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 Tullamarine and had a middle-class, white upbringing. My parents always involved us in everything they did, it was never, “I’ve got to do my own thing,” and I really enjoyed that. I’m quite close to my mum but my dad and I don’t communicate well. We have a good relationship but it’s not very emotional. My brother and I didn’t get along when we were younger – it could have been a bit of angst and jealousy because as the younger brother I got away with more stuff. We aren’t really that close now but I’ve wanted to become better friends with him since becoming an adult but I don’t think he quite understands how to do it. I find that I only hear from him when he wants something but it’s getting better because he has had a child and I can visit on a more casual basis now.
I went to a Catholic primary school and high school where we went to mass on special occasions, like Easter, but they weren’t very God-fearing or anything like that. Being in a Catholic school it was not seen in a good light to be attracted to men. I was a bit of a nerd so everyone called me gay anyway, even though none of them had any idea. I decided not to come out in high school because I felt like they just didn’t need to know. They didn’t get the privilege of knowing that personal information about me. Amongst the friends I did have, I felt like I was a bit of an intermediate friend where we’d go out on outings, but I wasn’t really close to anyone.
My parents never really taught me how to make friends, so it wasn’t until university where I thought, ‘oh okay, this is how you make friends.’
When I was about 14, my parents split up and it wasn’t particularly amicable. They let my brother and I decide who we wanted to go and live with. I thought, ‘well, I dislike my mother the least so I’ll stay with her.’ My brother ended up moving out with my dad and I stayed with my mum, so I didn’t see them for a few years. A few times during that time, my dad tried to get me to move out with him but I didn’t want to. Our relationship was strained at best, neither of us knew how to act towards each other and so we had to re-set boundaries for our relationship.
It was a learning experience and there was one incident that made me realise we were never going to have an emotional relationship; for my high school graduation I said, “you’re my dad, I would like you at the dinner but mum is going to be there because she’s my mum,” he responded with, “no, I’m not going because I don’t want to be in the same room as your mother.” I thought, 'that is kind of shit, you can’t get put aside your own issues for your son.' Even my brother tried to explain it to him and he couldn’t understand why I was upset. I figured, that is just his emotional capacity and that’s fine, I don’t have to dislike him. I thought I couldn’t expect understanding from him if he wasn’t capable of it. When we catch up now, we essentially fill each other in on what’s been happening but that’s about it.
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I wouldn’t identify myself as a gay male, I’m pansexual - so I sleep with the person, not the gender.
Realising I didn’t fit into the typical boy-likes-girl category all started from when I started watching porn and masturbating around the age of 14. It was a gradual realisation that I’d only look at porn if there was a guy in it, then it ended up being guys with really large penises, then it ended up not having any women in it sometimes.
I am pansexual because I have had several girlfriends and I have had a few boyfriends. I found some girls quite attractive and some were quite a good fit for me. When I started looking at men, people instantly classified me as gay. People would say, “if you’re looking at gay porn, then you’re pretty much gay,” so I ended up adopting that label. I would definitely say there are differences between dating a girl and a boy but that’s the same difference as dating one person to the next. Although, I’ve found that interaction between guys are quite direct. It’s more, “hey, I like you, let’s go on a date.” Whereas for girls, they’re a lot more subtle, I can’t say I’ve quite learnt the art of the dance. For girls, family becomes a little more important, especially as I get older. They tend to be more looking to start a family and settle down, maybe they’re worried about their body clock or they get a little clucky and I’m not looking to do that right now.
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My first sexual experience was with a girl when I was about 13. One of my friends’ parents had gone away for the weekend so we all gave our excuses to our parents and went over. My mum gave me some alcohol because she always preferred to know what I was drinking. I ended up getting really drunk and fooling around with this girl and having sex. It was really anti-climatic though because I thought, ‘well that just wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be.’
A few years later when I started sleeping with guys, it felt the same. I didn’t really orgasm until I was 18. It was with my first boyfriend and it was actually a non-ejaculatory orgasm. It was at his grandma’s house and we were in her spare room on a fold-out sofa bed with some candles. It was all really hot and heavy, I was face down and he was on top of me and there was lots of body contact. He was doing all the right things and then he just started fucking me and I orgasmed and it was really intense. I didn’t really appreciate that experience until a couple of years later.
A lot of the time, when I’m having sex or masturbating, I’d often just ejaculate as oppose to orgasm.
It’s only in the last two to three years where I’ve really explored what it means to orgasm and how I can achieve it. A large part of it is mindset, but it is also coupled with a few physical things like if it has been a few days, or if there is a lot of body contact, we’re making out and there’s an intense connection, then the intensity and energy heightens my mood.
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I loved learning and always knew I wanted to go to university. I thought, ‘high school was crap but this is a new part of my life and it doesn’t have to be crap. I can now just be anybody I want to be because I’m going to a university where no-one actually knows me.’ Making friends was a little tough at first because I would have a group of friends I’d hang out with and then we just wouldn’t hang out anymore. Then I’d find another group of friends and after a couple of months the same thing would happen.
I didn’t realise that to cultivate a friendship, it required persistence and actively putting out the invitation.
A lot of my friends at university were straight and I figured, I wasn’t being true to myself only hanging out at straight bars and with straight people. I decided to involve myself in the gay world so I made a few friends and started going to gay venues. At the time, I was completing my PhD and I had quite a good heterosexual friend base, right up til a few years ago. I was having a discussion with my colleague about feminism and she got very defensive and started yelling a lot. She started questioning me and putting me on trial for the way I was interacting with the gay and lesbian community. It was a misunderstanding of what I was saying, but I felt very discriminated against. At that point I broke all ties with my colleagues and just became very civil and professional at work.
I found comfort in the gay world because there was a shared experience of discrimination and living a gay life. I just wanted to be with people who knew what that felt like and who would support me.
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I have a pretty big fear of needles and syringes but I decided that I wanted to get over my fears. The ultimate thing for me was to donate blood because I could literally give something of myself back to the community while overcoming my fear of needles, it was a good fit for what I wanted at the time. I did everything right; I didn’t have sex with a man for a whole year, went to the Red Cross and said, “I want to donate blood.” They made me fill out a survey and I donated blood that day. A week later they called me and said, “we’ve found some stuff in your blood work and we’d like you to come in.” I asked them whether it was one particular test that spiked or whether it was several and they said, “it’s several of them.”
I was really concerned and when I got in there, they said, “it’s your HIV test. We’ve got a positive result for HIV but in order to confirm this, we’re going to need to take another blood test because we only tested for the antibody, not the virus.” They took another blood sample, told me to go back to uni and come back in the afternoon when they had the results ready. I was freaked out and had the statistics on hand; there was a small 1% chance that it was a false positive – I didn’t feel very comfortable with that.
When I went back for the results they said, “yeah, you’re positive.” I responded with, “I don’t understand.”
I never had unprotected sex with a man or a woman, never took intravenous drugs, I was brought up Catholic and I had the whole fear of the Grim Reaper that was thrown upon me. I was always so careful with everything so I was genuinely very shocked and surprised when somebody said, “you’re HIV positive.”
The thing that threw me was I actually had an STI check two years before and the doctor at the time said, “your lymph nodes around your groin are very aggravated, I’d like to do a blood test.” I hadn’t done anything risky. I resisted as I wanted to stay away from needles but considering how low my white blood cell count was when I was diagnosed at 20, it’s likely I could have contracted it as young as 18.
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It made me feel really, really shit because all I kept thinking was, ‘fuck this, I did everything right. I always made sure to be safe, why do I have to deal with this?’ Before I was diagnosed, I read a story about a woman who’s child was killed in a car accident. She kept saying to herself, “why me? Why my daughter? Why did this have to happen?” Then one day she said, “well, why not me? What’s so special about me that means bad things can’t happen?”
After having being diagnosed it made me feel even worse because I’d gotten so used to saying, “why not me? I’m not anything special,” but then again I thought, ‘well I know why not, because I used protection all the time!’ I was very angry with life, because I thought what’s the point of being the nice guy and doing the right thing when shit is still going to hit the fan? It changed me for a while and I found it very hard to connect with people. I went through a lot of things where I wasn’t necessarily the nice guy and for no particular reason other than, ‘well something shit is going to happen to me so why do I have to be so nice to everybody else?’
I told my first boyfriend as he was the person I’d had most sex with and so he ought to get tested. He responded rudely with, “here are my negative results. If you go around telling people that I’m positive, I’m going to sue you.”
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I had about three years worth of counselling at the Victorian AIDS Council as well as hospitals, seeing psychologists and psychiatrists. I struggled with my self-worth for a long time because I never felt particularly worthy and I had to do so many other good things in my life to be considered adequate due to having a mar on my name.As part of the counselling we went through all the shit things in my life and then we went through all the good things in my life. The good things included friends, family, a house to live in, money to live on and I was doing my tertiary education. Part of the tools was to make a conscious effort to think about these things every time I was feeling like shit. ‘These things in my life are good so I can’t just keep sitting here thinking I’m a shit person when I’m not.’
Slowly over a period of four or five years, I transformed from me constantly feeling worthless and that I didn’t deserve to be treated well to “no, actually, I’m awesome.” It took a conscious effort of making objective positives in my life that I acknowledged and appreciated. If it was a person in my life then I would make sure that they knew I appreciated them explicitly so that they could possibly have something they could look forward to in their life.
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I’m not secretive about my status but I am a little choosy of who I tell. If we are talking about HIV and it’s appropriate for me to say something that will let people know I’m positive then I will but I never just throw it out there.
Sometimes when I’m around people who have known me for three or four years and I’ll say, “I’ve got to take my medication,” and they say, “oh, I didn’t know.” Well they didn’t really need to know, it’s not been a defining factor of who I am. For a couple of years I felt like it was, but I’ve since moved past that and realised there are so many other different interesting and amazing facets to who I am that my status is not one that I’m defined by.
In the past couple of years, no-one really cares. There are a few people who have been, “oh, but we’ve had sex,” and I’d say, “we had protected sex and I always made sure you were looked after to the best of my ability. I would never have put you in harm’s way.” Some of them would want to get tested again anyway which is good because they should get tested as regularly as they want to, so I’m not offended. I would be devastated to find out if I ever had infected someone.
One of the worst reactions I’ve had was after I hooked up with a guy on Grindr. We went back to his place and I bottomed. He wore a condom and neither of us even came. After that he said, “oh, by the way, I’m positive,” and I went “oh that’s fine, I’m positive too.” He then said, “I was just joking,” and I responded with, “well I’m not.” He totally freaked out and said “I’m really freaked out I have HIV now, can you please leave.” I ended up leaving and then he messaged me later saying, “you know this has nothing to do with you?” I responded with, “I know, this is completely about you. I feel fine with who I am and you obviously have some issues that you need to work through.”
There was another bad experience actually where this guy on Grindr asked me if I was positive and I said no because I had no intention of sleeping with him. Then he asked for my name and I gave it to him, to which he did a Google search on. He said, “I see you’ve done radio shows there you talk about being positive, so you’re obviously some kind of sociopath.” I went, “dude, just calm down. You’re someone I’ve literally just met and you’re asking me very personal questions. We have made no intention of sleeping with each other yet so just calm down because you’re not that important in my life that I need to tell you my status.” After that he went all cagey so I blocked him.
A few days later I got a message from a random saying, “there are a few guys going round saying that you don’t tell people you’re positive.”
I figured, ‘I’ve done radio shows, it’s known, stuff this! The only way to beat it is to trump them.’ So I put it on my Grindr profile for everyone to see, so no one can say anything about it now because it’s right there for all to see.
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The day I was diagnosed, I went straight to my mum and told her. We cried together and I had to educate her about what it meant because she lived through the ‘80’s and she had quite a few gay friends so it was really shocking for her. She assumed I was going to die. Right then and there she was saying, “my son’s going to die,” and I had to explain to her that with the proper care and management I’m going to live a relatively normal life. It would only become a problem if I don’t take care of myself. So she’s like, “okay, so you’ve got a mild case of AIDS.” Well no, but I think that is the best I’m going to get from her.
My mum actually forbade me from telling my dad as his side of the family is very vindictive and petty. They squabble between themselves all the time so in her opinion if I told my dad that I was HIV positive he would not leave anything for me in his will. My mum is Maltese and she sometimes has weird ideas about how humans interact. The reality is I don’t expect anything from my dad when he dies anyway. So I didn’t tell my dad and my brother for a long time, although I had an ex that became good friends with my brother a few years ago and I wouldn’t put it past him to have let it slip.
I’ve dealt with some very dark and serious demons after I was diagnosed and I’m very grateful that I made the step to resolving these. I haven’t succumbed to the darkness and just let it fester. I knew it wasn’t going to be quick and it wasn’t going to be easy. I’ve still got stuff to sort through, I feel like I’m capable enough of moving forward and looking after myself to do that.
This may sound really cheesy, but to find yourself is a really big stepping stone in coming to terms with a positive diagnosis.
I think it’s really important to know who you are in general, regardless of your status. Making objective goals and achievements about yourself that you can be proud and happy of is one way of doing that.