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 Sydney but I grew up on the Mid North Coast of NSW. Firstly it was a tiny little town called Wauchope. Then I moved into the larger nearby town of Port Macquarie, which is about half-way between Sydney and Brisbane. Wauchope was a little town of a few thousand people about 15 minutes drive out of Port Macquarie. Port Macquarie is your usual coastal tourist retreat, the kind of place families go to for holidays year after year.
My parents were, and still are practising Catholics and I have one sister, who’s two years younger than me. So we had a religious upbringing and I went through Catholic school, both primary and high school. It was a very conservative town, as most small towns tend to be, but I wouldn’t say that it was any more or less religious than anywhere else, really. Growing up in a country town, I didn’t know one openly gay person at all. Even in high school there were no openly gay people that I knew of whatsoever. It was a typical small country town, very, very conservative.
I’ve always known I was gay and I pretty much knew from primary school that I didn’t want people to know. I heard all the derogatory terms, you know, ‘fag’ etc. even in primary school so I knew that was something that I didn’t want to openly be.
I’m sure that there were plenty of gay people around but everybody was hiding it. So combine that with my parents’ views and the Church’s view it was something that I definitely didn’t want to come out as. It was something that I very much had to keep hidden.
I think I was lucky in the sense that I didn’t actually see it as a bad thing. I’ve had friends that are gay that have grown up in those circumstances and have a lot of guilt or shame around being gay. I didn’t have that. I just thought people didn’t understand it. I just saw it as love and I couldn’t see that there was anything wrong with that. So whilst I was brought up Catholic, I was never Catholic, I didn’t believe it for a minute so I didn’t have any of that religious guilt or any of that stuff. I just went through the motions to keep my parents happy. I suppose that was just from this confidence that I just had in myself to some degree about sexuality. I didn’t see it as a big deal. I was terrified that everybody else saw it as a big deal but I thought it was something rather matter of fact and simple.
So thankfully I didn’t take any baggage on board about being gay but I definitely didn’t want to come out. I knew that it would just make my school life hell, but more importantly I was terrified that by coming out I would lose my parents and possibly my close friends.
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I think it was about ’82 when the (AIDS) epidemic hit. I was in Year 10 then. Not only did it hit but it was everywhere. There was a massive campaign about it on the television - the iconic bowling ball ad with the Grim Reaper.
There was also the unfortunate backlash that, “It’s a gay disease and gays deserve it.” All that ignorance and blame was around in the media at the time. That just terrified me even more. It terrified me in regards to sex for a long time. I was terrified every time I had sex. I literally thought ‘If I have sex I could die.’
However, in my late teens I did find a beat in Port Macquarie by accident. So I’d hang out at the beat and meet guys that way. I did that right up until just before I moved to Sydney. So although I was having sex with guys, I certainly wasn’t having anal sex. I would never do oral either. I would let them go down on me but I just wouldn’t do it. Not because I didn’t want to but because I was absolutely terrified. I was convinced at the time that I was going to get AIDS if I engaged in such activity. HIV AIDS and safe sex
It took quite a while for me to realise, and for the AIDS message and the understanding to come through, that certain things are safer; that I was able to do more than what I’d been doing before. I always tried to stay ahead of the loop and see what they were saying in the safe sex messages. It physically affected my sex life but it also very much affected my emotional state as well.
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When I was twenty one I attempted suicide by overdosing on pills and washing it down with scotch. I think partly it was about the unhappiness and me not being able to be myself; having this huge secret that I couldn’t share with anyone, and the terrible feelings of isolation and loneliness that come from that. I felt that I was the only one.
That was the beginning of my decent into addiction. I don’t believe for a minute that being gay made me an alcoholic or an addict but certainly the way that I dealt with those feelings, unfortunately was through addiction.
So I think it was all of those things. It was the burgeoning addiction and the feelings of being trapped and being alone that led me to that suicide attempt.
It was sort of a perfect opportunity to actually explain why. The first thing everybody asked me was: Why? Why? Why? I just sort of said I was depressed. I mentioned anything but the truth because I was still absolutely terrified that if the truth got out there that things would be so much worse. I was quite surprised at the reaction I got and the compassion and care. You find out how many people really do care when you think you're alone. So I was a bit surprised at that reaction but I didn’t feel as though I could tell them because I thought well that would just be social suicide! The next year or so was probably the worst time of my addiction, which lasted for about 10 years.
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I had a number of friends try to get me to see that I had a problem and try to get me to stop, but with the arrogance and the denial of addiction I couldn’t see that. I thought that booze was the solution. I didn’t see it as the problem. I have one very clear memory of a friend coming to see me early one morning and I was sitting there on a bottle of scotch for breakfast. I could see the concern in his face, and I started to get annoyed at it because I almost knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth. Sure enough he looked at me and said “Don’t you think you might have a drinking problem?” I can remember almost shouting at him, screaming at him. I got so angry. He stayed quite calm and said, “Anyone who sits here at seven o’clock in the morning, shouldn’t be having a bottle of scotch.” I remember going off at him saying “You’re meaning to tell me if I was sitting here at seven o’clock at night it’s fine but, if I’m sitting here at seven o’clock in the morning it’s a problem? So if I want to have a drink it’s fine!” And he looked at me and with a very serious tone, he said to me, “Yes, but when have you ever had a drink?” I remember that because I didn’t have an answer for it. I just refused to do anything about it because it was the only option that I saw. It was the only thing that would dull my feelings and dull my emotions. It’s kind of interesting because I was drinking because I felt so socially isolated but it had made me even more socially isolated. It was a social isolation with an anaesthetic.
I suppose recovery people talk about the physical, mental and spiritual. It was all of those things for me.
On the physical side of things I had everything that you could think of that was deemed with excessive alcohol use. I had shakes, I had sweats, I had diarrhoea, I had vomiting and I had malnutrition because I wasn’t eating. I got peripheral neuritis. I’ve subsequently had pancreatitis as a result of it, the whole kit and caboodle really. Mentally, well pretty much any negative mental state that you could think of was me. I was depressed, I was fearful, I was angry and I was resentful. Spiritually I was dead. I didn’t care about or believe in anything. I didn’t even care about me let alone anything else. I was literally in the gutter at times. But for me the worst of it was not the physical and the spiritual. The worst for me was probably the mental and that’s a vicious cycle because the worse I felt the more I drank to cope with it. I really did feel invisible. I really did feel alone. So I sort of took those feelings that I was already feeling because of my sexuality and pushed them to the further extremes that they could go. I just felt completely separate to everybody and everything, really. It wasn’t a nice place to be.
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The way I really got out of the black abyss was through my ex-wife, who I’m still very good friends with. I’d known her for quite a number of years. She was one of the few people that stayed in contact with me during that worst year of my drinking. She called me every now and then but mostly she was sending me letters. I was being quite honest and open with her. I wasn’t telling her about my sexuality but I was quite open about the problems and my addiction during that time. Eventually she made the suggestion, “Look, why don’t you come to Sydney and live with me? It might solve some problems.” And I thought, ‘Yeah why not?’ It was more a case of, ‘Oh I’m getting out of this town and getting away from this environment because that’s the root of all my
problems’ which, of course, it wasn’t.
It was also partly ‘Well at least there’ll be someone else that I can talk to, I won’t be completely alone.’ So I packed up everything and came down to Sydney. I initially shocked the living hell out of her when she saw how much I was drinking. No-one had seen my drinking because I’d kept it hidden and I drank alone. Now, all of a sudden, I was living with someone and they saw what I was like. The thing that I liked about her is that she didn’t put any strong stipulations on me. She suggested things, she suggested that maybe I might want to do something about it and that I might want to try and get a job. To my own surprise I agreed that maybe I should do something about my drinking, I should do something about looking for work.
The real reason I just finally decided to do something about it was an opportunity to prove to all ‘the bastards’ that they were wrong about me. Because everybody in my life at that stage pretty much had written me off. So it was this sort of arrogance I had that thought, ‘Well I’m gonna show ‘em that I’m not a drunken loser. That I can do something.’ I certainly didn’t stop drinking but I definitely controlled it. Well, for a while I did. In those last few years of my drinking, any sense of control I thought I had went completely out the window. It was one of the reasons I eventually sought help.
Part of my recovery from addiction was a 12-step program which placed a lot of emphasis on spirituality, although not necessarily
religion. I hadn’t been religious at all in my youth or in my early recovery. But then I suppose the recovery sparked an interest in it. I wanted to start meditating because that’s part of the program so I went to the meditation classes. That then spurred a general interest in Buddhism and I started to read about it. Over a number of years, the more I read about it, the more sense it made to me. It seemed more common sense than dogmatic to me. That resonated quite strongly in me. So eventually I reached a point where I thought, ‘Yep, that’s it: I’m definitely a Buddhist.’ For a while I didn’t particularly do anything about it, but then, after a little while I started to go to Buddhist groups and classes, and became more involved in it.
Meanwhile our relationship went from just a friendship to something more. In fact that happened quite quickly. I think I was more in love with the sense of having somebody than the person that I was meant to be in love with. She was a beacon of kindness at a very painful time for me and came along at the right time. In a sense I had love for her and I still have love for her: I’m just not in love with her. At the time I confused those two. I also thought, well, marriage and kids that’s what people do so I thought, ‘Oh
well I’ll give that a go’. I honestly thought at the time that I could make it work. I suppose for a little while it did work, but only for a while.
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I had my daughter with her. She was born in 1990 so she’s 21 now. I got sober when I was 26, so that was only a year after my daughter was born. I think it was when I got sober that I started to suddenly realise I didn’t want to be in that relationship. I realised that it was a mistake. It was never going to work. I was very much gay. In a way I also felt trapped. I cared for my family and didn’t want to hurt them. I felt that, ‘If I come out and say this, it’s going to destroy my wife and I’m going to lose my daughter.’ I suppose, in a way, that got me through for a while.
But eventually, quite some years down the track it soon got to the point where I couldn’t… I’d always been faithful. But in those last few years I just couldn’t do it anymore because I just wanted to explore being with guys again and explore my sexuality again. So I went out and sought that behind her back, which I feel terrible about but that’s what happened.
Eventually she found out about the internet porn that I was checking out. Our computer had gotten really slow and she thought I must have had viruses or something. She took it to a friend of hers who was a computer expert to clear it out and he discovered all these viruses were mainly from gay porn sites that I’d been accessing. She saw the history because he told her and she realised this had been going on for ages and ages.
It’s not as if I just tried to access a couple of sites once and that was it. She actually said to me that she thought for some time that something was going on. She sort of had her own suspicions for a while and then this happened. That just reinforced everything that she’d been thinking. It answered all the questions that she couldn’t quite put her finger on up to that point.
So that’s how she actually found out about me and basically put it to me. I realised then that I just couldn’t lie anymore. So I told her the truth and the marriage ended after 12 years. Which, at the time was extremely painful; it was very painful for her but it was also very painful for me. Obviously, she was emotionally very upset, but I think she was fundamentally alright. She suspected anyway, so I mean in that sense she was alright with it. She certainly didn’t have any problem with anyone being gay or with me being gay. However, obviously emotionally it was difficult for us both.
Looking back on it now I can also see that it was the best thing that could have happened. Because really what happened is that she set me free and I set her free.
I’ve gone on to subsequently find love and she’s gone on to find love elsewhere as well. She’s since remarried and is happy. So although it was painful it was very necessary. I think it was very necessary for both of us. I think in many ways now we probably have a better relationship than we’ve ever had. We can just be completely honest.
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The end of my marriage could have been another perfect opportunity to come out, obviously she knew that I was gay. Her sister who lived with us at the time knew that I was gay. And there was a couple of close friends who I decided to tell. So you would think it would have been the perfect opportunity to come out. But it was that same old fear. It was that same old, ‘If I come out, I’m gonna lose people, I’m gonna lose friends’. Having built up friendships again over a long period of time, it was a lot to lose. I knew what it was like to be alone and to be lonely. I didn’t want that. So once again that whole fear of people finding out and rejecting me kept me from telling people. So my marriage ended in 2000, but I didn’t fully come out openly as a gay man until 2003.
I suppose for all intents and purposes I started to lead a gay life straight away. I’d started going to gay bars and clubs, I actually
could go out on the gay scene because I didn’t have to hide that from my wife anymore. I was living more of a gay life than I’d ever lived, but it was secret: I wasn’t telling anybody. Then it got to the point where I thought, ‘This is just ridiculous, I have to tell people.’ So I slowly told my closest friends first and they were fine with it. I eventually told my daughter. I sat her down, she was 13 at the time and she was fine with it. The more people I told the easier it got because all I was getting back was just love and acceptance. People were okay with it. Some people were shocked. Some people thought, “Yeah, well, it’s about time.” But everybody was really wonderful. I thought all those fears I had telling people is all a lie. It meant breaking down those old feelings
that I had; shattering the delusion that people wouldn’t accept me just because I was gay.
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The last people that I told were my parents. At first I wasn’t going to tell them. I knew that they would react very badly to it and I
knew that they wouldn’t be happy about it. So I didn’t tell them for quite a while. I thought, ‘I want to spare them the hurt’. Eventually however, I got to a point where I’d told everybody else and I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I have to tell them. It’s not about them: it’s about me. I’ve lived a lie for nearly 40 years, I’m not going to live that way any more.’ So I decided to tell them. I decided that it would probably be best if I wrote a letter. If I called them, I’d have to call one and then call the other one and basically come out twice which wouldn’t be fun. I also knew that they’d probably get really upset. They’d probably say things and I’d probably say things, and it’d probably just descend into a mess. So I thought, ‘I’ll sit down and I’ll really think about what I want to say’, and the best way to do that is to write a letter.
I wrote a letter to them both saying “I want you to open this up and read it together”. I really thought about what I wanted to say. I sent it off to them and I waited a couple of weeks to see if they would return my calls. They didn’t. But that didn’t necessarily surprise me because I knew it really would have been a bombshell.
So I gave them a call, eventually, a couple of weeks later. Their reaction was as I thought their reaction would be: they were shocked.
They were disgusted. They wanted nothing to do with me anymore. They didn’t want to see me again. They didn’t want me visiting them. It was the whole ‘we renounce you, we never want to see you again’ thing.
Which was upsetting but expected. So I didn’t take it too much to heart because I genuinely believed then and for quite some time afterwards that they would eventually come around. That eventually, after the news had sunk in and they really thought about it, they’d realise that I haven’t changed. I was the same son I always was: it just so happened I was gay.
I kept on contacting them from time to time and I kept on getting the cold shoulder. Eventually it got to a point where I realised that they weren’t actually going to change and they weren’t actually going to accept me. This was in about 2006, about three years after I’d told them. I went into major depression because it was a massive loss. It almost felt like they’d died because all of a sudden I realised that they weren’t going to be in my life. They weren't going to accept me. In a way it was the sum of my nightmares as a child. The crazy thing is that one of my best friends is a 60-year-old Catholic nun, she accepted it but my parents couldn’t. They still can’t, but I can’t really do anything about that. I just have to get on with my life and hopefully they’ll get on with theirs. Eventually maybe they might realise the error of their ways but I’m not holding my breath for that any longer.
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My first boyfriend was someone that I’d known for quite some years in recovery and we were very good friends. I always thought ‘He’s definitely straight.’ He was one of the very first friends that I told when I came out. I knew he’d be fine with it. So I told him that I was gay and he was suitably cool. That didn’t change anything and our life went on. Then about a month or so later he completely floored me when he came back to me and said, “Look, I think I might be gay too.” We actually had a big discussion about it and it turns out that he wasn’t gay, but he was definitely bi. He felt like me, like he couldn’t tell anybody. He had a whole heap of religious baggage and he felt guilt and shame around it. So I was the one person that he could talk to. That made us even closer and eventually a number of months later the predictable thing happened.
He was over one weekend. I think we were watching videos and I said, “Look, it’s really late. Why don’t you crash?” He agreed so I gave him a pillow and a blanket, and said, “See you in the morning.”
I walked into my bedroom to go to bed, and he followed me in. It started from there. It was extremely intense because for the first time I was actually making love - he was the only guy, the first guy, whom I’d loved that I had sex with.
It was also the first time I ever had anal sex. In fact it was also the first time that he’d had it as well. It was really profound and really amazing. I’ve only ever had anal sex since with my boyfriends; I’ve never done that with anybody else. I see it as so much more intimate than anything else. So that was part of where I drew that line and it’s definitely always been safe sex.
Eventually I helped him get over the whole shame thing, I remember he rolled over one morning and said, “That’s it. I don’t have that guilt anymore.” I kind of looked at him and said, “Why not?” he sort of smiled and said “Because anything that awesome can’t be wrong” which was the sweetest thing that he could possibly say. Unfortunately I don’t think he could ever completely accept the fact that he was bi. He couldn’t come out. Around me he could be open and honest but with everybody else he was just the same old guy. Eventually the inevitable happened when he found a girl that he liked, and decided that he was going to be with her rather than me. Ultimately wanting to remain closeted, he could live openly with a girlfriend in a way that he never could as my boyfriend.
So that ended our relationship, despite that we kept on being friends for a while after that. I’m sure I’m as equally to blame, but eventually he did quite a number of things that were quite hurtful. Eventually I reached that point where I realised that I had to be completely rid of him. Even though I still loved him, I knew that I just couldn’t have him in my life anymore. That realisation came at pretty much exactly the same time as the realisation with my parents. So there were two huge losses – the great love of my life and my parents which sent me into a deep depression for quite some time. I was hospitalised twice because I was suicidal. Thankfully I’d had enough years of recovery under my belt that I was never really tempted to go back to drinking or taking drugs. I’m really grateful for that because there were certainly many, many dark days. I had really severe depression just as a result of those really big losses in my life.
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My next relationship was short but spectacular. It probably only lasted about six months. I met a guy a couple of times out at The Imperial, the local gay bar here. I’d seen him a couple of times and we’d kept on knocking into one another so much so that we chatted to one another a few times and were laughing about who was stalking who. Eventually, he come around one time and said that he’d just gotten out of a relationship. We’d never really talked about relationships before. Then, of course, it ended up once again in bed and another relationship started. He’d been in a long-term relationship I think for about 10 years. But, eventually, about six months later, the guy wanted him back. So he too let me down and went back to that relationship.
Then about four years ago I met my current boyfriend. I actually met him in a back room. I met and hooked-up with him a couple of times in there and one time I said, “Look, do you want to come home with me for a while and hang out?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” It was a Friday night - and he left Monday morning! Unlike the others this was his first gay relationship with someone. We’ve pretty much lived together for most of those four years. I told him I didn’t really want to live with someone that wasn’t out to everybody. Which he wasn’t when we first started going out and he said, “No problem” and he went and came out to everybody.
I always use a condom even with my boyfriend now; we’re in an open relationship so it makes more sense to use it. I think the open relationship probably came about more because of my depression. ‘Cause one of the side-effects of the very strong anti-depressants is that it greatly reduces your sex drive. I was starting to feel a little bit guilty about that because suddenly we didn’t have the same sex life that we’d had before. So I think I just literally went to him one day and said, “Look, I know I’m not the same person in the bed that I was before. I know I don’t have the same sex drive anymore. If you want sex and if you want to look for sex elsewhere, I’m fine if you want to do that.” He was okay and for quite a while he didn’t. But then he did which was fine. I didn’t have a problem with that. And likewise if I want to see other people, I can too. Not that I’ve really done that much but, the opportunity’s there for both of us. I think pretty much we are exclusive but we have that understanding and we have clear boundaries. I think if anything it’s worked well for us.
Where Michael was born and moved back to after many years to live with a woman who became his wife
Where Michael grew up