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 raised in the Sunshine Coast which is quite a beachy surfey sort of place. It was a pretty cool area to grow up in during the nineties. My mum always raised us with a really open mind; she taught us a lot about sex education and stuff like that. For her open communication was really important, which I think in a lot of Chinese background families is a rare thing. My mum can be incredibly frank about that stuff and would talk to my sisters about the importance of vaginal hygiene from a young age. So I think that was a good and important part of our upbringing.
While it’s quite modern on the sunshine coast, there are some conservative political movements in the area. Such as the big One Nation movement in the mid nineties. So I was exposed to some of those conservative attitudes growing up as well, but luckily I came from a really open minded family.
I remember going to high school and the parents of some of the kids would be lobbying for them. Sometimes you’d even have a One Nation car or van pull up to school.
It was a bit strange. I remember it changed the conversation around the schoolyard. It prompted a lot of my friends to say “They’d never really thought of me as an Asian” they sort of spoke about Asians as these other people and I wasn’t part of that group apparently. It’s a bit funny looking back on it, I mean if you don’t see me as Asian what do you see me as? Latino? I think it changed the dinner conversation for a lot of families and that got brought into the playground as well. It was really funny because in the 80’s primary school was all about multiculturalism and what a great thing that was. It was a big shift between primary school and high school.
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I think from a really young age I knew I was gay, but as a kid I didn’t really have the vocabulary to articulate what I was feeling. I remember having crushes on my male classmates. However, I was also having crushes on my female classmates as well. I guess when you’re going through puberty and all your hormones are rushing around you’re not really sure. Then I saw shows like Man Oh Man hosted by Rob Guest and saw the Speedo round. I started feeling things that were a little bit different. I think that’s when I started suspecting that my attraction to guys was something more. I think there’s a difference between feeling it (being gay) and acknowledging it. I think I acknowledged it in my mid teens.
I graduated in 1999, on the Sunshine Coast, and certainly in that era no-one would come out as gay throughout their high school years. My younger sister is 8 years younger then me. I remember her class mates were quite open about sexuality and some of the guys came out during high school. I’d finished school and I was about to move to university. I remember thinking that ‘I’m going to Uni and leaving my family for the first time so if I don’t come out now...’ So it was this really exciting time. I’d been raised in a big family, really tight-knit environment and I was getting to live on my own for the first time without supervision. I wanted to seize the opportunity when I got some independence to be really open about myself. I was excited about the possibilities and I guess one of the possibilities is what you might get up to sexually.
So, the first person I came to was my best friend at the time, Rebecca, and from there I told my mum. I was snotty, crying and scared about what she might say and think. I couldn’t even articulate what I wanted to say. She had this funny, awesome reaction, where she started guessing at the things I was upset about. So she said “Have you gotten Rebecca pregnant?” and I said “No”, “Are you on drugs?” and I said “No” and then she said “Oh, you must be gay then. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. It just means that something went wrong in the womb, that’s all. It’s not your fault”.
My mother always had a funny take on things. Just something went wrong in the womb.
So things are ok. I came out to my siblings after that. The thing about coming from a really big family (five siblings), you have to keep telling everyone one by one. My dad was the last to know and when I told him, he wasn’t too upset, but the thing I think he was upset about was going through every family member and realising he was the last person to know.
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Then I went off to Uni. I don’t know about everyone else when they were 17 years old but I had braces in my teeth, bad acne and hair like a toilet brush. It wasn’t exactly going to be a year of monumental sexual discovery or awakening. I wasn’t the most attractive prospect at the time.
Towards the end of that year when I turned 18 I went out clubbing and picked up guys in a hazy, beery fog. Beery fogs always help. Going on to the gay scene was terribly exciting. I think Brisbane’s gay club scene is quite modest and there’s about two major venues. I remember when I first got to uni the queer collective at my uni (QUT) was really quite strong and fun. They organised a queer pub crawl; I remember that night going out with my mates and just making a raucous mess of ourselves. We went out to one really old school gay pub called Sporties and there were like these gold effigies of guy’s butts and we all ended up on stage pretending to rim them in front of everyone. It was a nightmare, we totally disgraced ourselves. I guess that’s the stuff you do when you turn 18 and you’re out on a queer pub crawl. I thought it was terribly exciting and cool. It’s not really my scene nowadays, but when you’re that young, you just want to be completely exposed to that stuff.
My first sexual experience was with a guy, a young dude, who I thought sort of looked like Rove McManus (when Rove McManus was new and young). I went back to his place and I was so drunk that I passed out in the middle of proceedings, which can’t have been glamorous. I think all of us when we think back to our first sexual experiences it’s something you cringe over. Certainly I had one of those experiences, you know, that makes you just wanna dig a hole in the ground and bury yourself. I was wearing these stupid leather shoes, that would have made me look like an elf, torn up cargo pants, this stupid t-shirt with a play on the Nike logo and these sandalwood beads. I had no idea what was going on and how to dress in that stage of my life. The fact that someone found me attractive was incredibly flattering. I had no idea what was going through that guy’s mind, but we went back to his place. It was pretty light on stuff. I was so nervous that I wanted to be as drunk as possible, and then I passed out. So that was really high glamour and sophistication.
It was really awkward when I woke up. I was hung over, breath like a rubbish bin. It wasn’t that sexy next morning ‘How-are-you-going’ rubbing up against each other... It was more that awkward ‘In the harsh like of day you can probably see and smell exactly what I actually am’... So, very teenage awkward fumbling on my behalf and if that guy happens to read this one day, I apologise whole-heartedly for everything that took place. Just complete mortification.
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It wasn’t long after, in my first uni break that I hooked up with a school friend of mine. We were mates, but he was a year level below me. He’s the boyfriend that I’ve still got now. Certainly there’ve been periods we’ve taken a break from the relationship. But it’s basically been the same guy since I was 18 and it’s been really good. I think that’s sort of unusual for a lot of people and if it was anyone else the relationship wouldn’t have lasted this long. It helps when the guy you’re with is outrageously handsome and also very smart and cool. I think we’re an anomaly in terms of not just gay people we know but generally people we know about how young we found each other and how we’ve managed to stay together. We’ve sort of worked out that in some ways we feel less like gay men but more like monogamous lesbians.
I suspected he was gay at school, we were both arty kids. In a jocky, surfy, sports-oriented, school it stood out pretty quickly. So we flocked together and became better friends. When I was in my final year of high school we went on this really nerdy band camp throughout the Bible Belt of America. So that experience which was half absurd and half hilarious, sort of bonded us together. Travelling through Bible Belt Phoenix and holding hands with American kids, praying for the aborted souls of foetuses, well it’s very strange. Thankfully when you go through that with someone else it sort of bonds you together. So we were sort of good mates by that stage but, with the help of Passion Pop in a Sunshine Coast car park, that changed. Really romantic and sophisticated.
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At the same time I started volunteering for a queer radio program out of the community radio station at 4ZZZ. It was interesting getting exposed to the community in that way. That’s sort of around the time where I started finding out things about the gay community that didn’t necessarily sit right with me, or views that don’t really align with mine. But that’s important as well, finding out that the gay community isn’t just this one amorphous lot that’s congealed and all the same. There are a lot of old school gays and lesbians and young gays and lesbians who sit on really different ends of the political spectrum. That was really interesting to me as well.
I remember one really funny moment on air where there was just dead air on radio. It was me and this other girl presenting the Youth hour and we made some glib joke about anal sex. Then the older presenter leaned and in this really serious, earnest voice, said “Oh yes, and speaking of anal sex, we must all remember it is very important to evacuate one’s bowels before anal sex”. It just came out of nowhere and we were so shocked. I just remember thinking at that age when I was 17 or 18 thinking “Wow I have no idea what I’ve stepped into!” It was a really strange experience, but funny in retrospect.
I got into volunteering because I was studying creative writing at the time, and a lot of subjects were mandatory journalism subjects. So you had to write something about a community organisation or a segment of a minority group. So I wrote this new article about the queer radio program that came out of this station. It was one of the oldest radio programs of its kind in the state, if not the country. I thought it was really interesting that in a state like Queensland, where homosexuality wasn’t decriminisalised until 1990, it had such a long history of broadcasting. I thought that was really interesting and cool. So I wrote an article and they liked my vibe. They said that they really wanted to get more young listeners in, so I volunteered. I have to say that I was probably the worst broadcaster that that station had ever seen. I’m not suited towards talking into a microphone live. There was some pretty hideous radio I put to air during my time.
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I was at Uni for a really long time, because I went on to do Honours and then my doctorate. So the Asian Nerd in me came out in force! Finishing Uni was only a recent thing. I only finished my doctorate about a year ago. So I’ve just been doing full-time writing since. I have moved in with my boyfriend into the apartment where we are living now, in Brisbane. It’s gotten really domestic. We didn’t live together for a long time. That might be a key. Not living together for so long, not being in each other’s pockets certainly helps. However, there’s a really nice sort of comforting thing that comes with a long term relationship and domesticity, which I’m sure young readers will read and wanna vomit in their mouths about. But I’m in my late 20’s now and digging that.
I was a really big book nerd when I was a kid, and I remember my mum getting me for Christmas the whole back catalogue of Roald Dahl books. Then when I was a teenager I was really big into magazines, reading Rolling Stone, Juice, and HQ magazine. Being a really big magazine nerd I always thought that I wanted to be a cool magazine journalist. I would write letters to the editor at Rolling Stone, once one of them got picked out as letter of the month and I won a Panasonic Stereo. It made me think ‘Wow, this writing gig is really awesome!’. So, that’s one of the reasons I pursued it at Uni. I’m still sort of a nerd when it comes to that, I’m still reading something constantly, whether it’s a magazine or the back of a cereal packet.
I worked in a book store for 5 years and I tend to switch between fiction and non-fiction a lot. I’ve always got a few books on the boil, which isn’t the best habit. I know when I was a teenager I really loved Fantasy/Sci-Fi. I’ve probably grown out of that a little. I still read some Neal Gaiman, now and then. Now it’s fiction that revolves around slightly dysfunctional families. I don’t know if that’s a genre but I certainly love reading that stuff. Maybe that comes through to anyone who’s read the book I wrote. Any sort of non-fiction I can get my hands on is really cool.
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The book I’ve written is called The Family Law, and it’s basically a coming of age book. I describe it as David Sedaris meets the Wonder Years, but everyone’s Asian and eating rice instead. It sort of deals with my family and growing up Asian-Australian on the sunshine coast.
I came from a family that, looking back, was quite unusual for that time and place. It was a Chinese migrant family. My parents moved over to Australia in the 70’s and were some of the first Chinese people in their area. It was quite revolutionary in some ways. Then they had 5 children. It’s not so much the case now, but when I was going to school I was one of the very few Asians. So the book looks at that experience. My parents split up when I was 12 as well. So it sounds like a hard heavy book, but it’s really supposed to be a comedy as well. It’s sort of absurd humour. The old equation that tragedy plus time equals comedy has been applied to this book very liberally. There’s a couple of chapters about coming out as gay. The gay stuff is woven into it. It’s like a black comedy memoire.
There’s one chapter called “Tourism” and it’s all about all the shitty theme parks that we visited during that period where my parents were separating. My dad had custody of us every second weekend but my mum would insist on tagging along as well. So in Queensland there’s the Gold Coast which has these really big, amazing theme parks like Movie-World, Seaworld and Dreamworld. On the Sunshine Coast you have theme parks as well but they’re really sort of sad and depressing. A lot of them have closed down. One theme-park we went to was called the Big Bottle, and it was this massive ceramic bottle thing. Basically this metal slide wound its way around the bottle on the outside and you’d slide down in a hessian sack. But to get to the top you had to climb through the inside of the bottle on these stairs and there were hundreds of beer bottles lined up in the middle. People would piss inside them and it smelt like death. So it was basically a theme-park that smelt like a urinal. I’m pretty sure that’s closed down now. So in my book I was sort of comparing the idea of marriage as this joyful institution just like theme parks are supposed to be joyful institutions, and how they can both get quite decrepit over time. So it’s sort of that dark comedy throughout.
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The book I’m researching now is tentatively titled “Gaysia”. Which as the title implies is basically a travel adventure throughout Asia looking at queer communities, especially young urban queer communities. I mean I’m really taking a snapshot of what different parts of Asia are like at the moment. I’ve picked Asia because I’m gay and I’m Asian, but also because Asia is the most populous continent in the world. A lot of the world’s population lives in Asia which is so quickly developing and transforming. My friend put it really well, he said “Gay issues are almost a litmus test for a whole lot of other social issues when it comes to different societies.” You can sort of read into a few different things when you look at gay issues.
I’m in China at the moment, but I spent about 2 to 3 weeks in Thailand earlier this year. So, looking at transgender and transsexual issues over in Thailand was really interesting, because you’ve got this society where ladyboys are so visible which seems quite progressive. However they have next to no rights, they can’t get their sex changed on official documentation, which prevents them from being protected by the law in many ways.
What I’m doing in China is looking the environment where the media is so heavily censored by the Government, and seeing how gay issues work around that. It’s been interesting looking at young webmasters, or young people trying to find love and how they go online and get around these things. The stuff that’s happening in China is quite innovative and cool. I’m also looking at activism in a country where you can’t be publicly active - you can’t do a march in China. How do you be an activist when you can’t march?
I’m also looking at the pressures facing young Chinese gays and lesbians in terms of marriage. Because unlike a lot of societies where gay or lesbian isn’t quite kosher and it’s coming from a religious or a moral tradition. I don’t think too many people see being gay or lesbian as a morally bad thing. It’s more of an embarrassment, and on a really profound level, an inconvenience. It’s such a fundamental inconvenience it means that a lot of Chinese gays and lesbians will just marry someone and have a sham wedding, or the gays and lesbians will actually marry each other. As a result of the one child policy here, young people are of a single child generation and the family pressure to marry is so ingrained in Chinese culture. Now however, it’s compounded by the fact that’s there’s only one chance to get your child married off. So a lot of the people here are coming out and their parents are like “Ok so you’re gay, so you’re a lesbian. Can you get married to the opposite sex anyway?” So they’ll have their same sex relationships but they’ll marry each other for show. It’s really wild.
At the very basic level, these are all human stories. I think that when we think of somewhere like China, we think 'Oh well, you can’t vote, so how can you affect change'. But then again even within a democracy like Australia it’s really hard to affect change. We think that we’re so far ahead in so many ways but there are actually a lot of similarities as well in terms of progress. When Chinese people talk about the legalisation of homosexuality which happened in the late 90’s... I look at somewhere like Queensland, where they only legalised homosexuality in the early 90’s.
I think the biggest problem with being gay in China really comes from a family tradition; it doesn’t come from a religious or moral one. The stories have been really interesting and some of them have been unintentionally hilarious. I met a gay couple and one of them is technically married to a lesbian, or at least had a sham wedding ceremony for both sets of parents. The way they organised things, and put on this big ceremony. It’s like it’s straight out of a sitcom, if it wasn’t so strange it would be funny.
So Gaysia is sort of a social history, on the ground journalism mixed in with an absurdist style of journalism. I think when you look at some of these stories, they are quite inherently funny in some ways, but mixed in with quite serious issues. That’s the way I come to see most issues. That’s the tone of what I’m writing at the moment.
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It’s been really drilled into us by my mum, the importance of safe sex and contraception. In that way my mum has really brought us to be incredibly aware, educated and informed about that sort of stuff. If there’s gaps in her knowledge she’ll make sure that we find out about it ourselves and talk among ourselves. So all of the siblings even when we’re together we’ll have really frank conversations. There’s an attitude that you don’t even sleep with someone until they’ve got tested and can somehow prove what the test results are. That’s a bit hardcore. But I know there’s a certain streak of that in my family. I think the importance of safety and minimising risk has just been a family trait. Whether it’s sex or, you know, going on an overseas adventure. I think that’s maybe a really Chinese thing to analyse all the risks and weigh things up.
So I’ve just been one of those sickeningly monogamous people this whole time. When we talk about safe sex, I guess one of the strategies is to get tested to make sure you are safe in the first place. Then if you’re in an exclusively monogamous relationship, whatever sex you have within that relationship is going to be safe. That’s not a recommendation from me, but it’s just how I’ve been able to negotiate it.
So, it’s almost heteronormative that my boyfriend (and I) have done it. There’s not that anxiety about knowing you’re doing anything risky in the first place. Some people might see monogamy as a sort of stifling thing, but there is an element of liberty that comes with it as well. You both know that whatever you do, it can be anxiety-free. So that’s another way of looking at it.
We broke up when we were really young into the relationship. I think when you’re like 19-20yo it’s pretty natural to feel freaked out by the idea that you’re going to be with the same person for a long time. That’s the age when you’re really horrified by the prospect of being with one person for the rest of your life. But I think it’s natural... especially when you’re gay and there’s no reason why you should feel you need to marry. You want to experience other opportunities. I think the break up was a natural progression of those sorts of feelings. Which I probably will get again when I’m 45 and have a mid-life crisis. I think, with most relationships, it’s inevitable that stuff comes up.
However, we gravitated towards each other again. I think the unusual thing about our relationship is that we are super-compatible. I’ve sort of gotten older and those ideas that horrified me when I was young are things I find comforting now. However, so much of it depends on finding the right person. I’ve just been lucky enough to have found that person- that’s all. To be honest, it also helps that my partner is incredibly handsome and his looks have really changed and gone through really distinct phases as times gone on. It’s like going out with a new person every two years. When we first met he had basically a white boy’s afro. Then he got it all shaved off so had this military vibe. After the military phase he had these massive British mutton chops that him look like a member of the IRA. Then after the IRA phase he had his 1980’s Patrick Bateman corporate look. Now he’s got what he has at the moment which is sort of a slicked back rocker with a beard sort of look.
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Whatever sort of relationship you’re in gay, straight or bi, it should be based on communication. You should always have not just your safety, but the safety and welfare of your partner in mind. I don’t think any sexual practice is wrong or weird. However, if there’s a risk that someone might be hurt by doing it, then that’s something you should avoid. When it comes to sex, I don’t really think sex is anyone’s business except your own. Whatever you get up to just make sure that you’re safe and the person you’re with is not at risk from anything.
If young people are reading this, I’d say “Come out soon. It’s like a Band Aid. The quicker you do it, the better it will be in the long run”. So do it early and make sure you’ve got a support base so that if anyone reacts negatively you’re not left completely out on a limb. Make sure you’ve got support first, so that when inevitable negativity comes up, whether it’s from your family or friends, you do have people to turn to. Don’t just do it on your own. Everyone thinks coming out is a one person process, because you have to say the words. However, you do need other people who’ve got your back. Whether that’s siblings or your crazy awesome aunt.
Where Ben grew up
Ben came here on a school camp
Ben spent a few weeks here researching his new book
Ben travelled to China and throughout Asia to research his book
Ben and his boyfriend now live together in Brisbane