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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Born and bred in Melbourne, I was born to Asian parents, which has been a huge part of my life. My parents are from Cambodia, and they moved over here to escape the civil war in 1975, and have been here for over 30 years. They’re quite open parents, considering their background. They do struggle a little bit with my sexuality, but I did have an okay coming out process.
Both my parents lost a lot of family in the war. Dad lost both his parents, and Mum also lost both her parents and all but two of her siblings during the Khmer Rouge regime. I remember drawing my family tree when I was grade 6, and my history was littered with more than 30 deceased family members. That being said, my childhood was actually a lot of fun because I had a lot of cousins in the house. Mum's two surviving sisters moved over to Australia and they all stayed with us in our three-bedroom house. The house was full with ten of us living there and we had a big Tarago to transport us around town. At the time, it all seemed very normal, but in hindsight I realise now that it’s not your typical growing up experience in Australia. That being said, we’re a very close family and I’m still quite close with my aunties and cousins for that reason.
I went to the local public high school in Ashwood in the inner south-east suburbs of Melbourne. It was a very small school and quite suburban. That’s probably not the right word but it was a predominantly Caucasian student base; there were not many Asian students around at the time.
My parents obviously wanted their kids to succeed and we had those values instilled in us quite early. I did quite well at school and really enjoyed high school. Forgive the stereotyping, but I was your typical Asian kid who topped the class every year. I was also quite well-liked by all my peers and had a great group of friends. But, at the same time, I wasn’t out at that stage either.
Everyone spends their adolescent years trying to fit in, and I was no different. As bad as it sounds, I think my outlook on life could be described as 'white-washed'. Stereotypes provide the best example of that, as while my cousins had lots of Asian friends and were listening to R&B, I was hanging out with the kids listening to indie music. There were a lot of things I did that weren’t typically Asian. There was an element of self-hatred in that not wanting to advertise being Asian, and trying to fit in with the crowd. And I guess that the same could be said for my sexuality as well; trying to be as straight as I could be.
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I first became aware that I was gay very early. I can pinpoint a moment when I was about eight years old in Grade 2. I’d been doing my swimming lessons and was getting changed in the boys’ changing rooms. At the sight of a naked man, I still remember something stirring in me, underneath. I think I always knew. When I was about 14 or 15, I did pretend to 'like' a girl; ‘pretend’ being the operative word. We were quite close friends. Funnily enough we played a lot of golf together and she actually turned out to be a lesbian, which is kind of ironic.
I came out to myself on my 16th birthday and by that, I mean I verbalised the words to myself. By saying “I am gay” I made it real. I didn’t tell anyone else though.
On the surface, I was probably really happy. I had lots of friends and people were quite accepting of me, but I still had an internal struggle of reconciling my feelings inside and what was actually happening.
While I wasn’t picked on at school, other people were. I still remember a moment walking around school where some kids were yelling out to an Asian teacher, “Go back to where you came from!” and then they looked towards me and go, “Oh, but you’re different.” You don't think much about that when you are younger but looking back, it’s an experience I have obviously held onto and would have fed into my internal struggle.
There was another incident in high school. We had a personal development class in Year 9 where we learnt about various issues, including one class on homosexuality; I remember it clearly. We watched this really bad video from the eighties with badly-dressed kids talking about how it’s okay to be gay. At the end of the video, one of the statistics they threw out was that one in ten people are gay. One of the other kids said to the teacher, “There are twenty something kids in the class miss. So there must be two or three gay people in here.” And she replied, “Oh that’s not necessarily the case. It doesn’t mean there are any gay people in this class”. I just remember thinking ‘Aren’t you defeating of the purpose of this class by saying that?’ Again, that’s something I’ve held onto.
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After I’d come out to myself, I went overseas for the first time It was also the first time I’d been to Cambodia, and it was quite a shocking experience. It was prompted by the realisation that ‘Oh my God, this is where my parents are from, this is my background’.
Having never been overseas, I had never really processed where my parents had come from and what the country might actually be like. It was the start of ‘98, and there had just been a coup in the country in the previous year.
The whole experience was quite confronting. Just walking around the streets, it was obvious the locals knew I wasn't from around there. Even though I looked like them, I was dressed like a westerner and spoke a little funny. . It was that element that fed into my identity crisis. Growing up in Australia, I always had this feeling I didn’t quite fit in and I think that was the part-Asian thing, part-gay thing. But then going to Cambodia, I realised I didn’t quite fit in over there either. It was the first time I felt a bit lost, as an individual. 'Now where am I? Where do I really fit in?’
I went back last year with some friends from Canberra, and I still remember having a mini freak-out when the plane was landing. I don't really know why and my friends were wondering if I was okay. It’s really hard for me to put my finger on my feeling of complete terror about going back to Cambodia, but once I actually got there, I really did feel a connection.
I guess I have grown and also become more comfortable with myself, and I’m happy with where I am, and where I’ve come from. I think that’s the difference. Whereas before I wasn't proud of where I had come from.
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I came out after I’d left high school during the early years of uni. It was surprisingly fine even though there’s always that apprehension when you tell different friends.
I remember telling a good friend from high school at the beach and I had made a really big deal out of it. When I eventually told her, her response was “Oh my God. Is that all? I thought you were either going to tell me you were going to die or that you were in love with me.”
I told another friend by sending her a letter. That was probably the stupidest thing I could have done, because I sent it on a Wednesday and when we had lunch on the Friday at uni, I was wondering “Why isn’t she saying anything to me? Oh my God, she hates me!” She didn’t get the letter until the following Tuesday and she called me straight away. “Why did you write me a letter? It’s not that big a deal. I kind of knew anyway.” So it was pretty much a non-event.
One of my cousins found out during my second year at uni. She remains one of my closest cousins to this day. It was the first time I’d actually worked up the confidence to attend a discussion group run by the Queer Officersat uni. I was just on my way up the stairs in Union House when my cousin spotted me. “Rithy, how are you going?” I was a nervous wreck as it was, just willing myself to go to this thing. And she asks me “What are you doing for lunch?” Quite nervously, I replied “I’ve just, I’ve just got a meeting. I’ve gotta go.” So I turned around and started walking up the stairs, and to this day she cannot explain why this popped into her head, but she blurted out, “Are you going to the Queer Office or something?” I freaked out, turned around. I didn’t say a word, just nodded my head. Then she freaked out, “Oh my God! Okay, we need to have lunch together and we need to discuss this.” So we had lunch together and we talked it through. She was completely in shock.
She still doesn’t know why she yelled it out. Obviously, she must have known on some sort of subconscious level. “I thought you just liked playing with our hair, you liked playing with other girls; you liked playing elastics or whatever. But I just thought you were you, you know.” She’s completely fine with it now, but I think I was still coming to terms with it at the time. And I never did go to the Queer Office!
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While at uni, I just went about my merry way attending classes and didn’t really do many things outside of class, which I think is a bit of a shame. Even though I came out to most of my friends when I was about eighteen or nineteen, I didn’t really partake in anything queer at university. I did go to Q&A back in the day, but that was pretty much the only thing I did and even then I didn’t really have that many gay friends. Looking back, I was still quite uncomfortable with that side of myself.
All I remember about Q&A was having a good time. What I liked about it most was the relaxed atmosphere. I would go along, have a few beers, and I'd catch the last train home so I didn’t really make big nights out of it. But I guess there was that sense of community there and I did enjoy it.
I got a part-time job at Myer and had a good circle of friends. I worked in ladies’ shoes, and that plays to the stereotype but I really enjoyed it. It was a really good group of friends, but I didn't make any close gay friends. To be honest, to some extent I was quite scared of other gay people.
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After I finished my undergraduate degree, I took a year off and worked in a call centre to fund a trip to Europe. I lived in Poland for three months, and travelled through Western Europe for another two months, which was great for me. I’ve always considered myself a shy person but living in Poland, where I was part of a program teaching high school kids, gave me a lot of confidence. When travelling on your own, you really do discover things about yourself that you weren’t really aware of.
I still didn’t do any gay things. I hadn’t really kissed a guy, and I would have been 23 by that stage. But I really did become independent and more of an extrovert, as you do when you travel alone. If you don't talk to anyone, you start to go bonkers!
After my five months overseas, I returned to complete my honours year. That year was great, but I think everything happened after that when I moved to Canberra.
I applied for a job in my honours year and I got a graduate position in Canberra. Even though I was offered a job in Melbourne in the Victorian public service, I was really holding out for any position in Canberra. In my mind it was my way out, to leave the nest, leave my parents’ place. The only way I thought I could do that was to say, “Oh look Mum and Dad, I’ve got a job in Canberra. I have to leave now.”
I have really flourished here as an individual and I’ve become even more extroverted. Doing a graduate program in Canberra is amazing. You make heaps of friends and that first year is just one big partying year. It was the first time I started to feel completely comfortable as a gay guy and the primary driver of that was separation from the parents. Living out of home, and becoming independent, you can do whatever you want. You can go out and you don't have to answer to anyone, and I guess that’s when it all started.
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After my graduate year, I was driving home for Christmas, and in my mind I was determined that I had to tell them by the end of the break, or I would never tell them. The night before I was driving back to Canberra, the whole family, Mum, Dad, my brother and I were all just hanging out together. . It must have been one in the morning, and I thought “If I don't do it now, I’ll never do it.” And I just kind of blurted it out. Mum was in shock and Dad didn’t think much of it at the time. My brother actually just joked about it, which broke the ice a little bit, and was kind of a relief. I don't have a great relationship with my brother but it was one of those moments where I actually loved him for it. Since then, my parents’ attitudes have done a bit of a flip where Mum seems somewhat comfortable and Dad doesn’t want to talk about it.
Every now and then Mum makes a statement that makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s mainly around times of family functions like weddings. I must have been at a wedding and a relative was asking me when I was going to get married. I was in a bit of shock because I’d just assumed that they already knew, since most of my cousins already knew. So I asked Mum, “You haven’t told her?” and she replied, “No, I don't want you to tell anyone else”.
But when Mum met an ex-boyfriend of mine, she was quite excited. We were down in Melbourne, and he met both my parents and Mum even said, “Oh why are you staying in a hotel? Next time you guys should just stay here.” Which I thought was a big leap for her. So they have surprised me and it hasn't been a wholly negative experience.
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My first time was terrible! It was a random hook-up; and it wasn’t a very positive experience at all.
One positive thing that did come out of it is the fact I can say I lost my virginity to a fireman.
My first relationship was with someone from work. We worked together, in the same department but I didn’t actually meet him there. I met him at the only gay nightclub in Canberra. I saw him and thought “Oh my God, it’s that guy from work!” I sort of spoke to him that night but it wasn't until later that we actually got together. So far, that’s been my only serious relationship. We were dating for about nine months or so. Although it didn’t work out, he has been a big part of my life.
We had a good time together. We did a lot of weekends away. He was quite good for me and he helped me grow as an individual. We still get along which is quite funny, because in some ways I find him quite annoying now.
Before we broke up, things had been rocky for awhile. We have a completely different value set when it comes to finances. I still have problems with it to this day. Even when we catch up now, I still have issues with it. He’d always say, “Just let it go!” And I’d reply, “I can’t!” Ultimately, I think it was that irreconcilable difference that probably ended it.
That was about five years ago and since then there’s been nothing serious. I have dated guys for a few of weeks here and there but never anything as serious as my first relationship.
When it comes to sex, I’m generally quite safe. Obviously, I do hook up with people on the odd occasion, and there have been instances where I have slipped up. You get caught up in the heat of the moment or whatever, but the angst that comes with getting tested after such an experience is horrific. It’s probably because I do hold onto that dread, that anxiety, that horrible, horrible feeling when you’re waiting to get your results. So now I just don't engage in unsafe sex. I guess that’s my strategy. I can’t say I don't sleep around but if I do hook-up with someone then I’ll always be safe.
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I marched in Mardi Gras this year with a good friend of mine who is in the Sydney Stingers water polo team. Surrounding myself with all those beautiful people probably didn’t do wonders for my self esteem but I definitely had a lot of fun. Even though they were quite welcoming, I still didn’t feel wholly comfortable with being part of that group. There was probably an element of hesitation on my part to embracing the whole experience, and I became all shy again!
I’m definitely a lot more comfortable than I used to be with my sexuality but I’ve still got a bit of a way to go. I’ve always felt unworthy and a bit threatened by other gay people.
I’ve always had a thing around my height, or lack thereof. I’ve always been the smallest kid in class, and I’m still very short. It’s not necessarily frowned upon but it’s not looked upon favourably either and it has played on my self-esteem my whole life.
There is also that issue of sexual racism which seems to exist out there in the gay community and it has impacted on me a fair bit. Seeing terms like ‘no GAMs’ or ‘no Asians’, is actually really hurtful. I think it does touch on those experiences I had growing up of not feeling part of, or embraced in a community.
I still remember this one encounter, where upon seeing a guy’s profile on Gaydar, I sent him a message saying something like, “Hey mate, how are you going?” What I got in return was an abusive response along the lines of, “You shouldn’t be using Aussie terms like ‘mate’ 'cause you’re Asian.” and proceeded to block me so I couldn’t even respond! That made me angry, especially when I couldn’t even have closure with a response. So it is a real problem. I can’t see how we can progress, as a community, to get over that but maybe it just takes time. Who knows?
At the end of the day I guess I’m just like everyone else. You have your ups and your downs. My career is going well, I’ve got my own place, I’m well-educated and I’ve almost finished my masters. And I would really like to share my life with someone. Unfortunately, I don't think I can have that in Canberra primarily because there just doesn't seem to be enough of a supply of gay guys here, and I seem to be a bit of a niche market - being Asian and gay. Damn those forces of supply and demand! (Can you tell I'm an economist?) I am thinking about moving on to Sydney to experience new things and hopefully find a partner that I can share my life with.
I was inspired to tell my story by a very good friend of mine who is very similar to me, and is someone I look up to. Like me, he started the same graduate program as me in the following year, also gay, and Asian and we just hit it off. He took me to my first Mardi Gras and we’ve been good friends ever since. He's been living in Sydney over the past year and been involved in this project called ‘AMen’ that’s being run by ACON. It’s about gay Asian men telling their story, to empower other gay Asians. I went to a couple of talks, and presentations as part of the Mardi Gras festival, and I actually found that quite empowering and inspiring. So much so, I am telling my story on Staying Negative.
Rithy's parents are from from Cambodia, they lost most of their family during the war.
Rithy finds his indepedence after moving to Canberra for work