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’m just turning fifty. I came out seven years ago, at the age of forty three, after being married for sixteen years and having three children.
I was born in Wangaratta in Central Victoria. When I was three we moved to a small country town, where my father was the headmaster of a small school. In some ways my life as a young child was a mixture of the idyllic and the difficult: every year they cleaned out the irrigation channel that ran past our home and for that time each year the water came up around us and we lived on an island; it was extremely beautiful.
The hideous side was that, when I was six, I had my first and only experience of sexual abuse. I was abused by an older, intellectually disabled boy, who was about eleven or twelve. He basically took me into the woodshed and inserted his penis into me. I had no idea what was going on.
It was a vaguely pleasurable experience but I can’t remember a lot of detail. It was slightly painful and I do remember the most difficult thing about it was my parents’ reaction to it. They weren’t able to deal with it and it was a guilty family secret for a long period of time.
Their reaction, which was to suppress the situation and not talk about it, actually made it a lot worse. It set me up in a relationship that it has taken me a lifetime to undo, essentially of very much distrust in men. One of the reasons I came out so late, I’m convinced now looking back, is that this early experience made me distrust men.
My family are Irish Catholic and extremely conservative. In some ways they’re in a bit of a ghetto because they live in what’s almost a village in the northern suburbs, where they mix somewhat with the neighbours, but mainly with their Catholic parish. When I came out they were extremely ashamed and they hid the information from everybody for ages.
Not long after I met my wife, while I was travelling overseas, I met a guy in Canada and we formed such a close bond it was almost Brokeback Mountain. We used to sleep naked together, we spent all our time together, we both had no money and we were both in a strange place – he was from the other side of Canada – and it was the middle of winter. We talked about having sex with men but we never actually had sexual contact.
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Before I married, my wife and I negotiated a six-month period where I was going to explore being gay, because she was aware before I got married that I had feelings towards men. We had fallen really deeply in love with each other so when the issue became difficult for us we decided I would move out into a place on my own and there would be a period when I would experiment in having sexual relationships with men and then we would get together again and decide what we were going to do. I went on a ‘Bisexual Options’ weekends – it was one of those Californian counterculture, hippy things – and I ended up masturbating with two guys and getting sucked off. That was my first consensual sexual experience. I was in my late twenties.
This is so weird.
Back in Melbourne I went to the Prince of Wales and the Laird with a couple of the guys I’d met. At the Prince I saw one of the drag shows upstairs at Pokies and I thought, "This is so weird: this is not me; I’m just a boy from the suburbs; this could be another culture entirely. If this is gay, I’m not gay." The Laird was a bit more interesting and a little bit closer to my culture, but at this stage I was still seeing my wife. We hadn’t been sleeping together for that period but we were enormously attracted to each other.
I saw one of the guys a little bit for a couple of months afterwards - we’d get together and wank or whatever - but he was pretty diffident and the chemistry wasn’t really there. Meanwhile I had this incredibly gorgeous woman who used to turn heads every time she walked into a room. She’s a lovely person and I’m still very fond of her; she’s a Kiwi but we met in America. She said, "I’m going back to the States if you don’t marry me. It’s now or never because I’m over waiting; I’ve been travelling for five years and I need to go back home.”
So that’s what I chose.
In the end I decided that there was either all this murky, difficult, challenging maybe not-quite-right stuff with guys, or there was life with this woman who I loved, who I missed all the time I wasn’t with her, who I really wanted to be with and who I wanted to have children with, because I was programmed to have kids. So that’s what I chose.
I went for an HIV test around that time. I went to the local community hospital and the nurse there just asked me the most inappropriate questions and mentioned the HIV test’s name loudly and everybody looked around and it was really inappropriate, but the tests came back without a problem.
After I got married. After I got married there was really nothing after that in the way of sex with men. I fell in love with this guy at work, but again there was no sexual contact. Apart from raking up porn on the internet I hadn’t had any sexual contact with men until I’d actually moved out of the marital home.
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When I turned 40 I was deeply unhappy and the clock was ticking. I could see that my life as a fit, self-determining younger man was changing and that if I wanted to come out I needed to do it sooner rather than later. When I was 43 I discovered a book called The Artist’s Way about discovering the artist within. This book requires you to sign up to an agreement at the beginning that you will finish the book and acknowledge that it may change your life. The book requires you to keep a journal of three pages a day, which is something I still do years later.
My wife read the journal.
My wife read the journal, in which I acknowledged to myself that I’d fallen in love with a young man. I hadn’t had sex with him - he wasn’t reciprocally interested in me sexually and I was faithful to my wife while I lived with her - but I had completely fallen in love with him. She read the journal and realised that things were coming to an end.
My wife and I had been to two lots of counselling together; we actually had our third child after a series of counselling sessions; I had a vasectomy and this was going to be the solution and it was all going to be blissful, but it clearly wasn’t.
Ultimately I confronted her because she was very withdrawn and uncommunicative and she mentioned that she’d read the journal. It was an extremely traumatic separation but there was a sense that we’d done everything we could to salvage it and it wasn’t going to be rescued this time around. That was Christmas and I left the family home the following April.
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I went to crash at a friend’s place and about three weeks after that I went to my first sauna, which was completely forgettable but I went through the phase most men who come out late go through of wanting to have as much sex as possible.
I didn’t fuck anyone or get fucked at saunas; I started with wanking and just built up from there. I met an older guy fairly early on who offered to take me to Europe and spoil me rotten and took me out for dinner and so on, but I really couldn’t sustain an attraction to him, so that lasted about two weeks.
It was interesting being the object of desire, that was not an experience I’d had up to that point; I hadn’t realised I could be attractive to men, because usually I was in the heterosexual world. He gave me some really good books and gave me some assistance about the practical issues involved in making the shift to being gay - he was very supportive.
A very tough time.
All this time I’m trying to keep seeing the kids, get legal advice - I had mega problems with housing - it was an extremely demanding time. It was the combination of all of these practical issues you face when you’re suddenly homeless. I didn’t know how to pay a phone bill: I had had a traditional wife, I suppose, who was at home with the kids and did all my domestic arrangements; I did nothing in terms of those routine self-care things.
I was on a very steep learning curve and I also had to keep house for the kids, because I had them at that stage every second weekend and one night a week, which, as well as holding down a very responsible job, was a very major commitment. Three kids all upset with their Dad, all very unhappy, no money - I was literally left with nothing - and it was extremely difficult, a very tough time in my life.
The most exciting time of my life.
At the same time as that was going on there was this shiny new thing called gay sex - and it wasn’t just the sex, it was the lifestyle: I remember I got four parking tickets outside DTs in a period of two months! I was just so excited, visually and every other way.
And being in a safe space after years of mixing with heterosexuals was big too. You know heterosexual men, you’re in a pub and you’re always worried about your safety and security; to go to a gay pub and not feel at all concerned and not feel threatened and to be with likeminded people was an experience that made me so intensely happy. It was the most exciting time of my life, as well as one of the most difficult.
In those first few months I was incredibly vulnerable because it was really intoxicating; it was like finding a new drug. The amount of energy that I burned through was just incredible. All this pent-up energy suddenly gets released and you just glow with the excitement of the whole thing.
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When I first came out I was significantly more overweight than I am now. I was, in a way, alienated from my body because I was denying a key part of myself and when I came out everybody was young and thin and beautiful and that was clearly the only way to go. I started to get fit again so I would feel more attractive.
You reclaim your body when you come out, in a way. The downside is you get all the body image pressures that come from gay culture, but the positive is that you do get fit and you feel happier about your body and you feel more in control of your life.
I’m attracted to younger men.
One of the real challenges in my situation, and not one that I’ve completely resolved, is that, like many men in my situation who come out later in life, I’m attracted to guys who are at the age I would have been if my gay sexual development hadn’t been so delayed. So, I’m primarily attracted to younger guys, although there have been some noble and worthwhile exceptions.
And because younger guys are generally fitter and skinnier and you want to be like the object you desire, you experience a huge pressure to look better. I suddenly picked up going to the gym and I started swimming a couple of kilometres a week and generally tried to get my body into shape because I quite correctly assumed that the fitter I was the more sex I would have. By and large that’s proven to be true.
But coming out later in life does leave you feeling vulnerable and I think that’s one of the reasons I agreed to doing this (telling my story on Staying Negative). If you’re a married man in the suburbs, as long as you get up on Saturday morning to drive the kids to their sport, no-one cares how you look. Actually, this is changing in the past few years; I think heterosexual men are now under some of the same body image pressures that gay men are under.
Gay men have the same body image pressures that women have experienced forever, but as a straight man you don’t get anywhere near the same pressure. So, when you come out later in life you experience a very significant shift where people suddenly care how you look and suddenly start giving you feedback about how you look.
I think women generally have a broader range of responses to men and looks aren’t quite as important as they are to men – that’s been my experience. Women go for the whole package; men tend to want the right-looking package first and then other things will come into place once the attraction is in place.
Women want your heart and your body; many men are quite happy with your body - and quite happy to leave it: next please! I’ve found it very difficult to cope with the blow-and-go approach that I had assumed was more of a heterosexual male thing - to my disappointment I found it’s deeply entrenched in the male psyche, and maybe physiology.
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I’m almost exclusively top. I don’t know why that is; I think that’s due to my early experience and it’s partly habit as a heterosexual man. If I go to a SOPV I will probably about half the time have anal sex, the rest of the time it will be mutual masturbation or whatever. I would bottom occasionally in a three-year relationship I was in but it was very difficult; my partner wasn’t particularly patient and it is quite emotionally difficult for me as well. The first time I was penetrated I actually went into shock and spent three or four hours in extremely strange emotional space. I found it extremely challenging. After a bit of medical advice I was able occasionally to take it, but I wouldn’t say I’ve had a relationship where that’s possible on a regular basis.
I think that might still occur - that I could establish the level of trust that was needed - but in the current pattern of my sexual relationships that doesn’t appear to be any time soon, because the men that I do see tend to be fuckbuddies or lovers rather than candidates for a committed relationship.
Managing sexual health.
A mate of mine introduced me to the Centre Clinic in St Kilda, which has been really good. I did the Momentum course at the VAC and got some really good training there about what safe sex was and how to assert yourself and say what you like.
I also had about three or four months of very intense counselling also at the VAC and that included one-to-one coaching in how to say what I wanted and what I didn’t want sexually. That was terrific and the counsellor was brilliant at doing that. And then I read around the topic as well. I’ve been a Community Health Centre Manager for years so I knew how to access sexual health information if I needed to.
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I’m not in a relationship at the moment – well, not a conventional, stable one. Last night I caught up with a former lover, which was lovely; whether that’ll go anywhere I don’t know, I certainly have hopes in that direction. There are a number of men, usually younger than myself, that I sleep with on a fairly regular basis – there’s two at the moment, but it’s not a committed relationship in either case.
I wouldn’t have an ongoing relationship with a man who didn’t accept safe sex. I was in a very significant relationship for three years with a guy from Sydney who I brought down to live in Melbourne and we did the test, retest thing so we could stop using condoms together, which we did for a significant period within the three years, but not by any means for the whole period.
We used condoms when he was living in Sydney and I was in Melbourne, because I wasn’t prepared, having only recently come out, to not have sex for long periods on end if we were monogamous - we only saw each other between every three to six weeks. When we got together and finally lived together that’s when we then did the test and retest thing and stopped using condoms in the relationship.
That was a very deep sense of trust that we had with each other, and a risk that I certainly took. The relationship ended in tears but neither of us became HIV positive, so going through that process so we could stop using condoms together was worthwhile. Trusting my partner enough to stop using condoms together was a tough decision, but a good one, I think.
Sex without condoms.
I’d definitely prefer sex without condoms and I would like to be in a situation where I would have an exclusive relationship and renegotiate the relationship that way, though there appears to be no immediate likelihood of that happening right now.
For me it’s certainly better sex, all things being equal, when I don’t have a condom on; I get more sensation and I also find that I tend to come at the same time as my partner if I don’t have a condom on whereas, if I do have a condom on, often we won’t be able to coordinate coming together at exactly the same time. I’ll often have to take a condom off before I can come, so my partner will come but I won’t, and then I will afterwards. However much promotion you do about safe sex it’s certainly not as good sex, but using condoms means that I’m around to have sex again.
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If I don’t find an individual that I have a relationship with, sex tends to be at sex-on-premises venues. Condoms are very readily available there and, again, I wouldn’t think of having sex without them. I’m highly motivated to stay HIV negative because, at the end of the day, I have to feed children and if I’m not well I can’t work, so I’m extremely motivated to have safe sex.
Once when I was in a very dark backroom at a sex-on-premises venue somebody slipped their penis up my arse without my consent. I was busy with two or three others at the time so I was a little distracted when it happened. I was really pissed off, but I had no way of identifying who it was. I assumed they didn’t have a condom on: I wouldn’t have known either way, but it felt as though they didn’t.
A form of rape.
I think that’s basically a form of rape and I’m fairly unhappy that that occurred. That can happen to men in group situations and I think that’s a real problem with sex-on-premises venues. It’s a problem if you go to engage in group sexual behaviour in general, that you’re not fully in control if you’re preoccupied. It should never be assumed because you’re gay you have no limits or personal rights! And I find it interesting now that some sex-on-premises venues serve alcohol: I think your risk of exposure to HIV or something else is higher if you’re drinking.
When that happened I actually tried to enquire about PEP – I rang the Alfred and I had mega-problems; I couldn’t find anyone who could give me the advice. That was in the period before the PEP advertising campaign got started and the systems weren’t quite in place. I spoke to a nurse and they didn’t know anything about PEP. At that stage I wasn’t a client of the St Kilda Clinic so in the end I just gave up and took my chances and then got tested a couple of times subsequently and I was clear.
I am a little ambivalent about group sex – while it can be fun it’s completely outside my heterosexual experience and conditioning – I don’t think most of my heterosexual friends or family would understand it. They need to understand that gay sex is never going to be about reproduction and so there is not the same need to do that trade-off – you know, sublimate one’s sex drive for the sake of a stable family and the future of civilisation as we know it. On the other hand I sometimes feel as if I’m judged by gay men as "not husband material" because I am honest about using sex-on-premises venues and being in group-sex situations.
I’ve recently tried consciously to broaden my opportunities to meet gay men away from sex on premises venues. I joined Bent Boards, the gay surfing group, where I have met some lovely guys. I have also met some guys through Confest, the alternative living festival that’s on every Christmas and Easter.
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I had two lots of counselling to help me deal with my mistrust of men. The first was with a psychologist, a straight man who’s since become a friend; he used a lot of action methods. I had to really re-live the sexual abuse experience and heal from it and that was the first level healing.
The second level of healing was at the VAC with a gay counsellor. He was more able to integrate that healing in the context of having choices and making decisions and being in control around your own sexuality.
Most of my friends are gay men
I’ve had a range of relationships with men. I’m now in a situation where most of my friends are gay men; I think I’m able to establish close relationships with men, certainly sexual relationships with men.
I’ve been separated now for seven years and I’m asking myself what is it that’s stopping me having an intimate relationship with a man, a sustained relationship. I had what was, not sexually but on every other level, a very successful loving relationship and I haven’t been able to find that with a man to the same degree, so my marriage set a fairly high benchmark; my former wife is still single as well. There’s usually a trade-off between sexual freedom and commitment and at this stage there hasn’t been someone I’ve wanted to trade off my freedom for.
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Five years before I came out I went to a GAMMA meeting when my wife was in New Zealand. GAMMA stands for Gay And Married Men’s Association. There are two GAMMA’s in Melbourne. The GAMMA project was funded by the Commonwealth government at the height of the AIDS era and operated out of a place in the eastern suburbs.
At the meeting they talked about life as a gay man who was married, or as a man who was attracted to men who was married. There were other guys there in various stages of leaving their relationships and some who had chosen to stay in long-term relationships with women and have sex with men simultaneously – well, concurrently, rather!
When my marriage really started to crumble I made contact with the GAMMA project again and I attended for about maybe four months. I met some guys there who were also going through the same process and they really confronted me: they said, "It’s a racket; you’re ruining your life, you’re ruining your wife’s life, you owe it to her to leave". It was like a deprogramming thing, the exact opposite of the approach at the VAC. Counselling service, which works at your pace.
It was really full-on, high-end confrontation, but it was what I needed to shift, because I desperately wanted to leave and start my new life and I was scared beyond belief that I would lose my kids and that my life wouldn’t be do-able without my partner and the kids. It’s an extremely difficult thing for a man to leave and to lose the 24/7 contact with the kids - it’s the toughest decision I’ve ever made, to not be there 24/7, so there was obviously a huge amount at stake.
The GAMMA guys got me so far in terms of getting over the denial and then I started to do my own homework and found out about the other GAMMA group, which was more of a support group. It was useful because it gave me access to other men who had gone through the same issues and had proved that you could survive on one level or another. That was an important emotional support for me.
Over time, as there was more public discussion about being gay, the men coming to GAMMA tended to be younger. There was a bit of a coup, the young Turks took over and the men from the previous regime basically retired. The younger regime lasted until a few months ago and a guy called Geoff and I, who were on the edges of that era, have now taken centre stage.
Guys with six-week-old babies.
We’ve had a number of cases where guys with six-week-old babies would come in. Over time I think the age of the guys coming in has dropped as people are getting the courage to leave their marriages earlier.
I’ve been involved in GAMMA for about four years. I’ve always been one of the back-up facilitators and I’ve always run guest sessions and activities but now I’m one of the two lead facilitators. My training is in social work and I’ve been in administration management for many years; I like to keep my hand in on my group-work skills. It’s a way that I can combine my professional skills with my life experience and offer something that not many people are in a position to offer.
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Turning 50 is a big one. It challenges me to really accept my aging body; a lot of gay culture is about denying the aging process. What’s the Buddhist thing; you’re born, you get old, you get sick you die. I have to contemplate those things and deal with them in my own life. I had a very religious youth and I’m now beginning to think about what sort of philosophy is going to get me through to the rest of my life.
I certainly want to do more art. I mounted my own exhibition for Midsumma as part of my coming-out process and I’m in a great group of friends; we all model for each other and life-draw on a regular basis and that’s been really good.
I hope I eventually find the right guy. I think I might do a Bob Brown; he was 52 before he found his partner. There is that issue of wanting to catch up on all the lost years that I missed out on and much as I’d like to be somewhere else, that just has to play itself out. Eventually I might exhaust myself and be quite happy to be in a monogamous relationship, but who knows.
My motto is ‘you can always start again’ and that’s my message to other men in my situation: whether you’re twenty four with a six month old baby, or whether you’re 84 with a partner who’s just died, the GAMMA story is that, no matter what stage you’re at in life, you can find some purpose in it and reach out to other men.
Michael was born in Wangaratta where he lived
until he was 3 years old.
Michael now lives in Melbourne.