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 military family; Dad was in the Navy, so we moved around a lot. I spent time in Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide, and then a bit of time in regional areas: Leinster, which is near Kalgoorlie, and Exmouth in Western Australia. When I was 12 my sister and I went to boarding school; she would have been 13 at the time. It was a private all boys school in Perth, (my sister went to the all girls’ school) and it was good in many ways. It was more stable, because I was now at the one school instead of a different school every year. It was competitive academically and in sports, whereas previously I went to a lot of schools where it was cooler to be a rebel than to excel. Sometimes as soon as you mention boarding school, people think of horrifying stories but I loved it; it was actually a really fun time.
Also, my sister and I started getting along. Before that, we didn’t get along that well but at boarding school, we decided that we actually liked each other. Maybe it was the distance since we were at different schools. It was the same with my parents. I think I got along better with them because I had that extra space to grow.
We used to do a whole bunch of stupid stuff at boarding school and get gated (which meant you weren’t allowed out on weekends). That being said, it was pretty liberal. Basically, we did whatever we wanted. It was totally different from my sister’s boarding school where they had to sign themselves out and wash their own clothes, and stuff like that.
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I went overseas for a Gap year as a high school exchange student, to a country town in Taiwan called Yilan, which was a couple of hours out of Taipei. I had a ball.
I was the only Australian at the school. There was another exchange student, a girl from Finland, but that was it. It was a small town and there were a few English speakers, but it was primarily Chinese. Sometimes you couldn’t even get Mandarin speakers, just Hokkein, which is the dialect they speak there.
It was difficult for the first few months, but I like learning languages anyway so it wasn’t a big deal. Basically, you’re blind, deaf and dumb. You can’t read characters. You can’t speak. There’s nothing to do but just really work at it. You pick it up pretty quickly though, mainly because it’s just constant immersion.
At one homestay, I wouldn’t be allowed to eat dinner without being able to name everything on the table. That sounds kind of harsh but it was actually really good for me. By the end of it, the language wasn’t an issue at all. But it was certainly a hard slog in the beginning.
I got along really well with my homestays. When I came back and lived in Taipei for university, I would go back all the time for things like Chinese New Year and barbeques, and even today we still keep in touch. People often hear ‘Chinese’ and think of a really conservative society, but that wasn’t my experience. One of my homestay mums was a school counsellor, and she had seen it all. She would always be dealing with students’ mental health issues, and whatever else was going on for them. She was really open; we talked a lot about issues around coming out, and I became a bit of a peer support person for other people going through that at school. I don’t know why they listened to me, but apparently they did!
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I came out to my parents when I got home from Taiwan after that first year of exchange. But the actual coming out at 17 was more like the confirmation of it than anything else. Sex was never taboo in my house. It was always openly discussed. And, after being away in Taiwan for a year I got a bit more independent. It was just time for me to say to my parents, “All right, just letting you know that this is something that I’m dealing with and thinking about. How do you feel about that?”
I was like, “Look, I’m not seeing anyone but I’ve definitely got feelings for guys. I don't know where this is going, but I just wanted to give you a heads-up.”
So the official coming out wasn’t so scary for me, it was more of a “Oh, I’m just throwing it out there, letting you know.” It was more of a statement. I think I was even a bit aggressive with it as well: ‘If you’ve got a problem with it, bring it bitches’.
I think coming out is an anti-climax for a lot of people. They get all worked up about it and they come out, and then it’s no big deal. It’s obviously not true for everyone, but that’s been the common experience in my little friendship group.
One of my mates from high school came out just last year. She’d never been with a woman before, and I’m her ‘goach’ – her gay coach – I’ve decided. Once, when we talked about coming out, she said, “Well you kind of cheated, you came out and then went away. And then you did whatever you wanted overseas.” I think that’s pretty valid in the sense that I felt I had the freedom to do that.
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There was mildly homo-erotic stuff throughout school. I think it happens more than people would like to admit.
In the high school in Taiwan there was similar stuff in sports class as well; wanking each other off and that sort of thing.
Just tame, semi-homo-erotic stuff. I had a relationship with a girl all through high school, so I’d had sex with women, but I didn’t have sex with a guy until I was about 18, in Beijing. It was with two Koreans who were studying at my university. I don't know how I get myself into these situations; he had a girlfriend, and she had a boyfriend, and we were all studying literature together. Maybe we just got too excited about poetry but we ended up having this polyamorous thing going on. It was just a very intense relationship. That was my first male-male actual sex experience.
I don't know how that all came about but I think it was just that we were all overseas, probably reading too much literature and drinking too much booze. Supposedly he was straight and supposedly she had a boyfriend, and she went to church, yet all of this was on the table. It ended really badly after a completely intense six to eight months. After that I didn’t have a relationship until second year uni.
The first guy I brought home wasn’t my first boyfriend. But it was just my first mildly serious relationship so I brought him home. He was Taiwanese. I wanted to go home and he wanted to visit Australia. So it was like, “Okay, whatever. Let’s just do this.”
Actually, I just said to my parents, “Look, I’m bringing a friend home”. It wasn’t like I said that he wasn’t my boyfriend; it was just that he was kind of new. I just didn’t want everything to be awkward; a big announcement of “This is my boyfriend”.
We had separate rooms; he was in the guest room and I was next door. We got back from the flight and we were both tired and we ended up having a sex/nap after the flight and then we both fell asleep naked in my bed. When Dad came home, he just walked straight into my room to say hi, and was like, “Right, right …” and walked back out again.
And I thought, ‘Oh fuck. Now I’ve gotta go and talk to him.’ So I put my clothes on and went out to see him. He said, “So, you’ve got something to tell me.” And I said, “Yeah, he’s not just a friend.” He was like, “Okay, cool.” And that’s all it was.
My dad had more issues with my sister dating and losing her virginity than me having relationships with guys. He’s come a long way since then, but my sister having sex was horrifying to him, whereas my gayness wasn’t. I don't know if that’s a personality thing, or the fact that sex was seen as a male space to him, but things were much easier for me. I’m also the youngest though, so I get all those perks.
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University was really good. I did a year of language and literature in Beijing, which was great. Then I decided there wasn’t a lot of point coming back to Australia and doing an Asian studies degree or something. So I just applied to do undergraduate in Taipei. I did gender studies and business which is a weird combination but I basically started doing business and it was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ So I ran away to the gender studies department because they looked like the only normal people in the university.
It was really competitive. National Taiwan University is the top school in Taiwan. It’s extremely competitive to get into. So I kind of bit off more than I could chew for the first six months or a year because it was a big jump going from being this happy-go-lucky exchange student to being an undergraduate and everyone just being really competitive.
We’d get ranked every semester. You’d be given a ranking for your position compared to everyone in your entire department. I was always five from the bottom. But I always thought ‘Woo-hoo! Five from the bottom!’ You know, I was so happy with that. No-one else really understood it. Pass marks are sixty-five and up, and I’d get like sixty-seven. And my classmates would say, “Oh what are you gonna tell your parents?” And I would try to explain that, “Fuck. My parents don't give a shit; I’m doing university in Chinese. If I’m passing then it’s fine!”
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It took a while for me to get into the groove at university. In my head, it was going to be this big frat keg party, and then suddenly I was in Taiwan and everyone was just studying 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Over there, they do about 30 contact hours a week at university. Then, on top of that, I had to translate everything.
It was also a bit weird being the only white guy in the class. That wasn’t so much fun.
But I think after a few years, I felt I was more on top of things. I had a nice little group of friends that was a mixture of local and international students. The only international students at the university were countries that had diplomatic relations with Taiwan. So they were from places like Burkina Faso, Tuvalu and Paraguay. There were a lot of Latin Americans, Africans, and Pacific Islanders; it was a really cool bunch of people. But I think it wasn’t so much that I stopped feeling left out or different; it’s just I’d stopped caring. Every new class that I went into, the professor would just assume that I was either an exchange student or lost. They would have no idea. Eventually I just said, “Whatever.” That’s just part of it. It was okay to just be seen as ‘that white guy’.
My friends tended to be postgrads, or from the art, or gender studies, or drama department. I’d look for people that were a little bit non-mainstream at university. The gender studies department was also completely different to the rest of the university. They were all crazy and queer, feminists and the like. They had the same kind of disdain as me; they didn’t really gel with the majority of the student population.
There wasn’t a lot I could do that wasn’t noticed. We’d buy beer and cigarettes from 7-11 and after class we’d sit around on campus drinking and having a smoke. So that would always be noticed by others and if I came to class late or left early, that would be seen too. There were a lot of students who were really competitive, real goody-two-shoes types who did well at school and listened to Mum and Dad. But I would have had to deal with those types of people if I had gone to university in Australia anyway. Fortunately outside of campus, there are lots of young, urban people, lots of Taiwanese hipsters. After classes and on the weekend, I had a great time.
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When I was new in the city, I just did my own thing and slept around. It was good. I didn’t really know much about gayness and the gay scene at that point.
I was out to my classmates, mainly because it just wasn’t an issue. I’ve always been pretty vocal, but that became even more pronounced during my time in the gender studies department. And that’s when I started to get to know more of the queer community both in school and outside. When I started first year, I went to the Gay and Lesbian Student Association but it was just a gay men’s student association. I didn’t go to uni in Australia but I’m assuming there would just be a queer collective where no-one wears shoes and everyone has sex with each other. Well, in my head, that’s how it works! But in Taiwan it was all segregated. There was a lesbian student association at the school and there was a gay student association at the school, and they didn’t talk to each other. I went to two of the meetings and was like, “I can’t deal with this.”
It was difficult for me because my expectation was: “University’s where everyone experiments. Surely it’s a right of passage; it’s compulsory”. I had this idea of what university should be like but it wasn’t how it worked in Taiwan. There, it was expected that you finish high school, go to uni, do masters and get a job. Everyone felt that they couldn’t be as free at university as I did. But I didn’t know anyone, so I didn’t give a shit. No one was there to pull me up and you get a little bit of leeway as a foreigner anyway. People assume that you are at the very least promiscuous, but maybe also more open-minded.
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A lot of young people meet online in Taiwan. That just doesn’t do it for me - sexual attraction for me is about conversation and I can’t do that in a club and I’m too lazy to do it online. Unless they’re some amazing wordsmith I’m not really going to get involved online.
But if I go to a party, I can engage in a conversation and that’s the foreplay for me. I don’t really think I’d be interested in doing it online and just seeing a shirtless man. I guess that’s what it comes down to with the queer label, or the bisexual label - you’re attracted to someone because they’re funny or because they’ve got something special going on, not just their gender.
One of my favourite topics of conversation is slang – foreign language slang. I think it’s fascinating. Asian men who like western men are known as ‘hàn băo mèi ’(漢堡妹), which is ‘hamburger sister’. It’s sort of the equivalent of calling them a potato queen, (which is the opposite of a rice queen). Or you’d say they only ‘chī xī cān’ (吃西餐), which is they only ‘eat western food’.
Terms I am describing were used in a derogatory sense, but they have been somewhat reclaimed. Amongst friends people would often tease each other that they ‘hā yáng diǎo’ (哈洋屌) which means ‘to like white cock’, or they ‘graduated from white cock college’. That’s when someone’s English is really good but they’ve never studied English – they’ve just had a lot of foreign boyfriends.
Often the way you talk about sex, the slang you use, reflects the culture. In Taiwan, for example, the equivalent of top and bottom is ‘zero’ and ‘one.’ The other way of saying it is ‘gē’ (哥), which is ‘older brother’ and ‘dì’ (弟), which is younger brother. So it’s like this younger brother/older brother dynamic.
I didn’t get that there’s a really strong top/bottom, older brother/younger brother dynamic at first, because for me it was still about being new and having fun. Even in the lesbian community, there was a real butch/femme dynamic. It wasn’t until later when I ran into the gender studies group and there were all these people that didn’t buy into that really strong cultural norm.
I guess it might happen like that in Australia too, but if you're new and gay in Taiwan, you go and find someone older, like an older brother. And you’re going to bottom, and he’s going to top, and that’s just the way it is. The sexual dynamic is also the relationship dynamic, so he also looks after you. That expectation just didn’t gel with me; I didn’t understand why it had to be that way. It was the same with butch and femme: all my Taiwanese friends who suddenly came out at 18 or 19 cut all their hair off and went super-butch. And then they’d realise “Oh, this isn’t for me. I’m not really, like that...” it took them a while to find a happy medium.
It was difficult for me because I didn’t really like the club scene because there were only two choices. Either be the only white guy or be the youngest white guy in a crowd of 60-year-old men. Outside of the clubs, you had to buy into that weird dynamic where it had to be this butch/femme or, younger brother/older brother thing.
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I’ve always just slept with my friends or hooked up through mutual friends. If I had a relationship it was always through a friend of a friend too. It just made more sense for me than meeting someone on the internet or trying to go into this weird dynamic that I didn’t really understand.
I think my friends were particularly good with having access to and using condoms. I don't think I learnt a lot about safe sex until I was a bit older, when I was actually in a relationship. I used condoms but I didn’t use them properly. For a long time in my early twenties there were a lot of broken condoms as well because I was drunk, or I was excited, or I just didn’t know what I was doing.
It took me a long time before I started looking into it. I was 24 or 25 before I thought, “I want to learn about this. I want to take control of my sexual health. I want to get tested regularly.” There was also a personal interest and it just became more important to be aware and know that important information. It was purely just me growing up and deciding I had to make empowered decisions rather than just being like, “Whatever. I don't give a fuck.”
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My current partner and I have been together for four years. He’s an American guy. He’s actually from the Air Force but he got kicked out under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Because he’s a couple of years older than me, and I was a bit more mature when we got together, sex was an actual discussion where we asked each other, “Have you been tested?” And there was condom negotiation and all these real, mature, proper things going on in the relationship.
It’s probably the first relationship where I didn’t just have sex straight away. My partner doesn’t have one-night-stands. He wouldn’t sleep with me for two to three weeks. Well, it was probably like a week but it felt like about a month! That was a big thing for me because he said “We need to talk about this”. So I guess that was kind of the turning point. And I started to get more interested in sexuality in general because it was like, “Wow, these are mature conversations with real people!”
So I started taking more control of my sexual health. But it was really because there was a framework in which to do all these things. I guess I was old enough to have those conversations. When I was 21, I wasn’t doing any condom negotiation. Sure, I was wearing them, but I wasn’t very consistent or good with them.
There’s this elevator speech which I think is really cool. Basically, before you have sex with someone you say something like, “Right, this is the last time I was tested. I was screened for this and that and these were the results. I like this and this, and I don't really like that but we can also negotiate around those things.” It’s just like basically a five minute pitch in which you outline who you are, what you like and what your sexual health is like. Those kind of condom negotiations or sexual negotiations are really positive and powerful, and I think if I could have been at that stage when I was 20 years old and that comfortable with myself, it would have been really good.
It’s this very sex-positive message that says “I’m in control of my own sexual health and if you’re really into strap-ons (for example), that’s great. It’s just not my thing so maybe we should move on”. It’s sort of like speed dating for the sexually adventurous and people who look after their sexual health.
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My background is gender studies so my favourite word is ‘queer’. I love the political tones of that. I love the idea that sexuality is not on a scale where a person has to be on one end or the other. Scales, like Kinsey’s scale, don’t sit well for me. If I could, I would always tick the ‘queer’ box because it’s my favourite. At the same time, I’ve been in a relationship with a guy for four years. We’re a monogamous, gay couple. On any given day I’m more than happy to wear the ‘gay’ hat.
The thing about labels is that you don't need to choose one or the other. It isn’t a scarce resource, so I don’t see the problem in using more than one. But I also like the idea of a fuzzy area. I like the idea of straight people who experiment, gay people who experiment. This particular stance can be hard to negotiate within a gay male spaces or scenes. The fact is, for some people same sex acts are about behaviour not about identity, and for others their ‘gayness’ is who they are.
After university I came back to Australia. My first job was a Chinese liaison manager for a mining company. It was fascinating to go from doing gender studies and then going into a work environment and actually seeing misogyny in action. I remember being in the middle of a long mediation session with my boss and one of my colleagues: he had been yelling and a bit aggressive, and she had cried. After the meeting, he said to her, “Look, it was really unprofessional for you to be overly-emotional.” And she came to me and said, “I feel so bad. I feel so guilty. I cried at work. I feel like I failed women and feminism,” and stuff like that. I said, “What do you mean? You showed emotion just as he did, but you showed a different emotion. It’s not that you showed emotion at work because everyone was being emotional: it’s just you showed the ‘wrong emotion’ according to him.” It was a clear double standard.
I also loved going to mine sites, this really blue-collar area and having that challenge because I thrive on that sort of thing. Especially in the beginning, when the miners test the waters, call you a faggot or whatever, to see how you react to that. For me I coped by emasculating them right back. After you’ve had that first experience of locking horns, you usually establish a sort of mutual respect.
It worked for me. I don’t think it’s the best way, nor is it the most responsible or the healthiest way. But it works in an environment where you have to be really alpha to be respected. It was fascinating to see that dynamic in action. And it’s ridiculous to think that in mining camps there’s not a whole bunch of man-on-man action anyway!
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Eventually I decided I wanted to do more work in sexual health so I took a job in Melbourne working in reproductive health. I really like the work, and Melbourne just works for me on so many levels. It ticks more boxes for me, in the sense that it provides the things I like, and the opportunity to do the things I want to do with my life.
So life’s pretty good. You know, I’m always tempted to go overseas again. It does feel weird not using my Chinese because I spent almost ten years of my life learning it, and living in that culture. I mean, the only time I use Chinese these days is to explain a termination (abortion) to an international student.
Then again, gender studies and sexual health was the big thing for me before that, and it’s still where my interest lies. Eventually, I’d like to put them both together. If I could do more condom demonstrations in Chinese for international students, I’d totally be there. Finding a way to blend those two would be really good. But, at this stage, I’m just happy being in Melbourne for some time.
I wanted to tell my story for Staying Negative because I think it’s an interesting spin on the message. It’s a message that works for me. I’ve had a look on the website and it doesn’t give that whole ‘you must always wear condoms and have sex through a sheet’ speech. It just lets people say “This is my story”, and I think it’s an awakening to understand that when it comes to sexual health, there’s so much other shit to deal with. First, you’ve got to come out and then you’ve got to work out how sex works. And then there’s all this other stuff that has to happen before you’re a fully-functioning, empowered person.
I think it’s great to have stories out there about how people come to the realisation that they’re making decisions that will affect their health. Even if they make a decision that’s not necessarily positive for their health, as long as they’re informed decisions, rather than acting blindly. I wasn’t sure if I had an amazing story to tell, but I think the more stories that are out there, the better.
Growing up, Gareth moved around a lot.
Growing up, Gareth moved around a lot.
Growing up, Gareth moved around a lot.