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 parents are from Ireland and emigrated to a town called Worcester, Massachusetts, an hour outside of Boston, which is where I grew up. I was the youngest of five kids and we grew up in a typical Irish Catholic household. My next older brother is seven years older than me and he is also gay, although we are probably least alike in terms of our personalities.
My eldest brother who is 16 years older than me is mentally handicapped which affected the dynamics of the family a little bit and he was put in an institution from the age of six.
This was back in the ‘50’s so it’s what they did in those times, there wasn’t any form of home care or schooling. My mother was understandably distraught over it which rubbed off on us. My parents were a little stricter on my older brothers than on me because I think there was the mentality of, ‘behave, don’t complain and feel lucky because you don’t have a disability like your brother.’ If you were out of line it was probably a bigger deal than it should have been but by the time I came along, they were much more relaxed.
Growing up there was always some form of attraction to boys. I gravitated to playing more with the girls in the neighbourhood than playing football or something with the boys. When I was about ten I had some experiences with other boys in the neighbourhood of, “show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” type of thing but nothing else. A little bit into puberty at around thirteen, the other boys grew out of that, but I didn’t, so I started questioning.
I had girlfriends throughout middle school and junior high, but when you’re young it’s only casual. Even then, the girls I dated were always the athletic girls like basketball players or swimmers. By the time I went to university, I had a girlfriend in freshman year and I thought, ‘yeah, this just isn’t happening.’ She wanted to do more and I wasn’t into it at all and I felt really uncomfortable. In high school you kiss and whatnot but there’s no pressure to have sex whereas that changes when you get to uni. That’s when I realised that I wasn’t going through some sort of phase I was going to grow out of. I remember going to my first gay bar and being really, really scared, but then followed by the feeling that I’ve found my community.
I hadn’t come out properly to anyone yet, even my older brother who was also gay. I used to share a room with him and I found some of his gay porn magazines. We never talked about it but I just knew. He didn’t come out to my parents properly until I was at university. He had a partner at the time and I had this irrational fear that I would run into him at any gay bar within a hundred mile radius.
It was the late eighties and I was just scared of rejection, scared of not fitting in, scared of everything. Being gay growing up I had always wanted to fit in and not stand out in case somebody found out the secret.
I didn’t come out to my family for a while because I was worried about my father’s reaction to it, not so much my mother’s. I found out later in life that one of my mother’s best friends was a lesbian and she’s pretty open-minded so it wouldn’t have been a problem coming out.
I started to live almost a double life – I hadn’t even come out to friends at university because it was a Catholic university. I had a job off-campus so whenever I went to gay bars I just told friends from university that I was going out with friends from work.
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When I first had a sexual experience with a guy that I had met at a club, I was terrified. It was the late 80’s when the AIDS epidemic was in full swing so there was a lot of fear and I had never had sex with a guy before.I met this guy who was a bit older than I was, about 25 years old and he was really nice. We had sex and I stayed overnight which was all really exciting but then I had to go back to my other life at university where they were asking me where I was, so it was also a bit stressful. I was afraid my friends from university would not accept me, so much so that I never ended up coming out at uni.
I got a job in Boston and started living with a gay friend and his partner. That is when I could start dating for the first time but still keeping my worlds very separate. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties before I started slowly coming out. The first time was at one of my friends’ weddings, a few drinks probably helped but I just told an old girl friend from high school, “you know, I’m gay and I have a partner.” She was very happy for me which was a nice feeling as I was afraid I’d lose all my friends if I came out. That helped me with bringing down the walls and I started to tell different people. I still hadn’t told my family at that point except my gay brother and that was mostly because I had run into his partner at a gay bar. He said that if I didn’t tell my brother eventually, then he would.
It was still left at a ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’, policy with my family for a number of years. Again, it was the fear of rejection and I think growing up during the AIDS epidemic with all this negativity going on about the gay lifestyle causing people to die and the Catholic Church coming out against homosexuality.I had a lot of internalised homophobia and shame that was hard to let go of. I think there is still a part of me that holds on to that stuff, I’m not sure if you ever let it go completely.
In my family, we don’t delve too much into talk about both my brother and I being gay.
The thing is there are also quite a few uncles and cousins on my mother’s side of the family that are gay too. In the question of what makes you gay, nature or nurture, I definitely think it’s nature.
I’m sure growing up there are things that add to it but you can’t help who you are.
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I started dating somebody and we ended up having a ten year relationship. It was good, but were both living this double life where we kept our gay life separate from our supposed straight life. It had a bad effect on our relationship whereby we were presenting ourselves as friends or roommates to our straight friends and that ended up taking over the relationship. Instead of having a romantic relationship that was growing, it turned into a friendship. There was love, but there was nothing physical or romantic after a while. We probably stayed together longer than we should have because we were best friends and we had many friends in common.
Whilst I was living in Boston, I got a job at a multi-national which sent me to Hong Kong for six months. In Hong Kong, I ended up meeting an Italian guy and having an affair with him. That was really stressful because there was a lot of guilt associated with it. Meeting this guy was at completely the other end of the spectrum, it was all romance and intimacy. It woke me up to what was possible.
My internalised homophobia and shame caused me to separate sex from romance. I had the idea that sex was quick, a hook-up, intense and hot, but you could never love that person because it’s something you’re a little bit ashamed of.
Then I had this partner who I loved very much but we weren’t really able to connect on a sexual level – possibly because we both felt ashamed of it. Meeting this Italian guy made me realise that you could have both together. It made me realise that you could fall in love with somebody and have a great sexual relationship as well as mutual respect, which was fantastic.
It was just meant to be a fling but it turned into an affair as we kept on going for two more years after which was the stressful part. When I got back I ended up living another double life on top of my already double life with my partner. The Italian guy knew about my partner but after two years it ended with the Italian guy first and I had created a big mess where I ended lying to both of them. There also was no future for us as I wasn’t ready to give up my life and leave everything behind and there was no way for him to come to the US.
It taught me a lot about relationships as I realise now we were staying together for the wrong reasons. It wasn’t working, we weren’t communicating and it was clearly over. If I had the chance to do it over again I would have ended it a lot earlier than I did. I would have been more respectful to him and then be ready to start a new relationship with someone else. I was just afraid of having those conversations,
I was afraid of hurting that person and afraid of being the bad guy but I ended up meeting somebody else and having an affair which was much worse.
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I had always wanted to experience living abroad so after this relationship I had told my company that if there was a job going in Europe I’d love to take it. A few years later an opportunity came up to move to Dusseldorf, Germany. I didn’t really like that as much, so after that I moved to Milan, Italy. The people in Milan were much more open and friendly. Even though I didn’t speak the language, it was much easier to assimilate. A benefit of being gay sometimes is that you automatically have a community when you move internationally. Part of me at the back of my mind hoped that something might start up again with this Italian guy, but it didn’t, although we did remain friends.
Milan had a big fashion industry and certainly a lot of gay life, but it was also a little bit repressed – more so than Boston. Even today, they don’t have access to rapid HIV testing.They do have a gay community centre in Milan, but it’s all a bit underground. People are afraid to get tested, they’re afraid to talk about it with their doctor because it may be a family doctor. When you do get tested, you’re not treated very nicely, you’re treated in a judgemental manner. It’s more like, “why are you having sex? Why would you need to get tested?” Even at work, people don’t necessarily come out as it could be career-limiting.
In some ways it made it easy because I didn’t have to come out at work but it was also bad because people weren’t getting regular STI checks and there were not conversations about your HIV status. If I asked somebody I’d be told, “how could you ask me that, that’s private.” I found that most people didn’t know their status and didn’t want to know. Even when you were on gay apps and chatting with someone, nobody wanted to talk about their status. In fact, they would get offended if you asked, it was quite backwards in that sense. I noticed a lot of unprotected sex and nobody having discussions around it.
I ended up meeting a Spanish guy and we were together for three years. That was a fun relationship and a fun time in a foreign country. It didn’t end badly, we just grew apart but we are still close now. After that relationship ended I wanted to be on my own for a bit because I hadn’t for about 14 years. I wanted to figure out what I wanted which sounded good in theory but that single life lasted a little longer than I wanted.
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I met my current partner in Italy but not long after he told me he actually had an idea of coming to Australia because the economy in Italy wasn’t great. He does landscape architecture and garden design. We hadn’t been together very long so he went over first to see whether he could get sponsored and we would reassess after those first four months. We were still going strong so when he finally made the move I asked my job for a transfer and I ended up getting moved 10 months after.
From the day he left Italy we were just dating and in an open relationship.We were trying to be realistic considering we were going to be away from each other months at a time. I rather have an open relationship and am honest about it that a closed one where nobody said anything but still strayed outside the relationship. Starting off open was good because it felt more honest. The only rule we really had was that if you had sex with other people it had to be protected sex. You’re allowed to go on dates and not just have fuck buddies. The reason I did that was because I already had established friends but he was trying to meet people and make friends.
Some of those friends happened to be friends with benefits and some were not. He’s also a lot more fluid about sexuality and friendship than I am because in the past I tended to divide the two. I feel it’s emotionally safer to the relationship to just have a random hook up or go to a sex-on-premises venue where you don’t have any more contact outside of that. He thinks it’s safer to have friends with benefits health-wise because you have a better idea of what people are doing or not doing.That’s probably a struggle point in our open relationship – we are different points on where we stand with that so it still causes a bit of friction.
We continually have discussions around it, including what we are and aren’t comfortable with. I’ve become more comfortable with some of his ‘friends with benefits’ because they’ve also become my friends. We never had threesomes until we came to Australia.
For me the threesome was easier because it included me as oppose to something going on where I wasn’t around. Any threesomes we do have tend to be with regular people, not just a one-time hook up.
It’s been good as I have never been in a relationship where we are able to communicate as honestly as this one.
We tell each other everything but we don’t need to always get into details. I just don’t want him telling me that he’s working late tonight when he’s actually hanging out with a friend. Being in an open relationship is one of the reasons I went on PrEP because I can’t always control what my partner does 100% of the time. It’s not that I don’t trust him, it’s just that there may be slip ups but also I would rather take the responsibility of my health into my own hands.
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Medication these days and PrEP really changed the argument for HIV positive men. I would much rather have sex with someone who was positive, on medication and with an undetectable viral load or whilst I’m on PrEP than with someone who doesn’t know their status at all.
This relationship has helped me work on trying to integrate sex and relationships. I don’t know if that will ever completely change because of the way I grew up and only having sex as part of naughty hook-ups or hidden away. It’s definitely ingrained into me somehow but I’m slowly changing my views internally.
Meth use in the party scene here is pretty big.It was never that big in Italy from what I observed and it was kind of big in the US when I left but that was the late nineties. I’m surprised at the number of people that are using meth and the number of people that have a problem with it. It’s a little bit scary in the sense that it’s a dangerously addictive drug and it amazes me that people are still taking that risk. I don’t do drugs and I’m not very active in the club scene so I’ve made a lot of my friends through sports leagues here. I’ve been playing tennis here and volunteering at VAC which has been a good way to meet new people.
Volunteering is a good way to meet people. I used to volunteer in a soup kitchen in Italy and a dog shelter as well. When I came to Melbourne I was looking around and stumbled upon VAC. I came to an information session and liked the organisation and how it was run. It’s nice volunteering for my own community and giving back a little.
Growing up in the ‘80’s during the AIDS epidemic really affected my self-esteem as a gay man. It affected my approach to relationships and sex and I am finally on the journey of pulling that all together. It wasn’t until I came to Melbourne where I really put the pieces together where I’m completely out with work, family and friends. I’ve brought my partner to work functions and nobody even blinks an eye. I am finally completely comfortable with myself and it feels good, it feels really good.
Mike lived in Dusseldorf for a while with work.
Mike lived in Milan for a few years where he met his current partner.