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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My name is Greg. I was born in Hamilton, in Western Victoria, in 1963. I grew up in a conservative Catholic family – there are eleven of us in my family - in a small, conservative, Liberal-voting environment. Malcolm Fraser was our local member and it wasn’t uncommon to see him walking down the street. My father was more of a union and Labor man but the family still had traditional Catholic values so, growing up, there was nothing to be but straight.
I guess I knew I was gay from about the age of eight, although I had no idea what that meant. It wasn’t until I reached puberty at around fifteen, sixteen that I experimented a little bit with my sexuality. There was nothing overt about my sexuality at all and I didn’t want to be gay anyway; it just didn’t suit what I was doing and where I was living.
A friend and I had sex.
A friend and I had sex together from seventeen up until I was about twenty-five – but that was very secretive. There was a lot of sneaking around; night drives down into the countryside taking whatever opportunity we could to have sex - it was usually in the back of a wagon in some dark no-through-road behind the trees. We took opportunities to go away together as well; we’d hire a caravan somewhere and just camp out in the bush.
He was about four years older than I was. One day we’d been swimming in the heated pool and everyone else had gone. He suggested skinny-dipping, which we did, and I suppose that’s where it started. There was bit of playing around together that night and we drove to a park somewhere in the dark. He asked me: “Have you ever seen a penis erect?” and that sort of thing.
He sort of led that and I certainly didn’t resist, or want to resist. It was exciting and a little bit risky and that began several years of sneaking around in the dark.
We didn’t think of ourselves as boyfriends.
I always thought of it as a sexual thing. I don’t think we ever used the term boyfriend or partner about each other; we’d just call each other friends, I suppose. I guess that’s part of not wanting to admit that I was in a relationship with another man.
In the end, he wanted to move on to Melbourne. That was a big thing for either of us to do; we were both country boys and the idea that you could live anywhere other than Hamilton was just foreign to us. But he had a job opportunity and he took it and that was the end of that relationship.
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As I became an adult, being in a relationship with another man just felt so wrong. The sex was wonderful, but the guilt associated with that afterwards was eventually more than I could bear. His moving away enabled me to shelve my homosexuality because I was out of that relationship and I could start again.
I was OK with it for the first few years, but as I got more involved with the Church I started trying to coming to terms with my sexuality because, being Catholic, gay wasn’t the thing to be. We didn’t use the word gay back then, poofter more likely, but there was no way I could be a poof in Hamilton: I was a youth leader and I was heavily involved in the Catholic Church there, so my whole persona was that of a straight Catholic boy. There was nowhere to go with it so I just buried it.
I'm good with god. I started to think about becoming a priest. There were two things that led me to that. One is that I do genuinely want to help other people and that’s a great way to do it. The other side of it is that I wanted to do something that pleases god because, on the inside, I felt like a dirty poof.
I felt I had the ability to commit the gravest sins that you can think of and I wanted to keep in good with the guy who was going to give me eternal bliss. The best way to do that is to serve him and the best way to do that is by becoming a priest. The Catholics call that having a calling; now I just call it being screwed up.
One gay guy in Hamilton.
I think one of the good things about being gay today is that you’re not so isolated. Back then, the only other gay person I knew was the guy I was having sex with; there was nobody else out there. There was one gay guy in Hamilton; he was in his 50’s, wore purple vests and drove a purple wagon. Everyone knew he was a poof and you were to stay away from him at all costs. My father lovingly calls homosexuals woolly-woofters.
So, there was nothing endearing about being homosexual, which meant there was nowhere to take this stuff. I had no one to talk to and a lot of the time I just didn’t understand. I went to a Catholic school and there was no expression of that sexuality and no way to express that to any of the priests or teachers – it just wasn’t done. There were no magazines, no books in the library to discuss sexuality, certainly not in a place like Hamilton.
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After the friend I had sex with left Hamilton, my best friend from school days caught up with me – he’d joined the army. He was getting married and he asked me to be his best man. I saw first-hand my best friend get married and he was extremely happy: I wanted to experience what he was experiencing and at some point I made a conscious decision that I was going to get married too.
But at some stage I had also decided that I couldn’t be married because I knew I was homosexual and it wouldn’t be right or fair. That’s when I started looking at becoming a priest, when I was 24-25. I started seriously exploring that, talking to the priest and going off to the seminary. I went to a ‘vocation discernment’ weekend, which was like a recruitment retreat for the church. That’s where I met the woman who was ultimately to become my wife.
I fell in love with her.
She was a Melbourne girl and we hit it off. She’s a very funny, beautiful woman in her own way and we got on extremely well. I fell in love with her. Meeting her was like a revelation from god because my constant, earnest prayer had been: "Please don’t let me be gay. I’ll do whatever you want but I don’t want to be gay; take that away from me”.
You fear that you’ve been dealt some impossible task to deal with. I could feel in my very being that I was gay and there was nothing that could change that except putting myself at the mercy of god. So you go off and pretend to be a priest and that would have happened if it wasn’t for the offer of sex and a relationship.
Sex is going to win every time.
Suddenly it seemed that god had put this woman in front of me. I could have a life of being celibate or a life of sex with a woman – I think the sex is going to win every time. So that’s how I ended up getting married; I believed that god had given me a choice and left it for me to decide whether I became a priest or I got married and became a father.
We fell madly in love with each other, though I think my love was driven more by my perception that god had shown me a way not to be gay. So began many years of living with and having sex with a woman. That was fine; I didn’t have any problems in our sexual relationship; it was quite healthy - it just wasn’t what I wanted. Still, it worked and I was more than happy in that relationship. It was fine for the first couple of years.
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We got married and then we had two children. Our daughter was born in 1992 and then our son in 1994. Due to some personal circumstances, we switched roles: I stayed home and she went out to work. That put me at home full-time with the kids, which was fantastic. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences you could have. It’s no bed of roses, but I wouldn’t change for the world that I’ve been able to be with my kids in their early years. And not just their early years; they’ve continued to live with me since my wife and I separated. When men come out they usually end up being separated from their children, but when we finally separated that was just the way it was going to be.
My wife was working full-time at the local hospital, but when Jeff Kennett came into power he changed the way hospitals employed nurses, so she went from a full time contract to two days a week, with a promise of full-time work in the future, which didn’t eventuate. So the main breadwinner in our family went from a full-time job to two days a week and we couldn’t survive.
Moving to Melbourne.
We were a single-income family who’d had their full time wage ripped out from under them. We had to make a choice; we had to move to a place where there were more hospitals that would offer a full time contract. We toyed with the idea of going to other provincial cities like Ballarat or Bendigo. My parents had by that stage moved to Queensland, so they weren’t about to help us out, but her parents were here in Melbourne, so we moved to Melbourne.
For her, moving to Melbourne was moving home and for me it was moving to the big city. Moving from your home of thirty five years was a hell of a challenge and a really big move for me. I went from someone who all the locals knew to being a complete nobody in the city. But moving from the country proved to be one of the best moves I ever made.
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I had always been an angry man because I hadn’t been dealing with my sexuality. I’d always had this fiery temper but it began getting worse and for the first time in my life I actually started hitting things. I’d take a baking dish and put my fist through it, that sort of thing. There were lots of heated arguments with my wife and that led me to counseling.
I went to counseling to deal with my anger and, as happens in counselling once you start, it just snowballed. There was a whole range of stuff, but finally – and I think my counselor knew it well before I did – I was gay and I had to say so. So I did.
One of the things about my personality is that I’m brutally honest, so I told my wife what was happening. I told her I was gay – I had actually told her before I proposed to her that I’d had sex with men in the past, so she already knew that. So I guess she knew I was gay and I guess we both hoped it would never come to that, but the combination of my anger and my sexuality was the thing that pushed us to say, well, this isn’t working any more.
The separation was ugly, brutal and emotionally draining, but it was the right and honest thing to do. I suppose, even having admitted to myself that I was gay and using that term to describe myself, I still wanted to stay in the relationship. I still loved her and I still wanted to be with her. I was convinced that we could make that work but knowing I was gay she could only ever see herself as the substitute for a man.
We finally separated. The kids stayed with me. There were also lots of arguments with her family, who were accepting but really pissed off with me, because I’d married their daughter despite knowing I was gay.
The kids were two and four at the time. I explained to them that their parents were separating and that it had nothing to do with them; we still loved them and that for me it was about preferring to be with a man as a partner. So, in those terms, they knew I was gay from a very early age.
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Once I discovered I was gay and admitted that to myself, I discovered chat rooms on the internet and 0055 numbers. I got a couple of phone and internet bills for about a thousand dollars because I was just spending all my time in chat rooms chatting with other gay men and the same on the phone! I wasn’t quite ready to actually do anything about it though.
My first internet hook-up.
A couple of months after the separation I finally decided to actually meet someone face-to-face. We’d been chatting on ICQ for a while. My wife had only just moved out and the kids were with me full-time so I had to negotiate getting them out of the house. I met this guy somewhere in public and we introduced ourselves and he followed me home. It was all very exciting and nerve-wracking. We didn’t do much more than a blowjob and masturbating.
He was horrible! It just didn’t turn me on very much at all. He played with his nipples so much that his eyes started fluttering and his eyes rolled back in his head! I couldn’t do anything but laugh; it was just so comical. I had this guy sitting astride of me playing with his nipples while I stroked him, with his head thrown back, his eyes fluttering and all I could see were the whites of his eyes.
I can’t remember seeing him more than once, but despite the off-putting visual, it was enough for me to know that I did enjoy being intimate with another man. My first sexual experience after my marriage left absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is what I should have been doing all along.
In the chat-rooms I met a young guy from Sydney. He was about twelve years younger than I was. He was looking to move down to Melbourne, so I invited him into my house and we lived together for about ten months. It was just abysmal; it was the worst thing I’d ever done. Our personalities just didn’t gel. At all! We were at each other’s throats the whole time, but it was a learning curve for me about gay relationships – well, about relationships in general. I spent a lot of time in therapy trying to understand why I found myself in this relationship with someone who was, from an early stage, clearly not suited to me. That broke up, which was horrible. It was a really bad relationship.
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And then I ended up with a man who was the answer to my relationship problems. He was a great guy; he was employed; he had a good job; he was responsible; he cooked; he shopped; he loved the kids; he was great fun to be around; we had a really great sex life and it was just great. He was everything I hoped for in a man. I thought that I had finally found the person for me and it was right for a long, long time. We were together for two years.
We’d been really cautious for the first three months or so about our sex life and were safe. I finally went off and had an HIV test about six months after we’d been in the relationship and it came back HIV-negative. I shared that with him and he never actually said that he was HIV-negative. He never said that he was HIV-positive either, but he alluded to the fact that he was safe and that everything was OK. I assumed that everything was OK and we started having unprotected sex.
In fact, I was never courageous enough to address the subject. After we split up I got tested and was reassured to get a negative test result, but it took me until 2005 to actually get the message that it was my responsibility to myself to find out my partner’s HIV status before having unprotected sex.
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I’ve never been one for casual sex or to hang around in pubs or clubs or beats or anything like that. I’ve always enjoyed being in a relationship and that’s what I want and where I want to be. I had no sex for a couple of years until I felt horny enough to go out and get some. I tried three or four guys and none of those were particularly terrific and then Michael came along and we’ve hit it off straight away. That’s been happening for two or three months now, so that’s all fairly new.
From Michael I’ve discovered the way to behave when it comes to having sex with a new man - how not to take the risks and how to have safe sex and still have really good sex - and that’s been a really important lesson for me. He’s HIV-negative and so am I but we’ve both had a couple of other sexual partners beforehand so we need to double-check that before we stop using condoms together. We’ve spoken about having some HIV tests and where that leaves us and whether we have unprotected sex after that.
We’re not going to be exclusive.
It’s really early in this relationship but I think in the discussions we’ve had so far that we’re saying it’s not going to be exclusive. I don’t know how that works, because this is new to me, but I certainly acknowledge that, as a man, sometimes it’s just about getting your rocks off and I will take whatever opportunities come my way.
Even though I haven’t had sex outside the relationship before, I’m pretty certain that if the opportunity arose I would more than likely take that opportunity. And I think that’s just about being a man being horny and wanting to get your rocks off. I don’t know where that will leave us in our own relationship but I do know that that’s something that we’re open about and we talk about. It’s about knowing what each other is getting up to - and being able to trust each other, I suppose.
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There are two things in marriage that are taboo if you’re Catholic – three if you count homosexuality! – you can’t use condoms and you can’t be on the pill. So I don’t think I’d had a condom on my dick up until I was about 35. I had always had unprotected sex and so, even when I knew about HIV, using condoms was just something that was completely foreign to me. Not that I had much unprotected sex - the opportunities never arose really - but in the relationships I was in I didn’t use condoms at all. Early on in that first long-term relationship with a man, we used condoms for the first few months, but before that relationship I didn’t use them at all. I think it’s a moral hangover from being Catholic.
Catholics and sex.
I don’t think I’ve ever really been attuned to how my body works when it comes to sex; it was always just something that feels good, you know? So I had no idea about semen and what that’s capable of carrying; I had no idea about sexually transmitted infections of any sort. I do now because I’ve gone and educated myself, but unless people tell you about it and unless you’re prepared to have those discussions there’s no way to find that stuff out.
There are no sexually transmitted infections in Catholic families – of course there are, but as far as the Catholics are concerned that’s not a possibility, because you only have sex with one person in your whole life. Of course, in reality, that’s not the case. Catholics fuck like everyone else; they just don’t admit it. But that means there’s an underground of sexually transmitted disease that nobody talks about. It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I cottoned on to the fact that I should be a little more careful.
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It has been a long process but I have gradually shifted from being someone who believes 100% that there is a god who is involved in my everyday life. It eventually comes down to the fact that I’m gay and that if god made me that way then he’s a dirty rotten bastard. As a Catholic you can’t have those feelings; you can’t be angry with god. Initially I was angry with god and it took me a long time to express those feelings.
The thing that finally convinced me I was not a believer was the tsunami of 2006, when 120,000 people died through an act of god. That became such a pivot point in my life: how can a god let that happen? We’re supposed to be his devoted loyal loving servants and worship him and he has wiped away 120,000 innocent people. That was it for me; it was gone and I’m now a rabid atheist. I don’t believe in any of that any more.
The big thing about being Catholic was having a final judgment for your sins and if I wanted to believe that it means I’m condemned to hell for all eternity, which is such a repulsive thought and such a horrible thing to have on your mind. It’s been such a relief not to believe that any more. And if I let that go, I have to let everything else go as well; I can’t pick and choose.
My purpose in life.
I can see no evidence in my life that there is a god. I’m quite happy for other people to have that belief but nothing that has ever happened to me has indicated to me that there is a god. From that I get that there is no purpose to life other than what I make it to be myself. My purpose in life now is to get along with other people: I enjoy living and the other purpose in my life is to bring up my kids, to hopefully help them to become self-determining adults so that they can live in the world as well. I’ve got one shot at this and I’m determined to make the best of it.
Postscript: March, 2009
Since this interview, Michael and I did go and get an HIV test together. By the time I was waiting for the test results in the clinic, I was really nervous about the result, even though there was fuck all chance of me being positive, but it was good to have Michael there with me. As expected they were negative. From my first contacts with gay men to where I am today with Michael, I’m in a much better place - the whole experience has turned my life around. I feel positive, I’m not so unsure or insecure, I know what I want; I’m confident and I know where I want to be in life.
Gregory grew up in a conservative Catholic family in Hamilton.
Gregory moved to Melbourne after splitting up with his wife.