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 personal story is something I share with people because I think it’s an important one – I think everyone’s personal story is important. I’m from an ethnic background; being Lebanese and born and raised in Australia I’ve found that there aren’t enough stories or information out there to let people know about that particular experience of being young, gay and coming out and Lebanese.
My parents came to Australia in 1975 around the time of a huge civil war in Lebanon. My father brought my mother, who was pregnant at the time, over to Australia for a honeymoon and they never went back. They had my elder sister when they got here and two years later I was born.
My parents almost put a bubble around their life in Lebanon and brought it to Australia: I think that’s a very common migrant experience. When they came over they brought the late 1950’s mentality of Lebanon with them and didn’t really include or allow a lot of Australian culture to pervade their morality, the way they think and the kind of things they would be doing.
Mind you, my father was a very bright man and the way for him to deal with living in a new country as a new migrant was to get a good job and meet new people and try and Australianise himself to some degree. My parents were from a conservative Catholic background – Maronite Catholic – and they sustained that conservative Catholic life in Australia from the beginning.
I realised I was attracted.
I realised I was attracted to guys at a very, very early age! I remember being under ten and realising that I liked what boys looked like rather than what girls looked like. I was fooling around with boys my age in high school and I didn’t know what that meant – I didn’t know what the word was for that; I just knew that’s what I liked. When I was sixteen and getting towards the end of high school I realised that I was gay, but I didn’t want to be. I thought I didn’t have to be; that I could just get married and everything would be fine.
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I developed a lot of anxiety; I’d get anxiety attacks in which I’d have breathing issues. I was often worried that I was a disappointment to my parents because what I was supposed to believe and what I was feeling were two different things. The way I dealt with that anxiety was to get really involved in high school, so I was part of the debating team; I became school vice captain; I was on the rugby league team – I made the state schools’ rugby league team – I was so committed to trying to avoid that issue of being different; I wanted to distract everything away from the issue of being gay.
I still went to church but I spent that time in church fantasising about guys!
I still knew that was a part of me but I didn’t focus on it, so I was able to compartmentalise it in some way. All young guys, regardless of sexuality, have a really high libido and I was no exception: I’d look at advertising material and really hunt for the pages where men were in their briefs and their boxers and nothing else and really enjoy looking at that. I didn’t act on it until university.
When I hit puberty in early high school I stopped fooling around with guys, because I realised this gay thing was serious and that it actually meant something. Before then, it didn’t seem to mean so much, because I was just doing something that felt natural, but once I knew what it meant I stopped. Now it meant that I was actually attracted to them and it was more than just fooling around; it was something bigger than that. It was supposed to be something bad; it wasn’t the life that I was supposed to have.
Growing up Catholic in a Lebanese household meant that my cousins were supposed to be my friends, but I always gravitated to people who were farthest from being Lebanese instead, so most of my friends were Anglo-Saxon Australian. I connected with them more. I always felt different, so I wanted to have some part of my life where I didn’t feel like I had to conform, where I could just be comfortable with who I was to some degree, whereas, when I was with my cousins, I was treated as part of a group and any differences I had stuck out even more. I felt I was definitely a black sheep, but around my cousins I felt like a really black sheep, so being around people who weren’t part of my culture I didn’t stick out as much.
There were two Joes: there was goody-two-shoes Joe who was part of school life, who was friends with everybody, who did the good thing, who was a model student, who played rugby league, was part of the Lebanese family structure, part of the extended family network, who went where he was supposed to go and did what he was supposed to do.
Then there was the Joe who was gay, who was attracted to guys, who had a huge hidden part to him and who was afraid of the two lives he was living colliding. I felt like I was two different people until I came out - and that was part of the reason I came out. The coming out started to happen when I started to think: this is going to kill me: I’m going to get really sick and I’m not going to be happy and something bad is going to happen if I don’t come out.
I just knew that I was getting sick – physically sick - from living two lives. I wasn’t sleeping, I was getting panic attacks, I was anxious I wasn’t able to focus properly.
A funny thing is that my libido was still really high, so I really had to get my hands on some magazines: the jock-shots in the advertising material weren’t enough! I really had to push myself and challenge myself to go to a newsagency where no one would know me and get one of those gay magazines called Outrage. I distinctly remember choosing a newsagency where I wouldn’t bump into anyone I knew and I made sure that the person in there wouldn’t know me. I even went in a few times first to make sure I knew exactly where the magazine was in the shop! I was almost hyperventilating in the process of going to get the magazine, putting it on the counter, giving the guy the money, waiting for him to put it in the brown paper bag and leaving and putting it in my bag!
It was great looking through that magazine and realising there were people like me. It was really sexy too; there were great photos and stories in it – I don’t even remember what the stories were about, but I remember that there was this really sexy guy on the front cover. Going to get that magazine was almost like the first gay thing I ever did. Living out in the western suburbs of Sydney, where being Lebanese, or even being ethnic, was actually more common than not, made that environment quite difficult in itself because I always felt I was being watched.
Then there were all those fantastic programs on SBS on late, late at night when everyone else was asleep. I’d sneak downstairs and put the TV on and put the volume just enough so you could hear it and watch these great programs about sexuality and gay men. I’d wish some of the men were really sexy but they weren’t – still, they told a story that I yearned to connect to so that I felt less like an alien and more normal.
When I left the great rigidity of high school and went to university I discovered it was more about free-thinking and challenging things. At uni I felt that everyone else was really relaxed and easygoing; I was too, to a degree, but I felt there was something else I needed to do about that.
I was doing a computers course as part of my degree; it was a time when the whole online dating thing was starting. We had twenty-four hour access to a computer with the internet and I was really excited about that because it meant I could look at pictures and movies and things like that, but also I could think about meeting up with people. I was looking through online personal ads; they made me nervous and anxious but also excited and I didn’t know what to do so, for a while, I just kept looking at them.
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And then in my first year of uni I met someone from the internet. He lived in Bondi, a place I hadn’t been to many times. I organised to meet him, which was incredibly scary for me. I guess part of the coming out process was giving myself the chance to find out what it meant to be in a sexual environment like that – to have gay sex – because I’d romanticised it and thought it was going to be beautiful and everything else.
"I’ve just had sex with a guy!"
I met this guy and he was really nice. We had sex, which wasn’t really enjoyable, but I was just so excited that it had happened and I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying to myself: "I’ve just had sex with a guy! I’ve just had sex with a guy!" - so that was really funny. That was in the middle of the night and my Mum was wondering where I was, but the fact that I was always involved in so many different activities meant that I had that excuse for being out late.
Home every night.
Growing up Lebanese meant you had to come home every night, regardless of how old you were. It’s worse for girls, but as a young Lebanese guy I had to come home and sleep in my bed, no excuse, and so that was an issue when I started meeting people. I was about eighteen or nineteen at this time. I definitely wanted it to happen earlier, but I think everything happens for a reason and I was ready at that time.
After that happened, even though I felt the euphoria, I still didn’t feel any closer to coming out to my parents or my family. I still thought it was just never going to happen. Then I started working alongside an openly gay guy. This guy could tell I was gay and I didn’t think anyone could. We were just hanging out one day – our workplace had one of those ball-pits for kids to play in, you know, with all the coloured balls in it, and we had to go and clean it up. While we were in there he suddenly said to me: "So, do you want to talk about anything?" I said: "I don’t know what you’re talking about! What do you mean?" getting all nervous and anxious. He said: "I’m gay and I’ve been living as a gay man for a while now and it’s really hard at first" and so-on. I said: "Yeah, I’m attracted to guys too". Just saying that felt scary and amazing and raw all at the same time.
This guy became the first person I told, which was great because he was really supportive, but unfortunately I discovered, with him and with several other people after him, that people who had intentions to be supportive ended up wanting to get into my pants. After the third or fourth time I was really annoyed that, as a young guy, I was just coming to terms with being gay and their intentions were really to be supportive - and then have sex with me. And then they’d get upset if I didn’t want to.
The first time I had sex, I knew that there had to be a condom and lube – and that happened. The guy just took a condom out and put it on and put on some lube, so there was no discussion about it; it just happened. I guess I’m lucky that the guy on my first time didn’t try to have unsafe sex with me. I got my sexual health information from the magazines. I had been exposed to the Grim Reaper ad and, being a voracious reader, I read everything there was about being homosexual and gay and part and parcel of that was safe sex information - every time I read about being gay, safe sex stuff came up. Nothing I read or saw at that time represented sex without condoms.
The more comfortable I became with my sexuality the less reliant I was on someone to provide some kind of assistance or support. That meant that the people I was meeting weren’t there just to provide support to me any more, but to have fun with or to meet in a sexual way. Once that started happening it was less problematic for me if guys wanted to fuck!
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I met a really nice guy – I think I was 19 at the time and he was 42.
I didn’t know at the time, but I did have Daddy issues, so I guess I was playing them out then.
This guy was really lovely. The interesting thing for me was that I really wanted to have anal sex, properly and with someone I liked, because I actually hadn’t had anal sex since that first encounter. This guy wasn’t interested in any penetrative sex: he didn’t want to have anal sex and we only had oral sex occasionally – he was really peculiar - and I was really annoyed with that! Maybe that’s the way he wanted it because I was so much younger, I don’t know.
I hung out with him for about three months and then I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere. I was meeting other guys and not doing anything with them because I felt that I couldn’t because I was kind of seeing someone. I don’t know if it was a relationship but it was definitely a connection and I think he may have thought it was a relationship.
Growing up, I never had a good relationship with my father. It has been OK but it has never been great. I always felt my father was in control in my life, which he was, and that’s part of the whole Daddy issue thing where there was an older man in control of my life. The first couple of guys I was with were double my age and what I did in those situations was try to take control. I was trying to impose my control on these guys who were much older than me by saying when we’d catch up, by not giving all of myself to them and by basically trying to control the amount of time we spent together. It sounds a bit bad but that’s how I was at the time and that’s how I was trying to deal with an older-man figure in my life.
That period ended because one of the guys I met who was much older than me was really negative and someone I just didn’t enjoy being around, so I started questioning why I was with this guy. All of that stuff came up about the Daddy issues and trying to control someone, so I broke that off and thought maybe I should try meeting people my own age.
At that time a seminarian I knew befriended me. I was still going to church, to the youth mass and hanging out with all the young people who were around my age. I thought it was cool; I could still be part of the church. That same situation happened; he was trying to support me but also trying to get into my pants. He was the first gay Lebanese man I had met. He never said he was gay but he said he liked guys. I didn’t know what that meant; I just thought he was gay anyway. It was scary but, wow, there are Lebanese guys who are gay as well! And that’s why I tried to hang out with him – but when we’d hang out he’d be supportive but then be suggestive and I realised I had to nip that in the bud and that meant we couldn’t hang out any more.
That was OK because, through him, I met people I could hang out with. They were going out on Oxford St, which was really scary for me; I was twenty then. Everything began speeding up between the ages of eighteen and twenty. I started seeing another guy but again we weren’t having penetrative sex and I thought: "What the hell is going on? I wanna get me some!" and it wasn’t happening! I was constantly meeting guys who didn’t want to have anal sex! It just wasn’t coming up and I wasn’t confident to bring it up.
That didn’t last long because the guy wasn’t right for me, but I’d met a young backpacker from England and started my first relationship with him and we started having sex and it was condoms and lube from the beginning. At the time I was reading about this thing called Talk, Test, Test, Trust.
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This guy was this really sweet English guy and he was also quite inexperienced as far as relationships and being gay. He was like: "Oh my God, you’re so sexy, I can’t believe you want to be with me!" and I was like, "I don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re pretty good-looking yourself!" He was only supposed to be living in Australia for a year and I think, after the first three months or so, I said how about we try this whole Talk, Test, Test, Trust thing? I explained it to him by reading out of this article in the Sydney Star Observer. He said that would be great; let’s give it a go.
I had no idea what it meant to be in a relationship really, so I don’t know if we talked about the whole idea of having sex outside the relationship, because it was not going to be an option for me.
We got tested together: that was the first time I’d been tested, which was really scary, because, oh my God, what if I had it? (HIV). But I didn’t have it; everything came up clear, including STIs. We got tested again three months later and the tests were all clear again. We started having sex without condoms for a period of three or four months, but then he was leaving. That was all sadness, but I felt that this relationship allowed me to get a little more comfortable in my own skin.
I still hadn’t come out at the time so I was still living two lives. I was going to uni and hanging out with my boyfriend and then I’d go to sleep with him and my alarm would go off at 1 a.m. and I’d get in my car and drive home! That was the start of me realising that this was not a sustainable life. My anxiety attacks, my double life: I was going to explode! I was anxious about being caught on Oxford St or getting caught with my boyfriend. I’d hyperventilate and I’d have trouble sleeping; I didn’t know what these symptoms were at the time.
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I was in a serious relationship with a lovely guy I met at a party. He was a surf-lifesaver and was one of those handsome bronzed Aussies. After meeting him I felt like I wanted to start a new life. I wanted to stop getting up in the middle of the night and driving home. I wanted to start sleeping with my partner. I thought he was someone who was – and is – a special person and I just wanted my life, not the two lives any more. That was a really horrible, challenging experience.
I thought, OK, I’m going to go in and tell my parents that I want to move out and that will take care of it. And being a Lebanese guy, I was not allowed to move out unless I was getting married. For a 22 year old Lebanese guy to be moving out was unheard of as far as I knew and as far as all the people I knew – my cousins and relatives – were concerned. There was no chance I was going to be allowed, but I thought either I can tell them I want to move out or I can tell them I’m gay. I thought, OK, I’ll start by telling them I’m moving out.
There was DRAMA! My sister tried to stop me telling my parents but I didn’t listen to her. I told them I wanted to move out: my father was really angry, as he normally is when he hears something he doesn’t like. My mother was very upset, very emotional. I’ve had a very strong relationship with my Mum: I love my Mum and I still do, but she said something that killed me at the time; she said: "If you tore my chest open right now and pulled my heart out, there wouldn’t be one drop of blood in it right now", referring to what I had done to her. And that was really horrible to hear.
I decided I was going to move out anyway after the trauma of that night and I’d started living with my partner. My parents were like: "Where are you? What’s happening?" I told them I’d moved out and then my uncle told them he thought I was gay. They asked me and I said I was. My father basically said, well, you’re never allowed back in this house.
I’d been living a life for 22 years where the majority of people in that life, every hour of the day, were my family - and then they weren’t there any more.
So the anxieties that I might have about being gay reduced, but the depression around losing my family had started.
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Luckily, I had a very, very supportive partner. It really impacted on the relationship though because my father became a very angry man; he tried to find me and told all my uncles and cousins to look for me.
They started ringing me and leaving death threats and kidnapping threats; I had to go into hiding in the Blue Mountains and stay there for a couple of weeks.
I was getting threats from cousins and uncles, and aunties were ringing me and saying: "We’re going to take you to Lebanon and we’re going to put you in a room and we’re going to change you" and this was happening constantly on my phone. It was a pretty scary time.
That kind of died down, but then I realised I was being followed. One day my father found where I was living and tried to force me to go with him. I was with my partner at the time and he attacked my partner. I pushed my father away and my partner got free and ran. I tried to pacify my father and he started to bash me up and the only reason I got away from him was because there was a door next to me that was lockable - I ran through the door and shut it and he couldn’t get at me so he got in his car and left. That was a really horrible time: I can laugh at it now because I have the benefit of not being in that situation any more.
I really relied on my partner to get through all that; he was just phenomenally supportive, but I think that’s the reason we couldn’t stay together, because there was an unhealthy imbalance in the extent to which I relied upon him. There were other people in my life – friends - who also understood what was happening.
I stopped having any contact with my family for a while. I wanted to keep in contact with my Mum and I tried, but she wasn’t comfortable with that and if I rang and my father answered the phone he’d hang up on me. Over time it became normalised that I would be ringing and trying to keep in contact and it gradually became a little better and I finally decided to come back to the family home and visit and now and again, which was really scary.
My sisters and brother.
I have twin sisters who are absolutely brilliant, phenomenal, amazing; I love them to bits! They were so supportive, so understanding; they were just great. My oldest sister had completely severed ties with me, so that was hard, and I think my brother, being the youngest, didn’t really understand what was going on. I think he’d also been put in the situation where my father completely relied on him now and put all of his energy into him. My brother didn’t like that and so he resented me for that and my elder sister resented me because I became the person who broke up the family.
Not only that, but everyone my parents knew found out about me and so my father’s standing in the community, which was high, was reduced significantly, so I became the person who was the reason for that as well. But my sisters still supported me and I had a couple of cousins who were really supportive too, which was amazing.
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And that’s how it was for a couple of years. Time definitely healed. Becoming more comfortable with who I am meant I was also more comfortable with what I could get out of a relationship with my parents and my family and that made a huge difference. I wasn’t beating myself up any more about what happened. I stopped feeling guilty about wanting to be who I was, and doing that, and I stopped taking on board why other people were feeling down. I started realising that they had to take care of themselves just like I was taking care of myself.
I’d started living overseas and that whole distance thing really helped as well; I think it gave me a bit of perspective on life and that helped a lot. Being away from home and not being in physical contact with my family meant that when I did come back it was happy times and focused on just being back and seeing each other. So now I see my Mum at least once every two weeks. My relationship with my father’s still not great; it never was, but it’s still not great and that’s OK.
I’m just coming to terms with that and I still have issues around the fact that when I was growing up I always wanted my father to approve of and be happy about what I was doing. Now I don’t look for that any more, but I do have those knee-jerk reactions still. I just try to understand and move on from that need.
I come down to Melbourne to see my twin sisters who live down here: I love to see them and hang out with them. My relationship with my older sister and my brother are great now; I think we’re all adults so we’re starting to realise that it’s all OK. My older sister is married now and it did upset me when she didn’t invite me to the wedding, but I understand now that it wouldn’t have made her wedding an enjoyable experience. My brother has starting to ring me up and say let’s hang out, let’s go to a movie, so it’s pretty much all good now.
The first partner I had, the partner I had when I came out to my parents, recommended I go see a counsellor and I went to a sexual health clinic for that because I felt I was too young to afford a counsellor and they had it for free. They were OK, but they weren’t great. I guess, looking at it now, that they helped in that they let me speak about things that were in my head and just letting it out really helped. The only other time I thought I needed to see a counsellor was when I started another relationship where the person wanted to be in an open relationship. The counsellor helped a little in letting me vent the internal struggles I was having.
Getting into gay men’s health promotion.
I was studying law and sociology and the law bit wasn’t working for me; I just saw the worst of people when I was working in law. I began working in mental health promotion through a website called Reach Out (www.reachout.com.au). I just thought there was some kind of divine intervention because I was suddenly involved with really amazing positive people. To me it was a cathartic experience going there day in, day out. I felt I was getting as much out of it as I was putting into it.
The more I was comfortable being gay, the more comfortable I was with the whole sexual environment. I was reading a lot about how HIV rates were still rising and how young people weren’t protecting themselves and I thought maybe I could do something about that, so I participated in a group counselling session at the AIDS Council near me. I made some really good friends and I wanted to give something back, so I became a group counsellor. I realised my policy-writing, legal and counselling experience meant I could help people by working in the sector and promoting healthy behaviour. I felt I could help people so they wouldn’t have to go through what I went through.
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I’ve been put in situations where men have expected me to have barebacking sex – sex without condoms – with them because when they see me they see someone who looks rough, masculine or ethnic and they think: "This guy is going to want to have raw sex with me". I’ve been in plenty of situations where that’s been an expectation and they’ve been kind of upset that that’s not what I’m into. There have been situations where I’ve started having sex with someone and there has been no condom on it and I’ve had to stop myself and say no, this isn’t going to happen.
I feel lucky that I’ve had people in my life who have made me feel like I’m an attractive guy and I haven’t felt like I’ve had to have sex without condoms or I wouldn’t be able to have sex with anyone. It’s a message I want to say to young - or even not-young - middle-Eastern or ethnic-looking guys; that just because someone think you’re rough looking and wants you to fuck them without a condom, or vice-versa, it doesn’t mean it has to happen.
I think some people think that to be a real manly, masculine experience sex has got to be raw and there can’t be any fiddling around with things like condoms. I think part of the reason some guys want to have sex with me is because they want this hairy Lebanese guy to fuck them: they want to be dominated by this hairy, dark guy and all that masculine energy can’t be tainted by a condom or worrying about being careful or safe. They want it to be dangerous and that heightens the sexual pleasure for them.
Ethnic guys need to realise that it’s OK to say no. You’re good-looking enough that it’s not going to be the end of it. Just because one guy doesn’t want to have sex with you because you’re wearing a condom that doesn’t mean you’re never going to have sex with another guy.
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Working in the HIV sector, I think it’s important to encourage people to stay HIV-negative and reduce their risk of getting HIV in high-risk situations. I’ve read about this website and I’ve seen it online and I thought it was a good thing to be involved in to hopefully inspire and help other people.
Telling my story here I’d most like to reach people who feel they don’t have control in their life; anyone who feels that because of their cultural background. I know so many guys who aren’t out who are from an ethnic background - Lebanese Greek Italian – who aren’t out. It’s partly because they feel they don’t have control in their life and that’s a really huge issue. I want them to understand that part of the process of living your life and becoming more of who you are means that there’s going to be problems taking the control away from your family and your cultural background and giving it to yourself. You need to think about it properly and try and put people in your life who understand all that and can help you.
My coming out has led me to a life that I’m so proud of and led me to experiences in my life that I’m so lucky to have had: I’m very proud of who I am right now.
Joe grew up in Sydney