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 was born in Canberra and I lived there for a few years but then in 1991 I moved to Bangkok, Thailand. I spent four years there attending a British International School. My dad worked for the Department of Immigration so he was placed at different Australian Embassies around the world. Our family went from Canberra, to Bangkok, to Perth, to Washington DC, and then back to Canberra when I was 14. I had this incredibly American accent. I was also incredibly camp and I got teased so horribly at high school.
I’m not sure when I realised I was gay because even as a child I was very effeminate and very unafraid to do what I wanted (like playing with dolls, leotards, and rhythmic gymnastic ribbons). If someone said that’s not for boys I just wouldn’t listen. I remember during prepubescent years, when I was nine or ten or something,
I had a sleepover at my friend’s house and I didn’t bring a towel so I had to use one of his but he said, “don’t use that towel, that’s my older brother’s and he’s rubbed his dick on it.” I remember thinking to myself, what’s the problem?
Even before puberty, there was something about dick-rubbing that I was very okay with.
When I was in the US doing lots of musical theatre, dance and drama, I had a few role models who were teenagers, they were around 17 or 18 and they were gay. They were very visible so I kind of knew that that was an option as an identity. It was during this time at around 12 or 13 years old that I actually had desire in me towards a friend. I used to go over to his house to rehearse. We would sit on his bed facing each other sort of straddling our legs as we practiced. We never had sex or anything at the time, we kind of just got close, although, two years later when I went back to the US we ended up kissing at my friends bar mitzvah!
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I ended up moving back Canberra with my family. I have an older brother and sister who are very supportive as well as my parents who are wonderful. I think they always suspected that I was gay so when I came out at 16 they weren’t really that surprised. They were more like, “okay, I guess it’s official now.”
Canberra is a weird place to be a teenager – there is no beach, there are lots of shopping centre and bus interchanges. I was really into ballet and musical theatre when I lived there. There was a bit of community theatre and dance in Canberra, but it also really had a small town syndrome. There are some very special and unique things about Canberra though, like the National Art Gallery, National Library and the National Film and Sound Archives.
There was this one gay club in Canberra that I started going to when I was 14. The clientele was a mix between lesbians and gay men. You’d have these sassy queens dancing it up in their tight tops and these lesbians playing pool and drinking beer. The thing we all had in common was blonde frosted spikey hair. We all kind of dressed the same with the blue checkered shirts and flared pants. It was the early 2000’s and fashion was not good. There was smoke from fog machines being blasted at you from all directions, so sometimes you couldn’t actually see who else was there.
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I grew up very Catholic, went to a private Catholic school and had a pretty bad time in Year 9 and 10. It was a co-ed school and there was lots of bullying.I was targeted at me because I was effeminate and because I had an American accent – the combination was something totally to ridicule.
I used to get smashed into the lockers every day and get beaten up on the bus going to and from school. It was all pretty traumatic, even my PE teacher called me a faggot under his breath.
I used to go home and cry on the floor and think, ‘is this what life is like?’
Another thing that happened was in Year 10, we had religion class and our teacher, who meant no harm, said we’d go around the room and everyone was going to talk about bullying and slurs or a hate swear word directed at a type of person, usually a minority. He said, “I’m just going to get it out of the way and then we’re going to talk about how damaging these words can be.” As we went around the room people kept saying words like, “faggot, poofter, pillow biter, fudge packer”, and they were all directing them at me. When the teacher was turned around they would shout them in my direction. There were about 22 kids in the class and so there were 21 homophobic hate words on the board. When it was my turn I said, “breeder – it means a straight person who only exists to reproduce but has no ambition of their own.” He said that was not really a swear word so didn’t put it up on the board.
I wasn’t ready to be publicly out as gay so I wasn’t ready to admit that I was being bulled because the question would be, ‘why are you being bullied?’ I’d have to say it’s because they were calling me gay and the next question would be, ‘well, are you?’ I just wasn’t ready to confront that with teachers and parents yet. I had such a bad time in Year 9 and 10 but I kind of just moved.
I focused on school work and I tried to be invisible. I had this one female friend and we really needed each other at the time. We used to just hide a lot in bushes and just hang out. In year 11 I ended up changing school and had the time of my life. It was a public school and the system was different, so you’d call teachers by their first name and if you missed class you’d just fail but you weren’t going to be expelled or have your parents called.
There were multiple other queer kids walking around and they were very visible. You could wear your own clothes so people could kind of be more comfortable in themselves and it was in a suburb that was surrounded by a lot of international embassies so there were quite a lot of international kids. There was a huge amount of diversity and a high standard of academia. There were a lot of smart and creative people all in one place, there was also no popularity structure.
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My first sexual experience was when a guy gave me a blowjob and I thought it was really weird. I remember thinking, ‘what’s the big deal, this is overrated.’ It with a guy older than I was. It was someone who would give me rides home a lot and sometimes we’d just drop by his house before he dropped me home. The first time, we were watching the concert version of Les Miserables with Lea Salonga singing On My Own.
Then we had unprotected sex. I didn’t know any better and my friends weren’t having sex at that age. Sex with this guy continued for about two months and then it kind of petered out. I realised the age gap was quite weird when I got a bit older. We certainly didn’t get any education about gay sex in high school, so I was a little in the dark about it all. I wish I could tell my younger self to be more careful.
That was the first time I went to get an HIV test. It was at this free clinic which was like a shack with wooden slats and these old couches in the waiting room. It was anonymous, free and you didn’t need a Medicare card. The nurse took my bloods, an anal swab, an oral swab and I had to pee in a cup. She asked me several questions about how many guys I had slept with, which was just one, as well as how many guys I think he had slept with. She said I most likely have a sexually transmitted infection.
It turned out I didn’t, which was a relief for my young self. I guess from then on I researched a lot, and taught myself what risks I would and wouldn’t take. I researched HIV and AIDS, and became more aware of the impact it had on the gay community. I started to realise that a terrible crisis had plagued the community I was just becoming a part of. I think that’s when the seed was planted for me to want to address HIV through the arts one day. I realised it was something that affected every single gay man. I realised that positive and negative people needed to work together to end this terrible thing. To end stigma, ignorance, and apathy. I realised this when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until I was into my 20’s that it really came to the forefront.
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I moved to Melbourne when I was 17 and did my Bachelor of Dance at the Victorian College of The Arts and it was very different because all of a sudden I was independent and living out of home. I lived with a male/female couple from Canberra. I just felt great, I had a really clear goal with an intense dance course and I was very focused and hardworking. I never missed a day of university and there were plenty of gay people in my course and it just kind of became the norm.
I’ve been with my current boyfriend for five years. He’s the cutest, I am so attracted to him. I think he’s a real babe and insanely talented. We met at Melbourne fringe festival in 2009, he was performing in a show and I was performing in a show. I saw him across the room and my heart sang and I was like, ‘who is that?! Oh my God, I’m going to marry him.’ He’s a circus performer and travels around the world so he’s overseas a fair bit. He’s so good at what he does.
I’ve been in Melbourne now for around 10 years. I love the dance and queer communities here. I’ve been lucky enough to work as a professional dancer, and to get to make my own work. My most challenging and rewarding production is called “Hex.”
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My generation will never know what it’s like to see our peers dying in numbers. That is such a profound privilege and it comes with profound responsibility.
We have to continue the work of the brave activists before us. We have to serve our community and nurture it. What unites the gay community is desire, and bravery in the face of discrimination. I’m interested in inter-generational dialogues because no generation ever exists in a vacuum. All generations overlap with other generations to some degree, and I’m interested in how desire and bravery manifest in different ways.
As a gay person you have a desire in you. You’re not taught how to be gay, but it develops organically, and through seeking it out yourself. How to be gay is not controlled, regimented or containable. People engage with culture at different levels. There are so many aspects that need to be considered. I was aware of the AIDS crisis as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager and started having sex that I became aware that it was something very serious.
Right now I’m working on my show, Hex which premiered in May as part of Next Wave festival. It was developed through the Next Wave Kick Start Program which creates new works and the artists get together and present how the work is developing at different points. The show is about Generation Y’s interpretation of the early years of the AIDS epidemic as a tribute from one generation to another.
There is a lineage of queer activism that speaks of a demand to be heard, to be respected, to be included. I engage with that lineage as an artist, and that lineage has directly made me more comfortable with who I am. That’s how I could come out at 16 and how I can imagine a life dating men without shame or fear. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better.
When people watch my show ‘Hex’ I want them to ask themselves, ‘is gay history inherited, or is it generational?’ I’m looking at the AIDS crisis before effective treatment was available. During the time when homophobia was more intense, when people in the gay community was dealing with homophobia from churches, the medical field, the society at large and the mother fucking epidemic that was causing so much nightmarish destruction.
That history of activism and ACT UP and TAG and the mix between high camp and high serious protests, I find politically and artistically very interesting. I have an ACT UP tattoo because it means a lot to me. Due to AIDS activism, treatment was demanded and social norms have changed. The gay agenda is pushing in a very visible way for same sex marriage which I support on one hand but on the other hand I see as quite conservative.
My dad said to me once, “when I was your age, if you were progressive at all you were anti-marriage completely and now your generation, with many more comfortably gay people, they’re fighting for marriage.
That is the visible gay agenda of this time. When you think about gay liberation we are fighting for our rights, fighting to come out of the closet and fighting to be an individual. Then AIDS activism came from a need to fight for your life. The third big queer movement is around same sex marriage, fighting to fit in and fighting for full equality. It’s interesting that some parts of the world have really embraced that and people have full equality and it’s just no big deal and other parts of the world it is punishable by death – there is such a huge disparity.
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I’m interested in relationships in the queer community. I’m interested in people sharing their stories. I’m interested in addressing issues through the arts.
I want to encourage people to be brave, educated, and to take artistic risks. I feel like anyone who feels compelled to make public responses to HIV/AIDS really should be able to, whether they’re negative or positive and whether their responses are academic or artistic. People are affected in so many different ways, and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard.
There are so many stories from people who are gay, and not gay, positive, and not positive, etc. I really think it takes a lot of bravery to present publicly, but I think that through a series of small narratives you get a grand narrative. A quilt.
I’m very spiritually connected with musicians like Freddie Mercury, Sylvester, Peter Allen, Klaus Nomi, who all passed away due to AIDS related illness. I listen to their music all the time and I make performance to their music. They and their generation live on by younger people engaging with their history. I think it’s important that we collectively find the space between suffering and celebration.
James moved back to Canberra when he was 14 and attended highschool here.
James spent some time in Thailand when he was younger and attended an British International School.
James spent a little time in the States in his early teenage years where he ended up picking up an American accent.