About Staying Negative

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.


Tie Me Up


1. Tie Me Up

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I grew up in Cape Neddick, a small town on the coast of Maine. The house I grew up in was a Victorian shingle-style “summer cottage” on the ocean; from my bedroom window I could see two lighthouses, Nubble and Boon Island. It was an idyllic place to be a kid, as I would only realize years later.

I was lucky, being born into a close, tight-knit family, the eldest of three. My folks have always been loving and supportive, even when I expected otherwise. I have never once doubted that my parents (or grandparents or my few aunts and uncles) loved me. They balanced good discipline with a healthy let-the-kids-be-kids freedom, and always wanted us to do well and excel. As they had a love of learning, so did we kids; dinner was always being interrupted by a run to the bookshelf to look something up in the encyclopedia, or find some city in the atlas, and conversations were often derailed by tangential explorations or debates about the second or third level meanings of a word or turn of phrase.

We were encouraged to be interested in anything and everything, to write and create and play. I was a voracious reader, and certainly read far beyond what you’d expect a preadolescent to be interested in. Science, mathematics, culture, history all fascinated me. And I loved good fiction, adult fiction.

Possibly it’s there where I first came across my first understanding of sex, and quite possibly BDSM and bondage.

I understood from a very young age, well before puberty, that I was not your typical boy. Aside from being a bit of a loner in the first place, inclinations typical of young boys, a tendency to play more with your own gender than with the opposite, for instance, eluded me, and I was just as likely to have girl friends and enjoy playing with them and their dolls as I was to be out running in the woods with the guys.

When I was perhaps eight or nine, I had a best friend who lived just up the hill from me. As boys will, we tended towards games of one-upmanship, and one of these games evolved into a form of tag where the captured party would be tied up to a tree or some article of furniture. This variant I remember at the time particularly catching my fancy, and he and I returned to it often. Twenty-five years later that it occurred to me that perhaps this was the first childhood inklings of what was to become a very adult passion. As a kid I certainly didn’t attach any significant sexual connotation to the interest, but I’m ever amused to note that children are often far more in touch with their nascent adulthood than we give them credit for.


I Knew What Gave Me a Hard On


2. I Knew What Gave Me a Hard On

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I hit puberty with most of the girls of my age group and a good year ahead of most of the other boys, perhaps around the age of 11. As a fairly well-read child I understood exactly what was going on, and my parents (though as yet unaware of their son’s orientation) were perfectly open and helpful with information. I understood that I was expected to be interested in girls, but it wasn’t the girls that got my new dick hard, it was the guys. This was, as anyone my age remembers, not a popular state for a boy to find himself in in those days, and in the interest of self-preservation I kept those feelings to myself. Add to it that I was overweight, and it becomes understandable why I never even experimented with so much as kissing a girl even through high school. It made perfect sense to me that no girl would really be interested in kissing me.

I thought, “This is never going to happen; sexuality is simply not going to ever be a big part of my life.” Instead, I concentrated on academics and being a musician, buried myself in writing and reading and composing and practicing instruments and performing and doing anything else I could.

Sexuality as far as I was concerned was a distraction, a thought process which only encouraged procrastination.

My first boyfriend came as a complete surprise. I got sick my junior year of high school and missed classes for several weeks. Of my friends at school, only one came to visit regularly, and he was the fellow who up until then had only been the guy who was assigned the adjacent locker in gym class. He brought my homework to me, took it back, hung around to talk, and turned out to be a presentable pianist himself, and we spent many evenings playing four-handed or two-piano music and laughing our asses off when we couldn’t keep time with each other. By summertime we were inseparable. The first time he kissed me I nearly fainted, and it was all I could do not to flee.


Tight Fits and KY Jelly


3. Tight Fits and KY Jelly

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He was in the year above me and had the locker next to me in the gym. He was red-headed and square-jawed and had such light green eyes they were amber-colored. He also had one of those noses I’ve since learned I share an affinity for with Jean Cocteau, a nose that descends nearly straight down from a prominent brow. I’d mentioned he was a football player and had the broad-shouldered muscular physique to match. To this day I wonder if this particular archetype of male beauty I have (one of several, you understand) was a result of him, or if he simply was the first manifestation thereof.

We started trying to work out the mechanics of sex that summer while spending time at his uncle’s house on a nearby lake. It was clear to us that somehow this bit went into that piece, but not clear how exactly it was supposed to slide. He had a fair amount of foreskin, so we were trying to roll that forward before insertion to see if that helped (not really), and as I’m circumcised I had no idea what option that left me. It was a comedy of errors from top to bottom. We said “Ow!” a lot and laughed a lot more. Credit youthful horniness and stubbornness, we continued our attempts far longer than many might have when it finally occurred to us, “You don’t suppose that this is what KY jelly is for?” (Don't forget the lube!) Away from the urban centers and the plague going on there we enjoyed a certain innocent state; in that protected environment this really was a splendid way to experiment with sex, knowing nothing about it at all, together. Through it all, he was still my best friend. (First time)

His only family was his mother, a very Irish Catholic woman with very specific ideas of what manhood was and perhaps didn’t possess the strongest grasp of sanity. I can see now that he was struggling hard with rising to her expectations when his evident sexuality seemed to be in direct conflict with it.

That wasn’t the only demon he dealt with, but it was a nasty one, and on the eve of his departure for university and my return to high school for senior year, without saying a word to me, he shot himself.

It’s completely insufficient to say this affected me greatly. My senior year was a disaster academically, my friends backed off from me thinking I was being surly and weird, my parents tried to talk to me and to bring me to therapy. And between the shame of feeling like I should have been more for him and the horror of either of us being gay, the only thing I was unable to explain to them was the core reason for my change. So I buried my feelings even deeper, disappeared into my music and other interests, and again thought “I simply am not made for such things as love or sex.”

I finally came out to my mother a few years later when I was 19, perhaps as a way of telling her why things had gone so awry. Her response was a startling “Well, that makes sense; you know my uncle was gay, right?” (Coming out) I was still unable to tell her about high school best friend, though, and I wondered for a long time if I left her feeling guilty, thinking perhaps that she might have foreseen the possibility I was gay and done something to ease my emergence. Coming out to dad was a little scarier, so I didn’t sit him down I was perhaps 21 years old and safely living at college. He surprised me by saying, “You know I just want you to be happy.” and then responded in the only way he knew how, redoubling his efforts to find his lonely son a girlfriend.

I should say, my friend from high schol is still with me. He’s one of now many friends who sit on my shoulders. He’ll always be there.


Death No More


4. Death No More

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Sparing you a long and unnecessary explanation as to why a gay non-SDA guy might end up at such an institution, my first undergrad was a Seventh Day Adventist university in central Massachusetts. A Christian school, it was to all evidence not a welcoming community for a gay man, so again I kept my sexuality under my hat.

In my third year there I reconnected with a high school friend of mine who had moved back to Massachusetts from Colorado. We’d no knowledge of each other’s sexualities previously; indeed, this friend had dated one girl through all four years of high school; all expectation was that they’d be wed. But we grew close, and hanging out became so standard that we eventually had to acknowledge that we were simply dating. I was touring frequently at the time with an orchestra, so in June I went off to Europe to play tuba, and he went back to California to hang out with some of his buddies from Colorado. Two months later we returned home.

About a few weeks after reuniting, he came down with a tremendous fever, taking a few weeks to recover. I know now that this was his seroconversion; he had had sex with somebody while in California and been infected with HIV; living in the suburban bubble we did, the possibility of AIDS seemed so remote, and we didn’t think it was a possibility. A few months later however he started having physical problems and then more physical problems that shouldn’t happen to a 21 year old guy. Finally he found a doctor who knew enough to test him for HIV. The positive result was devastating for him, and as there’d never been a condom between the two of us, he couldn’t face me or the probability that he’d infected me as well.

Thinking he’d signed my death sentence too, he overdosed on pills and never emerged from the coma. After a several weeks on life support his family said their farewells and let him go.

He also sits on my shoulder to this day.

The third guy I dated was one of the Seventh Day Adventists. This relationship was far more difficult for me after two tragedies, and I know I wasn’t the best of boyfriends to him. He started talking about not being able to manage a number of things, expectations from his family, from his church, the expectations of adulthood, and so on. Again, being gay had no place in the world he’d been brought up to take his place in, and finally he scared me terribly by saying “Maybe I’d be better off dead.” I panicked.

I took him to his mother’s house, and told her what was going on, saying, “I seem to kill these people I love. I don’t know how, but I can’t let this happen again.”

I dropped out of that school just a semester shy of my degree. After a year in Boston, playing tuba and hiding from the world at large, I moved to Baltimore to complete my studies. Peabody Conservatory was a totally different world; indeed I joked that there seemed to be courses of study there for which as a male being gay was a prerequisite. Friends there identified me quickly and without surprise or suspicion as a gay man; it was simply a matter of course and classification, as lacking in deeper meaning seemingly than the fact that I have blue eyes. I hated Peabody for academic reasons, but socially I found the place very welcoming, and a place to start to come to terms with myself.


Don’t Date Me, Don’t Touch Me


5. Don’t Date Me, Don’t Touch Me

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From the day I dropped him off with his mother, being 23 at the time, to the age of 32, I didn’t date. I didn’t sleep with anybody, I didn’t touch anybody, I didn’t worry about what I looked like because I wasn’t interested in attracting anybody.

My college years at Peabody were about as Ivory Tower as it was possible to be. I shut down emotionally, and again the only outlet for that was music, which I made in abundance. Indeed, the music that I composed in those days are a testament to the emotions I was hiding from myself. Certain compositions from those days I can’t even listen to anymore, as I now recognize what pain or trauma was encoded in those tunes. Again, this was a period where I felt absolutely confirmed that “Sex and love are just not part of my future.” (Depression)

I graduated from Peabody, found a job with the Baltimore Symphony, found an apartment in a remote corner of Baltimore, and hid deeper. Friends, concerned for me, convinced me to once again attempt a therapist. I’d been to therapists before, and I had a distrust of anyone who (as I described it) needed to be paid to be my friend or who got paid to sit there and not listen to you talking. To my shock, I lucked into exactly the doctor who could help. (Counselling)

My therapist never let me get away with anything; that man’s memory was infallible and incredible. I grew to viciously hate anytime he’d start a sentence with “Now, you just said…” and continue it with “and three weeks ago you said…”, finishing it with “It can’t be both; which is it?” He brought me to stop referring to all my bodily and emotional states in mechanical or electronic terms, to stop thinking of myself as a robot or a computer. He convinced me that dealing with strong feelings was needful and healthy, and that my past hurts were simply something I was going to have to make a part of me, and might even make me stronger if I let them. He opened me to courage I’d not known, and he actually convinced me that I was loveable, a notion the acceptance of which I fought against, tooth and claw. Without his help, I’d never have had the couple dates with a couple guys in my last days in Baltimore. I’d never have had the courage to apply for a job in New York City. And having been accepted for that position, I would never, ever have left my tiny dark apartment in Baltimore, my passionless job, my lonely life.


New York City


6. New York City

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I arrived in NYC to start a life in music, with a job in classical music, and connections in the music world, which a year later resulted in a better job offer. The new position proved more stressful, and an acquaintance proposed “Why don’t you go to the gym, and work off some of the stress? Might help you feel better.” Acknowledging also that the physical state I was in at that point wasn’t going to bode well for my health in the long term, I got myself a gym membership and made myself go every day after work. Weight just fell off, pleasing me, but I had no sense that it would never be for more than just long-term health and stress management.

I dated a few guys early on, but these relationships weren’t yet terribly healthy, partly because of me and my history, and partly because of the guys I chose. At thirty years old I was finally starting the learning process most gay guys went through in their twenties and straight guys started in their early teens. I made a lot of mistakes. However, with each attempt I came out a little smarter and wiser, and hopefully a little better at identifying what might perhaps someday mean love.

My first true boyfriend in New York was blonde and blue-eyed, a Northern Italian, fair but could still get a tan in candlelight. He was a concert pianist. He was brilliant with tremendous wit, and in-your-face with all his opinions, especially those about all the things I did that drove him fucking bananas (a turn of phrase that always sent him into conniptions of laughter). I learnt to deal with his caustic sense of humor by giving it right back to him. Calling the relationship “tempestuous” is an understatement, but the necessity of opening myself up and learning to relate on his level was probably one of the best educations I could have had for a first boyfriend at that point in my life. I learned some self respect, and I discovered that the best way to gain his respect was to stand my ground.


My First Brush with HIV


7. My First Brush with HIV

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My second boyfriend was substantially older, and had always been a physically vital and strong man, but he’d endured a rollerblading injury shortly before we met, and had difficulty walking. He was a beautiful blonde hair, blue eyed kind of guy, loved to cook and travel. With him I went to Brazil and France, we vacationed in Florida and Mexico; we planned trips through more of South America and across Europe. It was a good relationship in a lot of ways.

This second boyfriend distrusted doctors after the shoddy treatment he’d received for his injury, and he frequented a West African herbalist instead of a regular physician. This doctor was a highly learned man with an encyclopedic knowledge of botany and had studied indigenous uses of plants as medicine in cultures worldwide. Using plant extracts only he credibly cured a number of ailments of mine, digestive and dermatologic notably, that western medicine had thus far proven unable to correct. However, this man adhered to an outdated and long disproven notion that HIV had nothing to do with AIDS, and that HIV was just a common virus in the human population. Respecting this doctor’s brilliance, my boyfriend also subscribed to this belief. I remember trying to have the conversation with him about HIV, whether he’d been tested, and whether we should be. He routinely ducked the issue, saying it didn’t matter, and if we were monogamous, why should it matter? (HIV the basics) (HIV testing)

Years later a mutual friend told me that he was HIV positive, and had been throughout our relationship. He’d known, but lived in denial and he never told me he was HIV positive. There had never been a condom between the two of us. With the revelation, I only felt sad; there was so much that could have been addressed, both for his health and for the sake of our relationship, if he had just acknowledged the damn thing. (Living with HIV)

After a few years distance between us I’ve been back in touch with him. He’s now open about his status, he takes his medication, his ankle is fixed, and he’s so much happier all around. As for my own well being, I just thought I was incredibly lucky. I was having unprotected anal sex for over a year with another HIV positive guy who wasn’t on any medication. Why I’m still negative I don’t know.

Towards the end of the relationship with him, he discovered that I had this latent interest in BDSM. His response was that anybody thusly inclined had to be certifiably mentally unsound.

Thinking of the three men I’d met thus far in the BDSM world, I identified them as among the most grounded, creative, intelligent people I’d yet met. I thought, if you could be creative and interesting in your real life, why wouldn’t that also be part of your sexual life? So when he and I broke up, I made a beeline for these men.

Through these men and my experiences with them I’ve learned so much about sexuality, about intimacy, and interestingly about my own spirituality. The simplest explanation I have of BDSM is that it’s a highly enhanced intimacy. To the unversed it can seem merely like one partner imposing his will on the other, but the truth is that it should involve one partner being able to take the other someplace connectively, physically, and sensually he wouldn’t be able to go normally or on his own, or if he were able to squirm away. It’s about watching your partner’s reactions, keeping tabs on what’s going on in his body, his mind, and his heart, and being able to steer their responses and endorphins. Obviously this is a trust issue on both partners’ parts. You have to be absolutely connected to each other, and the communications necessary are go so many levels deeper than just verbal. This is a closeness that vanilla sex rarely approximates. I was lucky enough to start out under the guide of a few really good practitioners of SM in New York; these men really understood the spiritual connection and the interpersonal connection of it, knowledge I am happy to have gained from them.

These gentlemen introduced me into the Gay Men’s SM Association (GMSMA, sadly now long defunct), an organization focused on education, safety, and activism within the community. I started out taking classes and trying out skills with classmates, apprenticing myself to my mentors, and making a name for myself as a skilled practitioner, and within a few years I graduated from taking the courses to teaching courses. To expand the circle of friends in the BDSM world I built a profile on Recon.com, a hookup site for the kinky; through those profiles I’ve met some of the most amazing men, learned some of the most extraordinary things, and made some of the best friends I’ll ever have. And one of those men from Recon turned out to be the director of the hardcore “ROUGH” line at Titan Studios.

I’d never paid much attention to porn. Other than rejecting it out of hand for much of my life to date as just representing the sort of sexuality I refused myself, it just wasn’t interesting. I think now I understand that I need to connect to a man and to like to find him attractive; an image on a screen doesn’t allow that sort of interaction. I also know now that I’m highly tactile, and that I’m turned on by smells and tastes as much as looks. What a man sounds like is paramount, and often porn obscures that with soundtracks, or feels somehow acoustically artificial to me. So it didn’t turn me on. And even with as much progress as I had made at the gym, porn seemed to be a reminder that sex was for the sexy, and that I wasn’t that.

So it rather shocked me when the director wrote me, saying that there are very few guys who really know their way around a flogger who also look like they should be in a dom role.

He said he saw serious potential in me, and asked, “Would you ever consider doing porn?” I laughed my ass off and said,“Have you seen my tummy? Have you seen my ass? This is not a body you want on camera. I love that you think I’m capable of this, but no.”

He understood and respected that, and yet every couple of months he would repeat the offer again. After about two and a half years, my curiosity rose a bit. I thought “He’s the pro, and perhaps he’s the better judge of potential than I am. Hesitantly I approached him and indicated my interest, and we started talking about the nature of the work and the ramifications and all. I finally decided that perhaps I would agree to film one, perhaps two scenes, and then Titan would realize that they really could have someone younger, more hung, and better looking than me. That would be that, right?


Let’s Film Some Porn


8. Let’s Film Some Porn

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So I hit the gym with renewed vigor and sense of urgency. I cleaned up my diet and started thinking for the first time ever about visage and personal presentation. If I was going to be on camera, I knew that it was likely this would pop up in odd moments for the rest of my life, so I’d better be at my best. And in June, about four months after agreeing to film, I went with the New York Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps Band to Boston to march in their gay pride parade. The morning of the parade, as I was getting dressed, the friend I was staying with said, “You have a six pack!” I said, “I do not!” He had to take a picture of me to prove it. I’d never dreamed I’d someday see my abs, as I’d spent my whole life having a hard enough time finding my belt under my belly. It took some time to sink in—I’d completely remade my own body. And if I’d done that much, I didn’t mean to stop there.

A month later I went and filmed my first scene with Titan. It went brilliantly and they were thrilled with it. And they invited me back to do a few more, and then more, and six years later I’m still going strong. Today I look at myself and I remember what I looked like physically 10 years ago or where I was in terms of relationships and sex 15 years ago. If you had told me back then that this was possible, I would have thought you’d lost your marbles. I don’t mean to call it quits quite yet, but truly, if studios were to suddenly stop calling now or if I found some reason to stop, I’m so happy with what porn has brought into my life already and I’m proud enough of what I’ve done so far, I think I could retire perfectly happily.

Speaking of amazing things porn has brought into my life, I met my partner Jesse Jackman in San Francisco during the Folsom street fair weekend a year later, in September of 2011. A mutual friend of ours introduced us, thinking perhaps with a year’s experience behind me I might offer some guidance to Jesse who at the time had just started in the industry and was having a few misgivings. I could see the glint in our friend’s eyes, though, and I had to tell him, “Okay, but this isn’t a hookup. I’m trying to get some aspects of my life on track and I don’t need a boyfriend getting in the way.” He sprung the two of us on each other at the club Beatbox on Thursday evening, and we connected so fast we were pretty much joined at the hip all weekend. However, as he lives in Boston and at the time I lived in Chicago, neither of us thought this would result in much more than another great friendship.

A month later, it was becoming clear that there was more going on between us than just friendship. As we first spoke of being boyfriends, though, I explained to him that I had a set of very close friends whom I call my brothers. These friendships in many cases are not only amicable but also physical—we do have sex—and I wasn’t prepared to tell my brothers that we had to alter the nature of our relationships because, well, I’d got a boyfriend now. It wouldn’t really be fair to them. I also explained that I’d learned over the years that I really wasn’t capable of sexual monogamy in any case. I promised him however that he would always be first in my heart, that he would be the man I want to come home to and sleep next to every night. I also told him that I would never require monogamy of him, knowing that he also had a few close fuckbuddies. We discussed how sexual variety outside of the relationship with care can enrich the relationship as well. He responded saying that this was probably the most adult and honest starts to a relationship he’d ever experienced. (Open relationships)

As part of this discussion, we talked about HIV and what we should do to keep ourselves healthy. In discussing how our safer sex practices were going to take shape, how to define our behaviours, one of us happened to utter the sentence which has become our ONE RULE: Don’t bring home anything you wouldn’t want to share. If you think about it, this simple idea is applicable on so many levels, from fuckbuds to pizza and ice cream to STIs. Jesse knows full well that many of my brothers with whom I have sex are HIV-positive; I am understood to keep him safe, and he trusts me with keep him safe. (Relationships)


Respect the Disease


9. Respect the Disease

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The face of HIV and AIDS has changed a lot in the past 20 years. Back in 1993 when I was with my second boyfriend, the anti-AIDS drug cocktails were almost as harsh as the disease. Back then it was a much scarier prospect. These days, I wouldn’t even begin to count the number of my friends who are HIV positive and on medication, doing fine. Some of these guys I sleep with regularly and love dearly.

The philosophy that I started to follow some years ago was, Respect the Disease. With some intelligence and precaution, one can have sex with the world and still have minimal risk of infection. This precaution takes several forms for different men: one brother of mine and I once considered dating, but he was uncomfortable with our serodiscordance. Even with condom usage he lived in terror that he’d transmit the infection, and he’d hate himself if it happened, so we wrote off sex for quite some while.

Since then we’ve come to understand the statistics of undetectable viral load transmission better, and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) has been introduced, but we’re still careful. Aside from Truvada-based resources to prevent or catch possible infections (PrEP and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, PEP) and to minimize a viral load in those already infected, tools like condoms are still the best means of containing HIV. Be smart; the best defence you have against an STI is your own intelligence and vigilance. Use all these tools to take care not only of yourself, but of your loved ones and our community at large. Let’s make sure we see far more lives being lived, not lost, in all our futures.

* Imagery - COLTstudiogroup.com

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Come and tell us your story! We would love to hear from you! If you want to find out a little more about how it all works, give Jessie a call at VAC on (03) 9865 6700, or email staying.negative@vac.org.au