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 Wagga Wagga in country New South Wales. My grandparents settled there as refugees from Poland during the 1940s. When the German dictatorship swept over Poland a lot of young women were put into servitude, including my Babcia – my grandmother.
My grandparents fought hard for us to be here and I’m passionate about my Polish heritage.
Although we have a strong Australian family history going back to my Mum's side from Broken Hill, my parents also taught us – my three sisters and me – to be proud of our Polish-Australian identity.
I had to learn how to spell out my surname for people from the age of about 4 and some my earliest memories are of my Babcia’s cooking. I was very close with my grandmother – in Polish culture as I was the only boy, I was considered lucky and she made me feel very special. She died when I was six and I felt the loss very deeply.
My family was matriarchal and didn’t follow traditional gender roles.
My parents always taught us to value people for who they are, they didn’t discriminate based on gender, culture or sexuality. My parents were activists about almost everything – they took us to rallies in support of Nelson Mandela, and Amnesty International meetings. They fought against injustice.
My sister (L) taunting me (R) with mud - I am not impressed that she might ruin my clean outfit!
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I wasn’t taught any difference between ‘what boys do’ and ‘what girls do,’ which is really lucky for me, but when I started high school, the other students saw the difference and began to tease me. All my friends were girls and one of my teachers said to me, "You can't just keep playing with the girls because everyone will talk."
I was nine years old and thought it was an odd thing for him to say, but I think he was trying to protect me from being teased, in his 1980s schoolteacher way.
My family respected their friends that were same-sex attracted, so although I pushed down that part of myself, I was taught to say, "I'm not gay but there's nothing wrong with that." It's a nice sentiment but it doesn't really fly in school, and it certainly didn’t do me any favours.
I was horribly, horribly bullied in the first two years of high school – they threw lemons through the windows and hung faeces off the front gate of my house. Eventually we had to get the police involved.
I had really bad skin issues which just exacerbated things, because people picked on me about having eczema. I had massive self-esteem issues and a lot of anxiety.Looking back as an adult, I can see what a mess that period was but it taught me a lot about people. I had a girlfriend then who was more of a best friend - she is now married to a woman. I sometimes wonder if we were protecting each other on some subconscious level.
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My parents got divorced when I was 14 and I moved with my mum and a couple of my sisters up to Dubbo. This gave me a chance to reinvent myself – I could shake off the image of ‘the gay guy’, or whatever it was that people thought of me.
I'm not a big fan of Dubbo itself – it’s a pretty redneck town, with endemic racism issues – and it was really tough leaving my dad behind, but I loved being able to start over. I copied my oldest sister's music taste and got into Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins, and grunge became my life. It was a good year to be a weirdo, or a freak, or different – I could just throw myself into art and drama, be myself and relax a little. There weren't too many questions asked.
I had my first kiss with a girl when I was 16.
It was fun, we played Sheryl Crowe’s ‘All I Wanna Do is Have Some Fun’ on cassette and kissed on the roof of a shed. I don’t remember being attracted to many guys in high school, I just remember really admiring a few adults in my life – I think I was crushing on them without admitting it to myself. Because of my anxiety or insecurity, I tricked myself into avoiding those feelings, because it probably seemed safer at the time.
When my dog had puppies, I named mine Fatso.
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In Sydney I developed really bad depression. I had to work to maintain my youth allowance, so I ended up working three jobs as well as uni. I thought if I didn't pass at uni I was a failure as a person, and I burnt myself out – it was devastating.
Upon reflection, I had a crush on one of my housemates – a German guy who was on exchange. I’m pretty sure he was gay and when he headed back to Germany, I realised, "Oh no. I think I might like this guy." I pushed it down again; although I had an inkling, I still denied it to myself.
Eventually I went to live with my sister and her husband in Albury, Wodonga to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I stacked shelves at Safeway, and took the night shifts because I couldn't handle being around people. I ended up deciding to start a new university course in Melbourne – I wanted to study foreign aid planning and development and La Trobe University was one of the only places in Australia that offered it at the time.
The focus of the course was on the impact of colonisation and analysing problems in western interventions and foreign aid. The course left you feeling like an arsehole in many ways, but at the same time gave you skills in addressing the world's problems.
At uni I started to feel more confident and independent, and I had some sexual relationships with girlfriends. At the time I couldn't identify why I wasn't more into the situation. One year I went back to Dubbo for New Years and realised how different my feelings were from the hetero people I grew up with. When I got back to Melbourne, I called one of my sisters and told her, “I think I might be bisexual.”
That year, a friend at uni introduced me to a guy and we hooked up. I really enjoyed it; I felt like everything suddenly made sense.I had my first sexual experience with him. We were crashing on my friend’s couch after having a few drinks at her house. We shared the couch and got closer and closer to one another, and the rest is history. It felt nice. It’s a totally different feeling when you're really attracted to someone.
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At this point, I decided to tell my whole family. I chose a day, picked the phone up and called every person in my immediate family and told them I was gay. They’re lovely, so I knew it would be okay.
I had pretty amazing coming out in terms of support from my family, but I got confused about my identity.
There’s no manual; no little book in which to look up the type of gay you're going to be.
I didn't have any role models to look up to aside from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which is all about judging people and giving them hair and fashion makeovers. Initially I thought, "Well, now if I'm gay I have to bleach my hair.” Eventually I realised I was trying too hard – that I could actually be me and a gay guy at the same time.
Three months after I came out, 2003
I met my first long-term boyfriend on a train heading back from Wagga; he had been visiting his grandparents in Queensland. We ended up living together.
We were together about a year before he cheated on me.
He was from a Jewish family and they’d really accepted me. His aunt called up begging me to take him back, saying he still loved me. It might have been a longer-term relationship but I was very stubborn about my boundaries. I felt like I’d been lied to, and I had. I learned later that you can be a bit more compromising – you can discuss things a bit more and not be so black and white.At the time though, I was a person scorned.
I had been very keen to get my Polish citizenship so I could study in Europe. About a year before I planned to leave, I met a guy and we fell desperately in love. Again, I was stubborn: I’d already made plans to move overseas and I was determined to stick to them.
As the time drew closer, things got more and more desperate for us both. He was so sweet. He wrote me a song and recorded it; it broke my heart.
I lived in London for about a year and a half but my citizenship never came through. I was still pining for him and I think he was a little, too, but when I finally returned to Melbourne, things didn’t match up and I moved on. We are still friends now which is amazing. I'm still in contact with all the people I've had relationships with.
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Back in Melbourne, I ended up doing volunteer work with migrant communities. This decision was a combination of my family history and a strong desire to give back. I decided to do my Masters in social work, and while I studied I worked part-time in hospital administration.
I learned a lot being around chronically unwell people. I met people who had been diagnosed when HIV had just hit the community and patients who contracted it were told they only had one month to live. A lot of them spent their money and said goodbye to their loved ones, but then survived. It was a bittersweet situation because they had to live in poverty after that.
Because of the stigma around HIV, I was having trouble empathising or seeing the disease as a human experience. I wanted to deal with that stigma head on, so I started work doing social outreach for the Positive Living Centre.
Incidentally, one of the biggest things that helped me deal with anxiety about HIV later in life was being on PrEP.
I've been with positive people before and I know HIV is a health condition, not the plague – but since I've been on PrEP, I’ve had a totally different mindset about sex and it's been a lot better.
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My parents had always taught me that if you see someone being treated unfairly you’ve got to stand up and say something, particularly if your situation isn’t as challenging as someone else’s.
I was a bit of a social justice warrior.
I volunteered for years working with people affected by migration before I finally realised there's a lot of work to be done here in Australia, too, and eventually did a placement for my masters with an Aboriginal-led organisation and did some social work with Aboriginal communities.
Later, a uni friend started a community gardening program and suggested that I be paired up with a person seeking asylum and help them to garden in their rental property. I got involved and buddied up with a Sri Lankan guy. I helped him deal with family separation through gardening, talking and having a friendship. It was really rewarding.
In my social justice work, I didn’t see myself as a caseworker – I thought I’d be emotionally unavailable because of my own anxiety and the emotional trauma I still hadn’t dealt with. I didn't trust myself to have the right skills. But once I started it, I loved casework.
I had thought, ‘If I'm dealing with all of this myself, how can I be supportive of somebody else?’ but actually you can be anyone, going through anything, and still be able to support somebody else.
Now I’m working in a public advocacy community education role. Again, it's about being able to stand up for social justice; things that I really believe in, such as the right to seek asylum. These are things that affected my family and could happen to anyone – you could live anywhere in the world, and still one day that could become your reality.
There are countries in our region where we should be focusing our attention, because they're our neighbors, they're our friends, and they need our help, too – we’ve got a lot of privilege over here. Of course we have our own social issues we need to fight for, but there are people close to us that are going through some terrible stuff, like Papua New Guinea.
Me in Summer 2018
Social work feels like what I should be doing, and it's really satisfying. My parents taught me that if you feel like things are going relatively okay, you should get out there and help give people who are struggling a voice. I'm so glad we had that drummed into us.
I think it’s worth learning as much as you can about the community that you're part of – and this was incredible. One of the strongest things we have in our lives are the people around us.
When we pull together, it can be very powerful.