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 a small country town called Dimboola. Most people have only ever heard of it because of the stage play, or they passed through on their way to Adelaide. Dimboola is wheat territory, so dry, flat and a little behind the times. Not only was it small, it was geographically very isolated as the closest town was half an hour away and Melbourne four hours drive.
I couldn’t wait to leave. I always knew I was gay and I couldn’t be myself in a small country town. Especially not somewhere like Dimboola. It is actually quite beautiful as a river runs through the town, and borders the Little Desert National Park. But 20 years ago, I struggled to see it’s beauty.
My birthday - 7 years old!
As a kid I used to love playing in Mum’s old dresses. There was a suitcase of her old clothes from the sixties. I also had a great collection of Matchies (match box cars). My Grandfather and my Dad were both car salesmen / mechanics, so cars were a big part of our lives.
I’d have friends come round that would want to play Matchies, so I’d strike up an deal with them: “I’ll play Matches with you, if we can also play dress-ups.”
Playing in mum's dress-up's
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The end of primary school was tough for me, as I didn’t have many friends and I was picked on a lot. I was in a class of mostly boys, and I preferred hanging out with the girls, skipping rope. I would get picked up from school by Mum and I’d be in tears.
In high school I became the gay kid, long before I ever identified with it. Every class had to have one back then, and I was it. There was one kid, a farmer’s son, who was built like a brick shit-house and a few years younger than me. It never got physical, but he would always call names and intimidate me, so much so that I feared seeing him in the school yard for years. I always avoided him and found it easier to be ashamed and walk way than stand up to him.
The bullying throughout school definitely affected me for a long time after I left home. It took time to come out of my shell as it affected my confidence and security. I didn’t hate so much being called gay, I think it was that everyone else in school called me gay before I even had the chance to identify with it and understand it myself.
It’s like someone else took the honour away from me before I got to say, “Actually, I am gay.”
I remember a conversation I had with my brother in early high school. For some reason he was talking about how two men could actually be together, sexually. It was a light bulb moment for me and I felt aroused by the fact that two men could be together. I didn’t know two men could be together in that way and it was comforting at the time. Back then there were very few positive gay role models. I knew of one person that had come out after they had left town, but that coming out did not go so well and it was the talk of the town.
The only thing I knew about being gay was that it was dirty and a bad thing, you were going to get picked on, beaten up and die of AIDS.
Later in high school, I got my brother to buy me a copy of Madonna’s sex book. It was pre-internet, so I’d not seen anything like it before. Some of the pages in that book got me through high school. Seeing men together like that for the first time gave me great hope. It showed me that not everyone hated gays.
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I spent my first year out of home at Ballarat University, which essentially is another big country town. I lost my virginity to a girl during that time. She knew that I was gay, but we went out one night, got really drunk, one thing led to another. In small towns everyone knows your business. One time back home, I had an old school acquaintance apologise for calling me gay all those years, as he had heard I’d slept with a girl. It was a very strange experience, as I thought to myself, ‘Well, thank you for the apology, but actually, I am gay.’ I always wished I’d had the courage to say what I really felt. Oddly the reward for not saying what I felt, was social acceptance.
I moved to Melbourne a year later, which was the place I always dreamed of. I made a wonderful collection of friends who accepted me for who I was, and I started to really identify with myself and my sexuality. At the end of that first year I had decided to come out and told a friend that I was gay for the first time.
Over that time I failed almost every subject by not attending enough classes. I had never failed anything before. I had to face the Exclusions Committee and justify why I should be allowed back to repeat the course after my poor performance. I remember thinking ‘how will I tell Mum and Dad?' Mum was down in Melbourne with me at the time.
I had two options, I could either tell my Mum the truth, or just lie and have my parents think that I was stupid, wasting my university degree.
I’m not a very good liar – I go completely red in the face – so I’ve learnt there’s no point trying. I realised that I couldn’t keep lying and making excuses anymore. I saw it as an opportunity and a major stepping stone, being able to tell my family and finally be truthful with myself as well.
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I came out to my brother first, which was a lovely moment of closeness, where he also started to open up about some things in his life.He offered me unconditional support whichever way it went with Mum and Dad. I was very close to my Mum and less so with my Dad. He was a mechanic and we didn’t have much to connect on, especially if I was dressing up in Mum’s dresses! He never judged me, but he connected better with my brother as they could pull apart engines together. I told mum first whilst we were in Melbourne, just after I had received my university results.
Mum used to have a collection of magazines called The Doctor’s Answers which were full of medical advice which she treated as the Bible for health. At that point, they were already about 15 years out of date.
According to The Doctor’s Answers in the 1980s, it was a passing phase.
I said to Mum, “I know The Doctor’s Answers have given you lots of answers at times, but you’re going to have to trust me on this.” In time Mum let go of what the The Doctor’s Answers said, and listened to what I had to say.
I didn’t even tell Dad – I got Mum to tell dad. In hindsight, I felt really bad putting Mum in that position because she was battling with it in herself, let alone to say to her husband, “by the way, our youngest son completely failed university – oh, and he’s also gay.”
Dad came home from lunch and he sat me down and said, “your Mum told me you didn’t do very well at university and there may be other factors going on.” He had some concerns about what he knew about being gay, and getting AIDS, but he was very open and just wanted to hear what I had to say.I think I was so scared that he was going to react badly. It felt like our first conversation where he really got to know me.
Me at home in Dimboola after 1st year of University
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During my time at university I saw an ad by the Victorian AIDS Council. It was a black and white ad showing a group of sexy guys with a tagline, “Which one of us is gay?” I sent off for the information pack. I first went to a Saturday session called Boyant and I was scared shitless. I was so late I missed the first half of the session, but they were very welcoming.
Managed to find a copy of the original poster from archives!
I ended up meeting a guy who was a facilitator for some of the groups and we ended up becoming really good friends. He came back to campus and smoked joints and gave me the whole 101 on being gay, coming out and sexual health. My new best friend took me to The Peel and apparently I jumped down the throat of the first person that showed interest in me.
I had been waiting for that moment for so long that I almost didn’t care who he was, it was finally another man that wanted to be with me sexually. It was really lovely and he was really gentle with me as he knew it was my first time.
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I met my first partner through the Young & Gay workshops run by VAC.We moved in together, had a cat and those 3 years were a wonderful time of my life. We eventually went our seperate ways and I took it as a chance to explore myself sexually. I started to explore by going to gay saunas.
I only had condom-less sex three times, before acquiring HIV. I always felt unlucky as I had friends that had much more condom-less sex than me. Except for three times, I had always used condoms.
At the time I had just started at my dream job, and I must have been seroconverting; I was lethargic and fluey, it took me a few weeks to recover.The doctors didn’t know what it was, they tested for glandular fever but nothing showed up. They still couldn’t figure out what it was and it wasn’t until a few months later at my regular HIV and STI test that I found out.
King's Canyon, just before my diagnosis
I remember it vividly, it was during the Commonwealth Games in 2006. I was meeting all these great people, I was becoming much more comfortable in my sexuality, I started finding other passions like circus training and I had this amazing job, I felt like I had found myself – then it all just fell apart.
I see this time as the ‘middle ground’ between the AIDS crisis and the current level of acceptance. Back then medications were a lot more damaging on the body, ‘undetectable’ was not part of the conversation, there was a lot less acceptance, and a lot more stigma.There were no grim reaper ads and people were living longer, but it was still a difficult time.
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The doctor who diagnosed me wasn’t my regular doctor. I don’t think he had ever given anyone a HIV diagnosis before. I hope that if he has since, he has learnt how to do a much better job than what he did with me.
He made assumptions and implied that I was an injecting drug user. I felt like I was being judged. He was so sterile and gave me a number to call at The Alfred Hospital. He said to me, “Well, there’s not much I can do for you. They probably need to re-test to make sure.”
I walked out that day terrified, not knowing what to do, and with the tiny glimmer of hope that that the results may be wrong.
I had to wait nearly a week before I could speak to someone at The Alfred. During that time I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my feet, and my whole world was crumbling. I really panicked about the possibility of whether I had infected other people and started getting paranoid. I felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life and was too ashamed to tell anyone about it.
Once I got to The Alfred, the doctor took one look at me and saw that I was struggling. He booked me in with a counsellor, did all my regular blood tests and he gave me my options. I got the help that I needed. He explained what was going on and said, “You could start on treatment, but you probably don’t need to. The virus is living in harmony with your body as you’ve got a viral load that is quite low and it’s not advancing, we just need to monitor it.”
I retracted sexually. I was worried for some time that I could pass HIV onto someone. I had a friend who helped me though this, my friend with benefits that I’d saw for many years. He knew it was something serious because I sat him down and told him I had important news to share.
I told him I was HIV-positive and his response was, “Oh thank God that’s it! I thought you were gonna say you have cancer or something!” That response was a big part of my sexual healing.
He was HIV negative and was not going to treat me differently. He knew that HIV was manageable and we could still be safe. His response helped me let go of a lot of fear around sex.
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I knew that once I started treatment, I’d have to keep taking it every day. I wanted to avoid that day for as long as I could. At the time, medicines were not what they are now. I wanted to go travelling in South America, but my doctor advised me to limit the trip to only six months.
I ended up coming back two years later and actually really sick.
My viral load was really high at 100’000 copies and a low T-cell count, I had Pneumocytis pneumonia and oral candidiasis. I also had a parasite inside me called leishmaniasis, a small scab on my leg turned into a open festering wound the size of tennis ball.
It took the doctors eight weeks to figure out what it was before they could treat it. At the time, I was the only person in Australia to be treated for both HIV and leishmaniasis at the same time.
My doctor wasn’t too pleased about the state I was in and he said to me, “Well, you’re going to have to start treatment. You now have two AIDS-defining illnesses.” I had slowly reached an acceptance about being HIV-positive, but now having someone say “AIDS” to me was not something I’d come to terms with.
Handstands in South America
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I had only told a few close friends that I was positive and it felt like I had re-closeted myself again. Everyone knew that I was gay, but I wanted the same openness with being HIV positive. I felt I was hiding a part of myself, out of shame. I was hiding a part of my life that I wanted to share and I couldn’t be my authentic self with everyone.
I decided I needed to tell my parents. It’s always the first part that is the hardest. Which point in the night to I bring this up? Have Mum and Dad had enough wine yet? At what stage in the conversation do I do this? How do I bring it up? Eventually I got to explain what had been going on in my life for a while, and that my health issues were not only due to the leishmaniasis. Thankfully, like my coming out, my parents were understanding and listened to my story. And Mum did not go to the The Doctor’s Answers this time.
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It took me a while to really come to terms with my bad health. The first few years after my trip to South America I struggled with a lot of ups and downs, feeling that I couldn’t do as much as I wanted to do because my health was holding me back. I also had shingles. It was horrible to feel mentally so down, as well as feel such extreme physical pain. Later on I had case of Cytomegalovirus. It became a pretty dark time for me fearing that my health might not get any better. Big me and little me
When I was first diagnosed I thought I was only ever going to have sex with other positive people. I had a negative idea that positive people were all sick. I avoided the positive community for a long time because I didn’t want to be around other dying men. I wanted to be optimistic and I didn’t want to be reminded of my status all the time. It was not the right approach, as later on what helped me most was hearing other peoples’ stories and being part of the community.
I went through a period where I was really stuck. My thinking became really negative and I felt quite bleak about what the future held.
A good friend of mine who knew me before I got my diagnosis said, “Look Dan, we all love you and we know this HIV stuff is hard, but don’t let it define you. Don’t let it be the only thing you talk about because we love all the other things in your life as well.”
That really encouraged me to get some help and go to counselling.
It’s easy to forget sometimes how interconnected our physical and mental health are. I swear by counselling services, they’re incredible, it can really help you understand how our mind works.
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HIV has added a lot to my life, a deeper understanding of myself, my body and my mental health. I have made new friends through the Positive Speakers’ Bureau and being involved with the community has reshaped the way I now see HIV.I never thought I would stand up in front of 120 Year 10 students and talk about having sex and HIV.
I’m really proud of the challenges I’ve faced with HIV. It’s helped me to be more honest and open with myself and those around me.
I haven’t used it as an excuse for not doing what I want in life.
I guess I would say ‘I’m proud to be positive’. I probably wouldn’t have ended up at this same point if I didn’t acquire HIV in my late twenties, but I’m really glad of the trajectory HIV has taken me on.
A turning point for me was understanding of my own internal stigma around HIV. I carried a lot of shame around HIV and how I acquired it. I think sometimes people don’t like questioning where that shame comes from, but it’s important that we do, and work through it. I can’t expect anyone else to accept HIV if I haven’t accepted it fully myself.
I’m not ashamed now – I’ve had to live with shame in the past for so long and I don’t want to live like that any more. Letting go of shame is one of the greatest things that HIV has done for me.