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 Box Hill – I’ve lived there my entire life and still live there with my parents. I was born with a few physical conditions such as issues with my hearing. I have wide vestibular aqueducts which mean the tubes in my ears are a bit wider than most people. It’s a condition you’re born with and often if you go upside down, get intercranial pressure to your head or physically exert yourself too much, you can lose your hearing or go deaf entirely. Growing up I was seeing a lot of doctors, spent a lot of time in the Royal Children’s Hospital and couldn’t play sports. You can imagine being a slightly awkward young person unable to play sports – kids at school weren’t too nice. I did have friends in school but they were mostly girls.
Currently, I’m mostly deaf in my left ear and a little bit in my right ear but I don’t wear a hearing aid. Having hearing loss, especially from birth or a very young age, you don’t actually know that something is wrong. My experience of hearing is normal to me. I spoke to a friend of mine who is proper deaf (that’s not the PC term) and your senses compensate. I don’t even notice when I’m listening to music that there’s actually anything wrong with my left ear. Although, it’s really good when I’m lying down to sleep and I want full silence, I’ll just turn on my right side! I’ve got one younger sister who is 21 years old. She has always been very good with lots of friends and she’s studying Arts and Law. She’s perfect and I’ve grown up with her literally 10 metres from my bed my entire life.
I used to wear hearing aids when I was much younger but I stopped wearing them because there was a moment at school when a kid said, “aren’t they for old men?”
As soon as I heard that I thought, ‘I don’t want to wear them anymore!’ So I never wore them again. I know technology has gotten better over the years and they’ve gotten smaller and smaller, but you can’t help but feel like everyone can see it - you feel very self conscious. Technologies these days are pretty crazy though, you can actually hear the sound through the aid coming from specific directions. It sounds like a microphone though, it doesn’t sound natural at all.
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I was born with other developmental problems too, so I was a bit slower growing up and had to go to a special crèche before kindergarten. A lot of the kids that went to that crèche were way worse off than me though. I remember years later, I was out shopping with my mother and we ran into this kid and his mum. He had a very obvious speech impediment. My mum and this woman knew each other and this kid was trying to talk to me but I didn’t remember who he was. Mum said, “oh, you went to crèche with him years ago.” This kid stood there trying to say something to me and I couldn’t understand him so mum whispered, “he’s inviting you to his birthday party,” and I thought, ‘that is so weird.’ When we left and said goodbye to them, the whole way home all I could think about was, ‘is that what I’m like?’ I think that experience really affected how I viewed myself in primary school.
In Primary School
It turns out that a lot of the people that went to this special school might not have a quality of life that is comparable to mine. Whatever developmental problems I had, I have well and truly dealt with. That story is a good example of how I felt growing up, never quite one of the normal people, which I’ve gotten used to. In Primary School I was very closed off – I just played a lot of video games and I couldn’t really related to kids. In high school, it was still happening where I was trying to be friends with boys and be normal but it didn’t really work out, either because they went to my primary school and remember me being that weird kid or they figured I couldn’t really talk to anyone for some reason. I found it very hard to hold a conversation.
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I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. All through primary school I was always making up stories in my head. Feeling isolated and like you couldn’t interact with people, it made it very easy to disappear into the stories I was making up, and I would go home every day and work on different novels before I was even ten years of age.It was a form of escapism. Most of them were based on the video games I was playing at the time.
I used to fill up all of my school textbooks with stories. At one point my teachers got so sick of me filling up those books with stories instead of work, that when I was nine year sold, my fourth grade teacher gave me a gift. It was a small blank book that smelled of sawdust, and in it I wrote my first ever novel. I ended up writing about four or five sequels in other books – all handwritten and bought from different newsagencies. I even re-wrote it in my teen years when I got a decent computer - twice. I’m still trying to rewrite it to this very day, and I’ve always said that one day I’d get it published.
I’ve always known what I wanted to do, ever since I was a kid. I currently write freelance, mostly articles and opinion pieces for different websites, when I’m not being a photographer - but I really want to add ‘author’ to my resume. I have all these worlds and stories inside my head – some of them I’ve been dreaming up since I was nine years old – and I hope that one day I’ll be able to put them out into the world, when I think I’m ready to write them.
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My experience of high school was really sad at first. I went to Box Hill High School which is one of the best public high schools. It had some amazing programs for gifted students, so it was a combination of really, really smart people, and public school stereotypes. I was in the public school stream of learning, so I was exposed to a lot of dickheads who weren’t very nice. There was definitely still a lot of bullying there and I actually spent my 13th birthday in the nurse’s office after being beaten up by someone – so that was fun. I don’t think I could really conceptualise what was happening at the time, but now that I look back, I realise it was actually a big deal.I realise more and more how much it would have affected me especially when you start learning more about homophobia and how common this is for people who are different, that sort of thing.
I was just an easy target, so closed off and anxious. Growing up with a lot of physical issues played a lot into growing up. I couldn’t do a lot of stuff and I was very cautious to do anything. There was a time when I was very young and I felt invincible, and I used to be able to go on all the rides at the theme park. Then I got told I couldn’t do anything, play sports, get hit in the head or anything.
I was so terrified of everything that I ended up developing a crippling health anxiety that I still have to this very day.
This all played into these kids giving me a hard time because you stand out when you’re trying to take care of yourself.
Box Hill was a very multicultural place and mum worked in the Asian markets for seven years so I was raised on a steady diet of Thai food and anime. I used to draw lots of manga girls in my sketchbooks and these straight guys saw them and wanted me to draw naked girls for them. They ended up paying me to draw naked girls. I was basically running a black market of nude pictures in the sixth grade. It was very exciting, but I didn’t understand it at all. I appreciated women, but not in that way. It was almost annoyingly perverse, the way they were talking about it and I didn’t understand it at all.
It started to all click when I was looking at dad’s Men’s Health magazines in the bathroom and I spent a lot of time looking at the guys. I thought, ‘wait a minute, something’s happening.’ My dad had a lot of old tapes of films with some old school ‘80s actors in naked scenes where the guy’s showing his arse and I was very curious about that. It wasn’t until I was 14 and really starting to come out of my shell that I thought, ‘actually, I think I might be gay, or at least bisexual.’ I had a crush on a girl too, she was very graceful, but I think I was just appreciating everything about her.
I would call myself a massive homosexual, very good at it – a big fan. I tried to play it straight without actually knowing what I was when I was younger. I was always trying to get a girlfriend in later primary school or early high school. Before I even really understood what sexuality was, it always felt like a bit of a charade. I was never committed and I never understood what the big deal it was.
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At around 14 or 15 when everyone was going through their teen rebellion stage, I went through mine pretty aggressively. Got into spiked wristbands and heavy metal, stuff like that. I ended up making a lot of friends from outside school who were all punks, goths and emos. Suburban, chain smoking- bong-ripping rodents you’d say. I don’t know what happened, but they really took me in because they were city kids and I guess you’d say they accepted me for whatever I was. It was really great.
Even though there was this veneer of rebellious behaviour, whether it was house parties, staying out too late, chain smoking or taking drugs, whatever it was, it was really nice to all of a sudden go from not being able to have a conversation with anyone to really nailing it. It’s almost like I was this shell that needed to be cracked, and once it was cracked I knew how to talk to people. All the people at school who either treated me like shit or totally disregarded me started to really notice what was happening. I was changing a lot and they must have thought, ‘okay, he might actually be interesting.’
There were a few gays, bisexuals, pansexual and what have you in that circle of rebellious teeny-bopper kids I was hanging out with, so I definitely got my first bit of experimenting out of the way at various house parties. My first kiss was with a girl who later became and still is my best friend. I’m not too sure when my first kiss with a guy was, there was a lot of teenage binge drinking and experimenting.
My first sexual experience with a guy was when I was 14. When I was deep in the closet and I used to hang out with Marilyn Manson-loving goth-type people. On Halloween of 2007 we all decided we were going to run away from home, so we all fled the house to go trick or treating and the plan was to just never go back. We ended up going to a cemetery because it was Halloween night and we got it on in the park.
I may have lost my virginity in a cemetery on Halloween.I’m not a religious person, but oh, there’s got to be something there! Let’s be honest, it was terrible, my first anal experience was awful.
When the experimenting started with guys, it was all a bit scary. It was actually terrifying, especially growing up with a Greek Orthodox background. Some of the family were and still are very traditional. Still to this day, I’m not allowed to tell my grandmother that I’m gay. I remember getting all these sexual fantasies in my early teens and lying in bed at night praying to God that if I woke up straight I would be eternally in his debt and grateful. That never happened, but it was definitely a really traumatic time. It was traumatic just knowing that it was wrong and feeling it was wrong. Looking back, it feels so vanilla – ‘being gay is wrong’, but that’s what you’re instilled with.
First kiss - still good friends
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Mum is Greek and dad is Australian. Mum is the dominant Greek woman, angry, loud and outspoken. Forever fighting in my corner, eternally to hell and back for me. Because I had so many problems growing up with health and mental health, she never, ever backed down, ever. She is still quite like that, looking out for me. It was hard to become independent coming from a background where she knows all my health history, everything about me. It’s an extremely strong relationship and I would not be this person if it weren’t for her. Dad is very chilled – he’s the relaxed fun guy. Every Saturday he used to take my sister and I to get McDonalds and we’d sit at home in the lounge room watching Honey I Shrunk the Kids on Disney Channel when mum wasn’t home. The dynamic was a little reversed I suppose where usually mums are homely and dads are stronger and more aggressive. I suppose because my parents had a different upbringing as well, this hugely impacts the way I see my family.
I didn’t exactly come out to my parents, but oh, did I come out to my parents! I was seeing this really nice guy when I was about 15 whom I met at a gay underage Minus 18 event. Minus 18 was a youth GLBTI organisation and they used to run underage dance parties, it was my absolute haven when I was younger. They are still running and are involved with a lot of other stuff – they co-wrote Safe Schools and provide services for GLBTI Youth.
So this guy came over one day on a 40 degree day to swim in the pool, so we jumped in and swam around, made out behind the inflatables, that sort of thing. At one point we went inside and started making out in the lounge room but I said, “I’m not out to my family, it’s not safe here.” We decided to go to the park because that’s what you did when you’re in the closet, meet boys down at parks, not hold hands in shopping centre, creep up the back of movie theatres, stuff like that. When we went outside it was so ridiculously hot we decided to just go around the side of the house by the bins, very sophisticated of us.
So things got a little hot and heavy and little did I know we had just run out of Cornetto ice creams in the freezer and dad had to go throw out the empty box in the bins.
In doing so he walked in on his 15-year-old son sucking some dick.
The guy I was with said, “I think I just saw someone out the front of the house.” I said, “don’t say that, oh don’t say that!” When we go to the front, dad is there and he just says, “it’s time to take your friend home now.” My dad drives him to the train station, we go back inside the house and he says, “I went to take this empty box and put it in the bin.” That was all he said on the topic. He obviously spoke to mum about it so she sat me down and gave me the whole, “are you sure you’re not bisexual?” I said, “no, I’m not bisexual.”
That night, mum said, “Invite your friends over, we’re all going to drink tonight in the pool.” Mum invited her friends over; we all just drank in the pool in the back yard that night. Mum pulled me aside and drunkenly said, “Brandon, I don’t care what you are, as long as you use condoms.” That was pretty much the last we ever spoke about it.
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I was pretty out in school before this all happened. I had told a few close friends and there was a moment in Year 9 when all the people who bullied me turned around and apologised. We all became best friends and I told them about my rabid homosexuality, although by that point I was becoming such a social butterfly that it was kind of obvious, which is a great transition from not being able to talk to anyone.
There was this one moment I remember when this guy came up to me in the schoolyard with all of these guys with him and said, “So I heard you’re a faggot.” I figured I had taken enough shit, so I just looked at him and said, “Yeah, I am! What the fuck about it?” Stone cold. He responded, “alright,” and that was that. You could see the look on his face, thinking, ‘I don’t get to bully today.’ Yeah, you don’t, not today.
I have never let someone push me around because of my sexuality and the self confidence I felt from having such a hysterically unique upbringing, whether it’s sad or hilarious has helped me in that.
Now I really do appreciate how different I am, even just for my health issues. Nobody has had my life and that’s very important to remember. I spent most of Year 9 hanging out in shopping malls and on this one step in Box Hill, nicknamed the ‘junkie steps’ – again, not a PC term. The people there were very unsavoury, but also some of them were trying to be unsavoury even though they weren’t. By the time VCE came along, a few friends and I thought, ‘we are so bored and we deserve so much more than go to Box Hill and chain smoke on the steps with these people.’ I decided to get my act together. I got into Deakin studying professional and creative writing which is what I’m still doing now. It’s taken me a bit longer because I like working outside of uni more than studying.
Year 12 Formal
I never really took to uni, I preferred going to gay clubs. I was worried about going to a straight club because I was genuinely freaked out, thinking, ‘what if I got bashed?’ I got my first job in nightlife doing photography for parties. I have worked hundreds and hundreds of nights, every weekend for the past six years. I had had the most awesome time doing so. I am very passionate about photography, so I get to do something I sincerely enjoy and I get paid to do it.
Hard at work
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Growing up with some physical impediments and with all the hospital visits I’ve had to endure growing up, it has an impact on my life. I can’t handle seeing the disabled being ridiculed and I’m very sensitive towards those kinds of issues. As I mentioned before, I have developed a severe health anxiety. Even coming here today to share my story I had to think, ‘am I okay? What’s going on?’ My nervous tick is me checking my pulse. I do it without realising and I’m making sure I’m still alive. It’s ruining my life. Everything revolves around how my anxiety is treating me that day. Days where I don’t freak out about my health for whatever reasons are weird days for me to have.
There was an incident in 2012 where my drink got spiked on the job when I was shooting in a bar on north side that I had been shooting at for two years.
I remember being at work and then suddenly my mind flashes to being in an alleyway talking to someone on the phone saying, “I feel really strange, what’s going on?”
Then all of a sudden it’s ten in the morning and I was vomiting on a train and my family had to pick me up. I obviously don’t know what happened, but apparently I was in the worst state that they’d ever seen a person. What happened actually fucked up my body so badly that my heart started playing up dramatically. I went into what’s known as supraventricular tachycardia, where your heart goes really fast and atrial fibrillation which is a whole different kind entirely. I ended up having to go to hospital after my heart went to 180 beats per minute. I had to get keyhole heart surgery three months later after being on beta-blockers. Ever since then, even though I used to shoot at some of the sleaziest 5am techno nightclubs, I am totally freaked out about drinking at clubs because someone might spike my drink.
5 am Techno Clubs
I guess what I’m saying is that it affects my daily life, but there is good reason for it. It’s almost justified even though it really needs to stop. As a result of that, I’m a very self-analytical person as anyone who’s very aware of themselves is. In small doses it’s fine, but in big doses it results in anxiety. The anxiety is what has kept me alive and in ways it’s good because if I didn’t have my anxiety I’d probably be in a much worse state than I am now and I wouldn’t care about myself.
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I could just casually throw out there my status as a recovering drug addict dealing with crystal meth abuse. I’ve had a problem with crystal meth for almost a year, and it hasn’t really stopped. There was an incident a couple of years ago which led to some really self-destructive behaviour, sexually self-destructive. Last year I was on PEP eight or nine times in one year. I don’t know what was going through my mind, I just really wanted out of my own head based on the situation that had happened.
One night, someone offered me a puff on the pipe at his house. He was a guy I had met on Grindr after a big night at Revolver and he invited me back to his place afterwards. He was a very attractive man and I knew that I shouldn’t have done it, but I thought, ‘I literally can’t say no to this guy, he’ll kick me out. He’s just too hot.’ So I had my first try of crystal meth, or Tina, and it was awesome.It was so fantastic it’s almost cliché – and as I learned, that’s part of the problem.
Before I ever tried it, one of the girls I used to work with at a techno club said, “meth is absolutely amazing and that’s why you can never do it.”
That all made sense then and my first try turned into a 24-hour bender – mind you, this was after I had already been out all night and the previous day, so it was a bit much. That was a real shock to me, because I knew I wasn’t a good candidate for drug addiction and especially with a drug like that. Even just on a purely chemical level, that drug is designed to reel you in. I was horrified by what I had done the next day, but halfway through the next week, I started thinking, ‘I could do that again.’ – like a whispered voice in my head. That’s when I realised, ‘wait, that’s not cool!’ So I was simultaneously regretting what I had done whilst somehow wanting to do it again.
Here was my self-care kicking in. I made all these appointments with doctors and therapists to talk about it. I told my doctor at Centre Clinic what I had done and that I was worried I might end up developing a problem and this only after my first try. I said, “I don’t want to do that again, what are my strategies that I can work with? I want to do it again but I don’t want to do it again!”
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Unfortunately, I did do it again. I did it again and again and again. It got so bad that I had an overdose a few months ago and ended up in hospital. It was terrifying. I felt like I had the worst panic attack combined with all the aches and pains that my body could produce, all at the same time. I know the phrase is ‘tweaked out’, but it was a lot worse. I remember leaving this guy’s house having these symptoms, not knowing what was happening and walking down the street in Collingwood thinking, ‘I might die, something’s really wrong with me. I need to go to the hospital.’ I had done it a few times by this point – I had already been to hospital with an anxiety attack brought on from meth use. I remember thinking, ‘you know what, enough is enough!’ I didn’t even know it was an overdose until one of the nurses said it was; that it’s an upper drug, and those can be the overdose symptoms. It’s not like GHB where it’s a depressant.
Then I realised, ‘holy shit, I’ve just had an overdose.’
Hospital staff aren’t too kind to people that come in with drug problems, neither are paramedics in ambulances, because they’ve seen it all before. I remember what they were like when I was 16, I went in because I smoked too much weed and it brought on problems to my heart. Going in on an ice overdose was so awful, but I deserved it. They were treating me like crap – saying “this is what happens.” Dead expressions on their face. I was like, “I deserve it, I know, can you please just help me!” Then I started to think, ‘oh no, are they going to tell my family?’ I was asking the doctors whether they were going to call my family or whether I should call them myself. The nurses were staying away from me. I don’t blame them at all. Even if you’re not violent, they’re so used to seeing people coming in with meth-related problems and not caring for their own lives, that they can’t process what is happening with you at that moment in time.
The thing about crystal meth in Australia is that it is always viewed as a drug associated with poverty, homelessness and violence. In the gay community, we don’t have that association. It’s recreational, it’s sexual, it’s in our bedrooms, so we don’t even know we have problems. There are gay men all over this city that are still awake five days later after the weekend has passed and they don’t think they have a problem because they aren’t given the resources that say, “this is an issue.” I know that VAC has some programs that help, and this isn’t an attack on anyone, but after having lots of relapses while not wanting anything to do with it, I just really wanted help to stop completely.
There is private counselling you could do which I find too expensive. There are lots of other programs for gay men, but they are mostly on the topic of harm minimisation. (Re-wired) I know harm minimisation has its place, obviously. I know very well that if people want to take drugs, they are going to take drugs, you’re not going to stop them, and so they may as well learn about taking them safely.
But I have a crippling anxiety disorder and a very frail frame – I can’t be taking this drug. I want to stop once and for all.
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I came from a place of being suicidal and taking PEP eight or nine times in a year. After a particularly difficult incident that occurred in my life, I didn’t care what I did to myself. I knew what I was doing when I went out and got really, really drunk and made all kinds of mistakes with my body.
I would go out and have risky sex and be aware of the possibility that this person probably does have HIV, I just didn’t care.
It’s like I really wanted to hurt myself, but then I’d wake up the next day and I’d be back to normal, absolutely mortified with myself. I would walk over bridges and think, “I could just throw myself off.”
The fear of HIV has been a very defining factor of the past few years of my life. It is such an echo of the AIDS crisis where young gay guys feel so mortified by their own sexual behaviour that every time any slipup happens we can so quickly go from intimate and affectionate to really rejecting the person we’re with just because we don’t know. It’s the not-knowing that is really terrifying. I was so convinced I was going to get HIV, that I resigned myself to it. It got to the point I was just like, ‘fuck it.’ I had spoken to doctors and counsellors everywhere. Taking PEP eight of nine times in a year is quite extreme. I had run the gamut of doctors shaming me for taking it that many times. Although, at the same time I figured, ‘it’s my health, this service is here for me, I’m going to take the PEP if I need to in order to stay negative whilst I’ve got all this other stuff going on in my head.’ The drug use didn’t help obviously.
As soon as PrEP became a thing, I desperately tried to get it. I spent most of last year trying to get any access to it that I could and it didn’t work because it was too expensive. Finally I managed to access it after so long, thanks to the people at PrEP Access Now. It’s weird, I don’t even think about HIV now, it’s awesome! I look back at how I felt and that person doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s really bizarre and I have the most normal sex life where I don’t even think about HIV. I don’t have hang-ups about intimacy or who I’m with or what their status is. If anything, I’m less choosy because I feel I deserve to enjoy myself after what I’ve been through. Thank you very much, PrEP has been awesome.
Prep user and advocate
I know there is a lot of debate around PrEP, people say PrEP is for promiscuous bare-backing sluts, but I think if more people knew about how it alleviated one guy’s debilitating anxiety around HIV and his health, it may change their minds. Listen to what I’ve been through and tell me I don’t have a good reason to sit there and be a little freaked out. If people want to use condoms, or not use condoms, that’s up to them. I haven’t seen one of those in a while, and that’s my choice.
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Every day there is still a craving for the drug. I used to be very cruel to people who used hard drugs like ice and think, ‘oh, they’re gone. They’re mentally off somewhere else now, they’re ruined, it’s over for them.’ But now I look at my problems, and myself, and I realise that my head is still here and my problems are real. It has changed my perspective. The drug is like a voice in your head that doesn’t belong to you, slowly enticing your actions. None of the people who abuse it are “gone” – so many of them are fighting that voice, which is why we need more programs to help them stop. Stop stigmatising other people for taking these drugs and ask yourself, why are we doing this? Why, as gay men, are we taking these hard drugs? Is it intimacy problems? Do we need to re-evaluate how we look at these drugs? Do we need to start identifying problems when they arise?
One of the biggest things that I do in my writing is I try to hold a mirror to the community and say, “this is not okay. This needs to be worked on.”
It’s never something cruel like, “old people staying out of nightclubs.” It’s more like, “sexual assault in gay bars is very frequent and shouldn’t be tolerated,” or, “stop stigmatising people who take drugs.” My message is to hold a mirror to the community.
I spent a lot of my life being scared, feeling victimised or isolated and I think that is something the gay community has in common with me. We build safe spaces and practice self-care, but the thing about the community is that nothing we do occurs in a vacuum. We still have problems that we need to work through, rather than just hiding behind the safety of our spaces and pretending everything is okay.