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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Robert is 62. Eight years ago he left his wife and two sons in Adelaide to begin a new life in Melbourne. He talks about coming out to his wife and children; why he didn’t realise he was gay earlier; sex with men in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond; relationships and the joys of his new life...
I realised I could be a really sad man for the rest of my life, or I could find an alternative.
My first sexual experience
My first sexual experience was with the boy sitting next to me in school when I was fourteen. He put his hand on my dick one day in the maths class. I thought, “I wonder how long he’s going to leave it there?” So I looked at my watch, looked at the second hand while he played with my dick. It was 70 seconds.
After lunch we came back to class and he started doing it again – and we spent the rest of the year with our hands on each other’s dicks in class. It was fantastic. We used to tease each other and stop just before we came so we could just do it all day. I think he’s a Professor of Mathematics now...
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The person I came out to was my wife, really. It was 1976. I was working in a print workshop in Italy, and I began having a bit of an affair with a local Italian man. He was married too and it was fairly frustrating as he couldn’t give himself over to the affair.
I was in love with him and, as I was in the habit of discussing everything with my wife, I knew I had to tell her. One night, we put the boys to bed and we were in the sitting room and I said, “I want to talk to you about something that’s really bothering me.”
I started pacing the room. I couldn’t stop, I was so agitated and I told her I’d been having an affair, that he wasn’t the first man I’d had sex with, and that I thought I was gay. She just sat in the chair and didn’t speak for about ten minutes. I thought, ‘Well, it’s either the end of my marriage or I don’t know what’, and at last she just said, ‘Well, I suppose I’ve always known without realising it – and I think that’s why I love you’.
The second coming (out)
When the boys were about 17 or 18 – by this stage I was very open with all of our friends about my sexuality – we were back in Australia by this time and I thought somebody is going to tell the boys that their Dad is gay and it has got to be me who does it. My wife agreed and said, yes, you’d better talk to them. I talked to my first boy and he said that was fine, and I talked to my second boy and he said that was fine too.
After about two or three years it was obvious that it wasn’t fine with either of them, because they became very hostile and they just stopped talking to me. It was awful. I come from an extremely conservative background - Adelaide Hills society – and I actually went mad. I lost it, being rejected by the people I loved most – my sons. There was this wall of silence that I couldn’t penetrate. At the time I was having an affair with a former student of mine and he asked me if I’d leave my family and live with him. I was so desperate to relieve that situation of hostility that I said yes, and left the family and lived with him.
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We had been an exceptionally happy family. The irony in all this is that after a year this man left me for another woman! In the meantime I had a complete nervous breakdown. I realised that I’d been living on the edge of my emotions for some time. Having the nervous breakdown was the most ghastly thing at the time because you can’t stop crying, you go into social withdrawal, you lose weight and it’s just terrible. You really, really want to kill yourself; I spent a lot of my time plotting my demise.
At one stage I realised there was a real possibility that I could be a really sad man for the rest of my life, on the verge of tears for the rest of my life, or else I could find an alternative. So I came out of it and now I’m really glad that I had that breakdown, because after I hit the bottom I came up again. I don’t ever feel that I’d be on the verge of that collapse again, because I’ve learnt how to deal with things. I don’t negate the past and I don’t escape; I’m very pragmatic and I realise that our lives can’t follow a rosy path day-to-day. But, gee, I have a good time. It’s good.
I haven’t seen my eldest son for ten years. I saw the younger boy six years ago – he just said hello. People say, "That must be devastating for you". Yes it is terrible, but you can’t let something like that devastate your life. I do have an option, don’t I. They’re adult – they’re 33 and 31 now – they have a reason to reject their father. Whether it’s valid or not is beside the point. They have their own reason. I can’t force myself back into their lives - so I have just made a life of my own. I have to say it’s really good.
Leaving Adelaide was really good for me. For me, Adelaide is symbolic of confusion through my adolescence and through my marriage, of disapproval from the rest of society and of people with narrow visions about life. I can tell you the day I drove out of Adelaide was one of the happiest days of my life. It really was. I was in the car with my dogs in the back, punching the air like Lleyton Hewitt and yelling, “YES! YES! YES!”. I’ve never been back. I was 54. That was eight and a half years ago.
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At the school I went to – it was a Presbyterian school – the chaplain was High Presbyterian, if there is such a thing; he used to wear a cassock and really play the part. He used to have us for Divinity every week. He gave us a whole lot of talks about what he thought young men should know about becoming men. He talked about the sanctity of marriage and what a wonderful thing it was and then he said, ‘I want to talk to you about something else, boys, I want to talk to you about ‘inversion’ - and we had two or three weeks about inversion.
He told us that we would ALL be tempted to do a vile, filthy act with another man, because inverts are all over the place and sometimes you don’t know who they are. And we must resist. He said the weak ones give in and the strong ones resist.
He said, "Lads, if you ever do it once, it’s like a drug! That’s all you’ll ever want; you’ll never want women again! Never!"
So I thought, well, obviously everyone else is thinking like me, because I thought it would be wonderful to have sex with other boys. So when he said, “You’ll all be tempted”, I assumed that everyone else thought that way too. I thought, well, everyone’s like me, but the weak ones have sex with men and the strong ones don’t. So I thought, well, I’m strong and I’d like to be married and be a father one day and so I won't do it.
The vice captain
He told us a horrific story about this wonderful young man who was captain of the local country football team. This young man was going to marry a girl in the city and his best man was the vice captain of the football team. The two of them spent the night together in a hotel room in the city on the night before the wedding. Little did this wonderful bridegroom know that his best friend, the best man, was an invert – and he was seduced by him on the eve of his wedding. Well, of course this wonderful young man never wanted to have sex with his bride because he’d been poisoned for the rest of his life – all he wanted to do was have sex with men.
So I decided not to do it, but of course the drive was overwhelming. Then I learned that I could do it - have sex with other men – and fool everybody and still keep pretending. Girls liked me and I always had a girlfriend. I’d take out the girl to a party or whatever, kiss her goodnight and poke her and sniff my finger on the way home, but when I got into bed I’d jerk off thinking of some guy who was at the party. That to me was the real thing – the sex with the girl was just pretend.
Real at last
What happened on Sunday the 20th April, 1969... I was going to fly up to Armidale for a job interview and the plane into Sydney was late, so I missed my connecting flight. So Ansett put me up for the night in a fantastic old hotel. It was my first time in Sydney – I felt like such a little bumpkin from Adelaide, but when I came into the dining room the waiter put me at a table with seven other men – business men – and it was extremely exciting because they were all treating me like a man. I was suddenly no longer just a kid; they were asking me about my life and my work.
There was one man there who was based in another city – all the others drifted off and he and I were left there and he said, "Let’s get a bottle of wine and go up to my room", so we did. I got really excited because I was in a hotel room, which had sexual connotations anyway, with this man who was very attractive and he said, "Are you going to sleep with me tonight?" and I said "Yes" and I thought, ‘What have I said? I don’t know what I’m going to have to do!’ But it was just fantastic.
He was married with two children. I wasn’t married at that stage – he was older – but there we were, these two ostensibly heterosexual men, lying in bed together exploring each other’s bodies and kissing. I can tell you, it was one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me. It was just so good. It felt real, as if I was being real at last. But then I realised that my life outside that hotel room was much less real than I had imagined it to be.
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I got married in 1971. My first son was born eleven months after the wedding and my second son was born 20 months after that. Then I had a vasectomy. This woman I married is a fantastic person, and I loved her family. We kept our horses together and she was a very good singer and I used to accompany her at concerts and rehearsals and lessons. I think the best basis for a relationship is shared interests and shared passions.
Before we were married we were great mates for six or seven years without any sex or kissing. I made sure I didn’t even touch her. Then, when I went away to Armidale there was a kind of chemical change. One night when I was having a wank I decided not to think about a man but to think about her instead and it worked, and I thought, ‘Oh, I reckon that would be really good’.
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After we got married we lived in Italy and then in England.
We got back to Adelaide in 1977, and from 1977 to 1982 I was a slut. I was a married man having lots of sex with quite a lot of men. I think that was the heyday of promiscuity among gay men.
It really was. I mean, the worst you could get was crabs, I thought; and I did. I never got any other disease and that was luck. I never got a dribbly dick or gonorrhoea of the throat or anything. I did inform myself about all that, but there was very little sexually transmitted disease around at that time.
Where did I meet men? Well, I used to go to gay discos but there was so much street flirting. I used to ride a bike everywhere and people would pull up beside you at red lights and check you out and you’d pull up a bit further up and talk and go to their place or wherever. It was so easy to pick people up in the street. I was a good-looking boy and people would follow me and I could say yes or no. And it was a really good feeling. Doesn’t happen any more! I think that first flush of gay promiscuity has died out and it has become more covert. I’d go to beats as well.
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I was having more than casual sex through the 80s; I was having love affairs. Full-on, passionate love affairs. I was very active in the days when you stuck your dick up anybody’s bum that appealed to you without a condom and off you went, or took home a bum-full of cum from someone else.
When HIV arrived on the scene in the 1980s I completely stopped all sexual activity except mutual masturbation (jerking men off). I was terrified of sucking someone off. I mean, people didn’t know (about HIV transmission). If someone wanted to suck my dick or wanted me to suck his dick I just had to say no. I said I was happy to be jerked off and if he was happy to do that then I’d have sex with him.
A lot of people would find that really restrictive, but in the most restrictive sexual situations I can find extreme pleasure. You know, if somebody says all you’re allowed to do is watch me I can get extreme pleasure – in fact sometimes the more limited it is the more exciting it can be.
Over time I found that oral sex wasn’t the danger that we had all assumed it could be; it was probably about five or six years before I sucked a dick again. I had a friend who is a venereologist in Adelaide and I talked to him about it. He said, “Yes, you can suck dicks if you want to, but there’s an extremely small chance that you could get an infection – that if I had a mouth ulcer or bleeding gums or something, I shouldn’t do it.”
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My venereologist friend was my main source of information about safe sex. When I learned about AIDS and what it could do to you I went to get myself tested. I thought I’d better. However, when I had the relationship in 1994, we didn’t do anything that could have transmitted any STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). We both went early in the piece to be tested and, as we were both negative and we were both absolutely honest that we would be monogamous, we had unprotected sex. Until he had sex with a woman.
I didn’t have a partner for a long time after that, until 1999. Here in Melbourne I had a relationship for about nine months and it was the same thing; we decided we’d be monogamous and I trusted him and he trusted me, so we went and had ourselves tested and we were both negative, so we had unprotected sex.
I know that some people lie about whether they’re monogamous or not; they say that they won't have sex with anyone else, and secretly they’re slutting around at lunchtime, but the two people I have had relationships with - and unprotected sex - I trusted implicitly and I believe my trust was justified.
I love condoms
I don’t go around having casual sex.I have a couple of times, but I haven’t had any anal unprotected sex casually, and I actually have loved condoms all my life. I think they’re fantastic things. I love using them. I find them wonderful little sex toys. They’re really sexy little things. The idea that there’s this special thing produced to put on my erect penis, you know, it turns me on.
I have had a regular sex partner for the past two and a half years but two weeks ago we decided we should stop. He’s in his early twenties. He’d actually been coming to me to talk about a whole lot of stuff and he’d been telling me that I should have a boyfriend. He’d say, "Come on Rob, you’re a good looking bloke; how come you don’t have a boyfriend?" He kept on about it. One night he rang me and asked if he could come around. He came around and seduced me. This boy isn’t gay.
For the past eleven or more years I have been plagued by young straight men, meeting me, attaching themselves to me, getting a crush on me, experimenting sexually on me and then, next thing I get an invitation to their wedding! It’s crazy.
This boy I’ve been seeing for two and a half years is straight, but he has tasted the thrill of same-sex sex and he loves it. But he says he feels really guilty and can’t deal with it. So I said, "Alright; next time you ring up and want to come around, I’ll say no".
I believe that these young men who have attached themselves to me at the end of their adolescence have felt some need for a symbolic transition and as I said, then I get an invitation to their wedding. I have an avuncular manner; I can advise them on all sorts of things and I’m not predatory. They always do the seduction. I just say yes.
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I used to belong to a gay married men’s group in Adelaide run by a bloke from Melbourne. He was terrific. I met some extraordinary men there and I think there were only a few men there who were honest about their sexualities with their wives and families and acquaintances. And the rest were living a life of terror or had divorced with lots of acrimony – awful, awful divorces, with wives vowing that the children would never be able to see the fathers again and that sort of thing. But the terror that ruled and shaped so many married men’s lives was just frightful and I didn’t ever want to be like those men
I reckon the way out of most dilemmas is honesty. I really do. It seems a facile thing to say, but if you feel cornered and as if you’re in a dilemma, if you can be honest with yourself and with everybody you’re dealing with, I reckon that dilemma will dissolve. I mean, it can bring up some unpleasant things, like my sons, you know, and I know that some people when they announce that they are gay are rejected by people - when a friend of mine told his parents he was gay, his mother put her head in her hands, wailed, and said “It would be better if you had never been born”. So there are prices to pay for being honest, but I reckon the burden of living with untruths in your life is just not worth it.
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I’ve had a couple of relationships since I came to Melbourne. One was with a difficult man and it worked, unfortunately, as aversion therapy, so I haven’t had a relationship since then. I’ve been very, very wary. He was very difficult, and when I finished it I was so relieved. The feeling that I was free and single was overwhelming.
There’s part of me that would love to be in a relationship and have a mate – especially when I’m trying to lift something really heavy; it would be nice to say, hey, get on the end of this, will you! – but also there are various aspects of being in a relationship that make life easier – especially if you can laugh with the fellow, you know.
I don’t know many gay men these days. That’s not by choice; I’ve tried, but I never meet - or see – anyone I think would be a suitable mate.
Today and beyond
I can tell you that life really does get better and better. I’m glad I’ve left the confusion of adolescence behind and the insecurity of the twenties behind, when you’re hoping that you’re alright and that people will approve and you’re hoping that you’re good enough for somebody.
I’ve never felt so good about myself as I do now. I’m really fit; I go to the gym regularly and I’m pleased with my body and I just feel fantastic. There’s been a resolution that I was searching for for so long.
Robert grew up in Adelaide and spent most of his married life there, it was an unhappy place for him.
In 1976, Robert fell in love with another man he was working with in Italy.
After Robert got married, they lived in England for a little while.
Robert moved to Melbourne once he left Adelaide to start a new life.