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 grew up in foster care in the country, about two hours south of St Louis, Missouri. Both of my parents had drug and alcohol issues, and in the US, a child can be taken away and placed in another home, until their parents can reform.
I spent 15 years in foster care, until I was 18. Typically, a social worker would come in the middle of the night to shuffle you from one place to the next. You never really get used to it, but I think after a certain point you just kind of turn off your emotions. It makes you kind of hard, or callous.
My mother passed away in 2000, when I was 21. Even though we talked, I stopped seeing her physically when I was 13. She had a lot of mental health issues and drug addiction, but I never blamed her for the situation.
I always knew I had a different upbringing to other kids, and it was challenging, but I never looked at myself as being cheated or anything. I was very conscious of what was going on which helped me cope with everything rather than playing the victim. I think sometimes it’s easy for people to play the victim in that sort of situation.
My father wasn’t a very pleasant man to be around. He actually lives less than five miles from me now but I don't have much contact with him. I’ll see him from time-to-time but I don't want him in my life on a regular basis and he doesn’t know many of the details of my life. But he knows it was a conscious decision that I made, to try and separate myself and to have some sense of normalcy.
My brother’s nine years older than me and we were in foster care together for a good portion of the time. I don’t really see him on a regular basis now. Unfortunately, in the US system, sibling groups can be separated, and that’s what happened to us. But we stayed together as long as we could.
I also have a sister and she’s quite a bit older than me as well. So it’s always been like I’ve been the baby but I’ve always considered myself more of an only child.
I do wish that things could have been different but they weren’t and I can’t change that now. I guess that’s what motivated me to do advocacy work for foster care. Unfortunately sometimes it’s kids having kids and the ones who pay for it are the kids themselves.
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I actually didn’t finish school. For me, being in foster care just wasn’t very conducive to academic excellence. In the US, a child can opt out of high school after a certain age so I just went to the school up to the ninth grade. They have this thing called the GED (General Educational Development), which is a battery of tests you take to prove high school equivalency. So I took that, passed and then I joined the military when I was 18.
I absolutely loved the military. One minute I was this kid from country Missouri and the next minute I was travelling all over the US, and then I ended up living in South Korea for two years. It was a bit of a culture shock.
It’s a brotherhood, the relationship formed with other soldiers. It’s a very close relationship by the sheer nature of what you’re doing. You have to be prepared to give your life for that person and hopefully they’ll do the same for you. So we quickly formed bonds that I still really treasure to this day.
There’s a dichotomy that’s very interesting. The military is very regimented and very structured, but for me, in that structure came freedom. The military’s either black or white – there’s really no grey area with rules and protocols and procedures. A lot of decision is taken away from you, and I think that’s what allowed me to have that freedom. I didn’t have to think about anything; I didn’t have the luxury of making social choices. People used to ask me all the time, “What do you think about this, or that?” or when we were in Iraq, “What do you think about Iraq?” And I used to say, “Soldiers aren’t given the luxury of social commentary, we do what we’re commanded to do.” I think that kind of explains the relationship I have with the military.
I never hid who I was. People in my platoon and my unit knew I was gay. When I returned to the US from South Korea, I outed myself, but I never had a bad experience with the military and with people knowing I was gay. I chose for people to see me as a soldier and as a person, rather than seeing me strictly as a gay guy.
I had a lot of accolades and accomplishments, and I was promoted five times in two years. By the time I left Korea, I had attained my sergeant stripes, and I was only 22. Career-wise, I was doing great.
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I always knew that I was just a little different, but I didn’t know what the difference was. My first crush was on a boy when I was about nine. He was in sixth grade and I was in fourth or fifth grade. Even though I couldn’t really articulate it, I knew I was attracted to him somehow.
My first sexual experience was when I was 11 or 12, just fooling around with a boyhood friend from school. I would spend the night with him at his house. Most 12-year-olds are typically horny – at least I was – and, you know, one thing led to another and we ended up just kind of rubbing each other off.
It wasn’t sex or anything; it was just playing around. I knew that I enjoyed it but I also came from a very religious background, and we’re heavily entrenched in religion in the US. My final foster placement was with my aunt and uncle, and he was a Baptist minister. So this wasn’t something that I felt I could tell anybody.
We’re taught that if you do those things, you’re wrong. And I think every gay guy, every person who goes outside of the ‘norm’ has that struggle. I think that played directly into me not exploring my sexuality further until I got to Korea when I was completely away from my family. Korea is a melting pot; it’s just this amazing hodgepodge of culture. Originally, Korea was only a one-year tour of duty and I actually extended it to two years. For me, as a young kid in that environment, it was a very growing experience.
One of my first relationships was with a soldier that was in my unit. And that was when the internet was just taking off and chat rooms were the big thing. That’s how I would meet other soldiers that were gay. You could go in there with some sense of anonymity, and it offered me the chance to explore the gay side of me that I’d never really dealt with.
Right up to the point where I went into the military, I had been in training to be a minister.
I always said that I had a calling to help people. So I preached for about a year before I went into the military and I would like to think that it shaped the person who I became. But ultimately, I made that choice that I couldn’t keep preaching something that I didn’t necessarily believe in. Not that I didn’t believe in religion but I didn’t believe in all the teachings.
When I outed myself, I basically said that I can’t perpetuate this hypocrisy, of what’s being taught. I really felt that my identity was in conflict with the Church’s belief of who I should be. Unfortunately most religions believe that being gay is a choice and that it’s a sin, and that you should just repress your feelings. That’s not true. I always see it like this: nobody chooses to be gay. If I had a choice between choosing to be straight or gay, there’s no decision. No-one would choose a life of isolation, discrimination and being persecuted by their peers.
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When I got back stateside after Korea, I lived on the base near Nashville, Tennessee. At the time, there were a couple of soldiers being discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We were in the battalion area one day and I heard the battalion commander make some disparaging remarks about them. You know ‘fag this’ and ‘fag that’ – very hateful language. For me it was a matter of principle. Either I could sit by and do nothing or I could stand up. And I knew if I stood up, that would basically end my military career. But that's what I did. You know, there’s a quote that I like to say: “All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” So I outed myself and within a week I was discharged from the military.
I didn’t want to, I knew what I had to do and, under chapter 15 of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, if you disclosed your sexual preference, your military command had certain rules and regulations they had to follow. Once you made that disclosure then they would automatically start to remove you from the military. I didn’t want to run from the military but I also knew that I had to make a statement. I loved the military and had I had my way, I’d still be there. But that wasn’t the road that was chosen for me. These were soldiers that I was prepared to die for and sometimes it takes personal sacrifice to do the right thing and it’s not always comfortable.
I think soldiers are taught virtues: duty, a sense of country, loyalty, honour, integrity. But if openly, we don't adhere to those core values then what does that make us? To me, it makes us hypocrites. Ultimately, I decided I had to stand up for something and that’s the road I chose.
I was honourably discharged because Chapter 15 of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is an honourable discharge and that’s what paid for my college and I still have all my military benefits because of it. Under President Obama they reversed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and I could have gone back into the military except for the fact that I’m now HIV positive and no service member can be HIV positive in the military.
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After I was discharged from the military, I had these great notions of returning home and going to university except I wasn’t really prepared for that because the only thing I knew how to do was be a soldier. So I started dating a guy that I’d been talking to – and we moved in together.
We met online and then we started talking. Many times, when people are living in the country or not in urban areas, they’re definitely scared of being outed. So that was the case for both of us, even though I’d already disclosed that I was gay to my family. When I went to Korea, I had written a long letter to my family.
Most people thought that we were just roommates. And that worked out. It was basically my first real relationship living with someone and we needed to share all the domestic duties and cleaning, and all that jazz. It was good. After a year and a half, we just kind of grew apart and I ended up leaving to take another job and that was the end of that.
Then I bounced around for about a year, and I worked at a camp for kids. I had been to the camp as a kid myself. That was something I was very passionate about until the whole issue of me being gay came up and that ended it. So I made the decision to leave.
After that I moved to St Louis and I got into a relationship. We met at a dance club, we hit it off and the rest, as they say, is history. We moved in together and we were together for four years.
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It was a relationship of convenience more than anything else. Neither one of us was really in a healthy place emotionally, and he was very abusive, very controlling and manipulative. And I wasn’t in a great place either, just not happy.
He was violent; we got into quite a few altercations. He would threaten suicide and threaten isolation from family and friends and all the typical things that go with an abusive relationship.
I think it was normal for me. That’s part of the reason why I work with people who might be in domestic violence situations now. I always tell people if you’ve grown up with that then that’s what you know, and it’s what you accept. For me, it was just easier to just be in that situation than to fight. It wears you down emotionally and in every other aspect.
That was also a time that I started kind of experimenting with drugs. Not really experimenting: I was playing pretty hard with drugs. The first time I ever got drugs was down west, in about 2000 or 2001. My mum died October 5th of 2000. I was away in the army when she passed away so that worked as a slight catalyst for me using.
We would go out all the time to the bars, to the dance clubs and I started using ecstasy and drugs like that. Primarily, I would say that I used ecstasy because I had a lot of emotional issues. I had a lot of things that were pent up inside of me, and the ecstasy actually allowed me to talk about things.
I think that a lot of the things I witnessed as a kid were quite horrific. There was a lot of abuse, and I saw my dad try to kill my mother.
The interesting thing about the brain is that we can suppress things; compartmentalise things. But eventually you have to deal with it.
I wasn’t a very easy person to date in my first couple of relationships. I would cause a lot of arguments and I just did not know how to communicate. I felt that doing ecstasy helped a lot in that regard; I was a much more pleasant person to be around.
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After we broke up, I started to frequent gay clubs more and more and so I was starting to build an identity as a gay man. But I was still hanging onto some kind of façade, this lie that I was straight.
I think part of it was fear of being rejected; you want to fit in. You want to be part of the group. Although I had gay friends, we weren’t close, and I didn’t really identify with them much. It’s kind of silly, but I guess I was still holding out hope that I would change. I think with my background in religion, I’ve always had this kind of teeter-totter effect where, although even though I knew my identity as a gay man, at times I tried to come back to God, thinking maybe He could fix it. I’ve given up on that because there’s nothing wrong with me. But when I was younger, that was a thought that I held onto.
During that relationship I started attending university. I studied sociology, with a minor in psychology. It took me six years. University’s only four years – but I was also working full-time. I was a very untraditional kind of student.
Even though I was in this very controlled relationship, I was learning. It was hard; I would take classes and then things would happen at home, and then I’d end up withdrawing. But over time, I just kind of ‘became a student’. I learnt how to be a student even though I didn’t have the skill set before. And that started to change a lot of things, learning about culture and humanities, and developing all those things that are acquired at university. I also think part of it was maturing as a person and recognising that just because you are one particular way doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to be. But it takes time to change things and you need a concerted effort to change behaviour and thought processes. I figured out I wasn’t happy with myself.
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I really feel that a relationship can be very hard, quite restrictive. When I got out of that four year relationship, I started partying and living it up. I was doing more drugs, harder drugs. I wasn’t necessarily trying to escape anything, I was just living up to the status quo for being in the gay culture. Lots of drugs. Party hard. Have fun. Die young, leave a pretty corpse!
At the time, we had a lot of problems with methamphetamines in the US. Where I lived, it was one of the central spots for that drug, and it was like overnight the club scene just changed. It was all part of the national strategy to crack down on drugs, and things changed in St Louis, and across the country. When they made it harder to hold drugs, that kind of curtailed everything, and after that I changed the people I was hanging out with.
I’ve had a couple of relationships in my time. I’m 33; I never set out to have multiple relationships, but I think for all the ways that I am healthy mentally and spiritually, I still have a certain amount of dysfunction in my life and I think that can be directly attributed back to the way I saw my parents interact, growing up in foster care and things like that.
I think I was searching for something but I didn’t know what that was. The drug use just happened to be there. If you’re in the gay scene, and you’re partying, then it goes hand-in-hand. I don't want to generalise but I think for a good majority of the gay culture, that’s true.
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By 2011, I’d been working at a really good job for six or seven years and I had tenure. And then I hurt my back at work so I had to go out on workers compensation. While I was off work, I started taking drugs that were prescribed to me for attention deficit disorder. I discovered something really cool - if I took a whole lot of them, I got these feelings of euphoria and it was idyllic. Before I knew it, I was taking exorbitant amounts of these drugs, but they had been prescribed, so that made it feel like it was okay. But I started withdrawing from my friends.
I actually started doing this when I was still at work, but once I was off work, I had a lot of downtime. And the drugs I was abusing were amphetamines, so there’s a sexual component. I reverted back to doing what I’ve always known, which is being very sexual in nature and engaging in risky behaviour.
Honestly, I hated safe sex. I was very promiscuous, and I think that went along with the lifestyle I was leading. I hated condoms, and no young person ever wants to think that it’s going to happen to them.
There’s this feeling of immortality and invincibility. I think I was certainly in that group and I never thought that anything would happen to me.
I didn’t even engage in risk reduction. Honestly I should have, but I didn’t. And if it wasn’t for some of the people I’ve dated in the past, I probably would have been positive a long time before I was. I guess you could describe it as sabotaging behaviour or self-destructive behaviour.
I created the perfect storm. The drugs that I was on, I was taking about 10 times the recommended FDA limit. I took so many of these drugs that I basically had an allergic reaction to them. That forced me to go and see a dermatologist and they put me on a high-dose steroid. There’s a warning label on these steroids that tells you that you could be at risk of infection because it depletes your immune system. So I was engaging in very risky sexual behaviour, coupled with a depleted immune system, which just set the stage for HIV exposure.
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In May we had a really big tornado in Joplin, Missouri. I had organised a supply drive for that. One of my volunteers was positive and we were having a conversation where I said, “Hey, I think there’s a chance that if I get tested, I’m going to be positive.” But I didn’t want to be tested because that would have meant it was real. He encouraged me to get tested though, and a few weeks later I went and got tested for HIV and other STDs.
The result was positive. They did two tests, and both of them came back as reactive. When I actually converted, my viral load was close to a million, and my CD4 was 678. Based on that, we were able to calculate that it was early 2011 when I was infected.
The only symptom I really had was a sense of extreme fatigue, and then I also started having swollen lymph nodes in my neck. But I wasn’t sick; I didn’t have flu like symptoms or any of that. I just had this gut feeling. I had also heard that a person I had hooked up with basically only hooked up with positive people. And they weren’t safe. In that moment when I heard that, it was like a sucker punch to the gut. I didn’t need a blood test to tell me. I just knew.
I never broke down and cried. I never did any of that stuff. I just hit the ground running. I was tested on a Wednesday, found out on that following Monday. I immediately took out my phone and took a video, and that video is now on YouTube. I started blogging right after that. So I have all of that on video of how I was feeling and my reaction. I said to myself, “Okay, it is what it is. Now what are you gonna do about it?”
In some ways, when I came to terms with being a young gay man, I thought that there would probably come a time in my life when I was positive. Now that’s not the right mindset and we know that doesn’t have to be the case, but I think for me, having that mindset meant that when I ultimately tested positive , I didn’t have a huge breakdown or anything like that.
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I had started doing advocacy for foster kids and I was really passionate about that, being that I was a foster kid myself. When I tested positive, I had to do a gut check and decided to change focus. I still did advocacy and stuff for foster care but not as much as I do for HIV/AIDS. I had this YouTube channel but I’d never really put anything on it, so I just started putting videos up. And that was basically my therapy. I tried to learn as much as I could about HIV and that knowledge kind of comforted me. And then I found that, as my videos were put out there, people started watching them. Not just here in St Louis, but abroad as well. My first video is day four and I make three or four videos a week and now I think there are probably 200 videos online.
I started drug therapy almost a month exactly after I was diagnosed. That was my own choice. I was very lucky to have still had health insurance when I got diagnosed. I’d say that I reacted very normally to my diagnosis, and I didn’t really break down. But I did kind of withdraw a little bit and I ended up losing my job. The doctor’s office I had attended was able to get me into a drug study so I have treatment through that. I’m still in that drug study in the meantime but I don't have health insurance. I’m one of those Americans who, if I did get sick then I would really be in trouble.
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It was right after I was diagnosed. I wasn’t necessarily looking for anything and he wasn’t looking for anything either. You feel as if your body has been infiltrated by this poison and I think that can make you withdraw from society a bit. But I was out for my birthday and I met him. He was actually the bartender; he was working and I was drinking.
We didn’t immediately start dating. We just started hanging out. But I was very forthright about my status because we have very strict criminalisation laws regarding HIV. When they give you your results, you actually sign a paper saying that you understand that you can be put in gaol if you don't disclose your status, even if you’re having protected sex. In the state of Missouri, (where I was at the time), if you expose someone to HIV, even with a condom, it’s punishable by 15 years in prison. If that person subsequently becomes infected, it’s a class A felony punishable by 30 years in prison. We even have laws against biting and spitting; it’s very archaic.
I wasn’t looking for a relationship. We started talking and we were meshing but I was still dealing with being newly diagnosed. So it was a couple of months before we started dating. But even after we started dating, I was still dealing with my issues, and we ended up breaking up for a little while. That breakup was around January this year, and I actually relapsed and starting taking drugs again. I don't think I had necessarily hit rock bottom but I was headed that way.
The last time I used drugs was January 5th and this year has been the most difficult one of my life. I’d be lying if I said I didn't want to use from time-to-time but I’m just at a point in my life now where I can’t.
I’ve been clean ever since but that relapse set up a series of events that resulted in losing my job, and that lead to me losing my house and becoming homeless. I had unemployment benefits which were paid out to me, but the job market in the US is not the best. After I exhausted those benefits, I just had too many bills; my income to debt ratio was way out of whack. I moved in with my boyfriend, but that was tough to get used to. I was very used to having my own space. But he’s just been so supportive, and I would definitely be in a tough situation if I didn’t have him.
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I’ve been very blessed, especially recently, to do some great things that most people will probably never do in their lives. Last year I keynoted a conference for the Administration for Children and Families. At the International AIDS Conference in DC recently, I actually happened to be photographed by photographers from the Associated Press, Reuters, and Geddes Images. Those pictures are viral, and before I knew it, there were photos of me in China and all over Europe. I did 14 international news media interviews with everybody from Hungary, Guatemala, all over. It was quite interesting looking on the internet, typing my name, and seeing how much comes up.
But I always just tried to stay grounded with all that. I also met Jamar Rogers, (contestant on NBC’s The Voice), we spent a lot of time together. And I got to spend a good portion of a week with Timothy Brown, the Berlin patient who was the first ever man cured of HIV.
I’m still doing all the activist stuff; it’s important. Through all of this, the only thing that I always had was my YouTube channel. I didn’t hide from anybody. Whenever I relapsed I told my viewers all about it and so I found comfort in people all over the globe. They reached out to me and gave me courage and strength. I think that’s been part of the success of my YouTube channel. It’s not anything that I’ve done. It’s just the rawness of me being exposed and being honest about who I am.
For me, HIV was completely preventable. It is with most people. I would go as far as saying if I had loved myself, it would have been a different outcome. Life is not about attracting something, it’s not about attaining something; it’s just about loving yourself. My biggest message is: dictate the circumstances – don't let them dictate you. Just because you’ve been through something, it doesn’t mean you have to be a certain way. Ultimately, you are in control.