and short stories. I’ve had a lot of stuff published.
I’ve made true friends here who genuinely care about each other. It’s the first time I’ve had friends who I associate with, without drugs and alcohol. My health has really soared here. Before HIV my lifestyle meant that I was always run-down whereas I’m really fit and active now. I’ve realised you can have HIV and be just as healthy, if not more healthy than someone who doesn’t because it
forces you to take care of yourself. You don’t take your time for granted and you don’t abuse your body.
I’m actually healthier and happier and more at peace than I ever was. I don’t even know if I would’ve made it this far without it.
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It’s still pretty hard. It can be easier just to have casual hook-ups and avoid the need to disclose. It’s hard for anyone to find a lasting connection but it can be even harder with HIV. I mean that’s also a journey and my fear of rejection has eased a lot over time. In those years where I didn’t have sex at all I couldn’t tell someone without feeling ashamed whereas now I’m at the point where I just want to be as open as possible.
I do feel stifled by it in terms of sex and relationships. I do tend to put up barriers but that’s changing. I told a few people in the early days and I got a bad reaction whereas I don’t tend to get those reactions now because I tell people with more confidence. But it was only a couple of weeks ago on-line, a guy hit me up from the outset “Are you pos or neg?” I was kind of shocked but I just said straight back, “I’m pos, actually.” And he just cut me off, he didn’t message me back. That’s the sort of thing you come up against that challenges your self-esteem. I’m a lot more resilient now though.
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I could’ve avoided a lot of trauma and possibly avoided HIV if I’d accepted my sexuality from the start. Of course I know that wasn’t possible under the circumstances and I’m not down on myself for that. Guilt around your sexuality can lead you to do destructive things though. Thinking back on all the crap I had to deal with just because of my sexuality, it was such a waste of time and energy. I wish I never took it on board.
Having said that, I think it was only HIV that made me truly accept who I am. So in a strange way, I’ll always be grateful for it. I was pretty stuck in my ways before and things were pretty messed up. Life has improved a whole lot since the diagnosis. Living with HIV isn’t easy, but for me, it’s a blessing in disguise.
Where Jim grew up
Jim moved to Sydney to start his Social degree at uni but never finished.
Jim travelled through India and Asia for 6 months
Jim moves to San Francisco to finish his degree and comes to terms with HIV
Jim currently lives in Melbourne and writes theatre, magazing and short stories.