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 grew up in Sydney in Bronte. My parents split when I was quite young so I grew up with my mother. I only got to know dad when I was 15 or 16. I’ve got two half-sisters on my dad’s side but again didn’t get to know them until I was older.
I enjoyed childhood. I had a bit of a tough time at school because I wore glasses. I was born with congenital cataracts so I had to wear quite thick glasses through primary school and the first part of high school, which meant that I got bullied a bit, which wasn’t good. Then in Year 10 I started wearing contacts and my confidence grew a huge amount from there. I really got into karate as a sport; I started debating; I got involved with a lot of stuff at school. That was great for my confidence. So the last couple of years of high school were a really good time for me.
I remember when I was like 13 or something, I was watching a tennis tournament, and there was a guy called Jason Stoltenberg who was a leading Australian player. And I said, “I really like him.” And mum said, “Why?” And I said, “He’s very cute.” She did a double-take and she said, “You’re not gay are you?” I said, “No!” I didn’t sort of equate that with wanting to have sex.
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I didn’t really work out the gay thing until quite late in life. When I was at school I always used to look at guys and never used to look at girls. I didn’t really think much of it at the time. Looking back I think it was some sort of platonic appreciation but I didn’t really draw the connection between looking at guys and wanting to sleep with them until after uni. I had my first sexual experience with a girl when I was 20 and she asked me flat out, “Are you gay?” At the time I said no, but it sort of planted the seed. I thought maybe there’s a reason why girls just don’t come up on the radar for me.
So I went on the internet and sort of explored the gay world on the internet and talked to other people. I just chatted to other people and found out what their story was, and sort of worked out how much correlation there was with what I was experiencing.
I had one moment: I was sitting in front of the computer. Not looking at porn or anything; just reading peoples’ stories about growing up and coming out, trying to work out if their attraction was the same as my attraction. It was really reassuring that there were people out there with the same story. So I thought, 'Okay, well maybe this is what’s going on. Maybe I’m gay.' So I thought I would give it a few months. I’ll explore this possibility and then if it doesn’t work I’ll work something else out. Maybe I haven’t found the right girl and maybe it just requires time. I then got in touch with the Gay & Lesbian Counselling Service and they pointed me in the direction of a ‘coming out’ group. I went along and I saw a counsellor and he was great. He really refined the situation for me.
I was at the University of Sydney at this stage and was studying political science and so I went to the Gay & Lesbian Society. I wasn’t vastly impressed with the people that were there. Not to stereotype but there are a lot of “emo” guys there and art students. It just didn’t really fit with me. I’d worked a lot of stuff out already and it wasn’t going to add any sort of value to me or what I was doing.
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I met a guy through one of the Counselling Service’s coming out groups and we sort of hit it off. We all went out to a bar after the session and he and I started making out. And it was just this total epiphany. I remember him saying to me “I want to do more with you” and the fact that I was thinking exactly the same thing instantaneously resolved this ambivalence about sexual attraction that I’d been fumbling with. It was like 'This is exactly what I’ve been missing with girls' immediately from working all that out my confidence grew from there. I thought, “Well this is who I am” - it just answered a lot of questions for me.
We ended up having sex a few days after that. That was my first sexual experience with a guy. And I mean it was really awkward. I had no real idea what I was doing. But that was the first time, the second time was better. It all sort of went pear-shaped from there I think because of our different experience levels and expectations. I mean he was my first sexual partner so I was sort of expecting it to blossom into something that would end up as us being boyfriends.
Whereas, I didn’t see it at the time but, for him it was just a guy that he’d met out and wanted to have sex with. That was really what he was after. That was kind of a bit cutting but you look back at it and it’s not that big a deal. But at the time it was quite distressing – I would have liked to have understood that at the time.
That was my first experience at a gay bar. We went to The Beauchamp in Sydney which was gay then and had a few drinks. This is with a facilitator from the coming out group and a couple of guys who were there. Then I think we went to Stonewall after that. Then the facilitator said, “Alright well I’m going to The Barracks”. It was a sort of leather, bear kind of bar. And he said to me, “You’re welcome to come if you like but if this doesn’t turn you straight, nothing will.”
So that was the gay pub crawl and my first night out on the scene. After that I got involved in ACON’s Young and Esteem program and made a few mates through that. I did the Fun & Esteem facilitators’ course after that because it was such a positive experience for me that I wanted to give something back to the program and share that. So I did the facilitators’ course and I ran about three workshops. I made friends with some co-facilitators and people who were in my groups that I still keep in touch with. That was really my introduction to going out on the scene.
I did that till I was nearly 25 or something. I think after a certain point, facilitating coming out groups didn’t make sense for me. The coming out stuff was just not relevant to me anymore so it was hard to identify with the stuff that the guys in the groups were going through.
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After I met the guy (who I’d slept with) I felt I’d resolved this great amorphous question. At first I was quite disappointed that I had to deal with not having the promise of the wife, kids, dog and the picket fence. It was a little bit daunting having to re-evaluate the sequence of events after that, not really knowing how it was gonna turn out. There was certainly a lack of certainty over where my life was leading but also there was a lot of confidence, knowing that I’d resolved the question of why I wasn’t attracted to girls.
I felt, if my life was gonna change from there on, it was right to tell the people around me. So I told a couple of friends and it really wasn’t an issue for most people. I had one or two friends who didn’t like it too much but I don’t think they were great friends anyway.
One was quite conservatively Jewish and… I don’t know - I’ve got questions over what his issue was. I really don’t know why he reacted badly but he was pretty adamant that he didn’t want to maintain the friendship. At the time it really didn’t bother me as my social circle was expanding pretty rapidly and I was meeting a lot of guys who I had a lot more in common with. All the people I really cared about were absolutely fine.
I told mum shortly after, which at the time was quite tough, and we sort of had a bit of an awkward conversation. I was 21 at the time. She hugged me and said she loved me. Her main concern was that she didn’t want me to be alone. I understand why and I can see why she would be concerned about that but I think now that she knows a bit more about me and the life I lead, she’s not worried about it anymore.
Of course, she was worried about HIV because one of her close gay friends contracted HIV so she was worried about that, more from a ‘be careful’ perspective than a ‘you’re going to catch HIV and die’ sort of thing. I mean she freaked out a little bit. She went to go and stay with her friend for a few days just because I think she wanted to digest it, rather than confront me with all her concerns that were potentially half-baked. She didn’t want to share her angst with me. At the time, it didn’t feel great that she’d run off but in retrospect it was probably for the best. So she came back and she said she loved me and it didn’t really change anything. Our relationship got better because of it.
My dad was great. I wasn’t living with him. He moved up on the north coast to Byron Bay. He’s an ex-Canberra journalist and he moved up about 20 years ago with a whole swag of ex-Canberra journalists who got out after Whitlam. I sent him a letter and he gave me a phone call when he received it, and said, “Look, it’s fine. There’s no problem.” I suspect that in my dad’s particular circle of friends it’s actually kind of a status symbol to have a gay son.
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I met my first serious boyfriend when I was 22 I think - we met out clubbing. He was about five years older than me. We were together for a year-and-a-half or so We got along really well, but I think he was at the point in his life where he was ready to settle down, buy a house and nest, basically. At the time I felt like I wasn’t ready to settle down, to nest. I had my mid-twenties ahead of me and wasn’t ready to approach life too responsibly at that point which was ultimately the reason we split up.
I’d dated a few guys before that and every time I dated someone I learnt something, about how relationships work and how to get along with partners.
One of the guys I dated earlier told me that he loved me. I thought, 'This is the right time to say it back' but at the time I wasn’t certain about that. I hadn't really been in love before so looking back it was the wrong thing for me to say at the time. When that went pear-shaped he got hurt quite badly out of that, so I learnt that it’s better to be honest, than to say what somebody else wants to hear.
Shortly after that I started a relationship with my second boyfriend. That went for four years. He was five years younger – and I think we were both in the same sort of phase of wanting to go out on the scene a lot. . I think in terms of attraction, we were a perfect match for one another.
It was an open relationship. I was quite good friends with someone who was in a long-term, open relationship with his partner. I thought well, if you’re going out a lot on the scene and you’re with someone, it’s better to be pragmatic about it, you know. I figure a relationship should be about enabling not, not disabling. So it’s better to allow that to happen and be honest about it than to pretend that there’s no attraction outside the relationship. It’s hard work but I think it’s worth it. I think the freedom adds something to the relationship rather than takes away from it.
I loved him a lot and vice versa, but I think towards the end of that we got to the point where we wanted different things in life. I was looking for a challenge career-wise and he was in a bit of a rut and wanted to go exploring the world. At the time I agreed it was what he needed but wasn’t really in a position to go with him. We’re good mates now but I think at the time, the relationship wasn’t working because we wanted different things out of life.
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One of my mother’s boyfriends got me interested in rugby when I was about 16 or 17. I thought to try and get into it at high school but I was concerned that I wouldn’t be any good at it. I don’t think high school is really the environment to do stuff that you’re not confident in.
So I didn’t get involved at school. At the time I was really into karate and that was going very well. I was competing at a national level and stuff like that. Then after the age of about 27 I’d gotten my black belt and I’d sort of stopped training for a while and took a bit of a break from karate. So I thought, 'I’m 27 years old. If I’m ever gonna give rugby a go, now’s the time.' This is while I was living in Sydney, I went to POOFTA, which is the gay touch football group. They’re the Proud Openly Out Footballers’ Touch Association. It’s a strange acronym but anyway I had a game with them just to get some skills up. I had the intention of joining a mainstream club, but then one of the POOFTA guys said that he was looking to take a bunch of guys over to London to play in the Bingham Cup. I thought that was perfect for me because I wanted to get involved in Rugby and I was also looking to do a world trip. So it was one of those times in your life when you make a decision then stuff just starts falling into place around it. The guys were really great about me not having played rugby before. I had contact sports experience through karate so I wasn’t contact-shy or anything but I had no real rugby skills. I think they thought I was gonna kill myself on the pitch but they were really great about teaching me the skills and the game. The Bingham Cup in London was fantastic and I definitely had the bug after that. What I found was joining the Convicts immediately changed my social situation. I suddenly had a whole bunch of friends. I had 30 or 40 people as team mates. There was always someone to go out with.
Then we went to New York and we won the Bingham Plate there. It was just fantastic to win an international tournament, representing Australia. At the time, I was single so it was a lot of fun touring the States and Europe. It was a great experience. I was travelling with my flatmate at the time and we’re great at getting each other into trouble.
So that was the tour overseas and New York. I loved going out in the States. They’ve got much bigger scenes in San Fran and New York than we do here. And travelling around with a rugby team is a fantastic way to do an overseas trip. You’ve always got someone to go out and get into trouble with.
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So after I got back to Oz I met my current partner. We met on-line and we just started dating. Neither of us really knew whether we wanted it to go anywhere at first – I wasn’t really looking for a relationship and he was about to go overseas for six months, but as we got to know each other we started to get attached. That was four years ago now. It’s been great – he’s a lovely guy.
He’s from Wollongong and I was living in Sydney so that meant we really only got to see each other on weekends, which was okay – it wasn’t ideal but you live with it. Of course it’s more difficult now that I’m in Melbourne. He’s since moved to Sydney to take up a job there so there’s a lot of commuting. We get along really well together which makes it easier to live with the distance until we can move in together. I think that’s what makes it such a great partnership – that we’re both able to take the approach that the relationship is strong enough to allow us to pursue our own goals, be it career-wise or in other areas. He’s really driven and works really hard which in a way kind of inspires me to push myself a bit harder.
He plays for the Sydney Convicts. We toured Minneapolis together as part of the combined Convicts/Chargers team at the 2010 Bingham Cup. He’s pretty new to Union, so it’s been great watching him pick it up. I remember we were playing San Diego and he made a huge run upfield, probably about forty metres or so with me bolting at top speed to keep up in support – that made me really proud.
We actually played against one another last year for the Purchas Cup down here in Melbourne. I didn’t see that much of him in the game because I’m a flanker and he plays on the wing.
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I relocated to Melbourne for work in 2009. The company I was working for in Sydney got taken over by its larger competitor who was based in Melbourne and I was offered a relocation or a redundancy. At the time it made sense to move - I wasn’t really ready to look for a new job at that point.
When I moved to Melbourne it was tricky at first. I didn’t know a lot of people down here but there was a gay identifying Rugby Union team starting in Melbourne and I thought “I wanna keep playing”. Three months after I got down here I was suddenly back in rugby pre-season. It was great - suddenly there were 20 guys that I could go out for drinks with and watch games with. It immediately changed my social situation in a really good way.
So my first season I just played and then the president of the Chargers had to go to Adelaide for work and I ended up taking on the leadership of the club. It’s a really new challenge that caught me off guard.
There’s a whole raft of different aspects of running the club that require attention. There's player management, there's sponsorship, there’s public relations, fundraising, all that sort of stuff. There’s a committee to support that effort but it can still be a lot of work sometimes and it’s a lot of responsibility.
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I’ve seen rugby change the way people look at themselves. I got my ex-flatmate in Sydney into rugby and it just completely changed his view of himself. Suddenly he could play a rough contact sport that he never thought he could and was always told that he wouldn’t be able to. His friends laughed when he said he was starting training, and then he was representing Australia in an international rugby tournament. So I think if you believe in something then it’s worth putting an effort into. We train twice a week and then have game day on Saturday. But that’s only six months of the year so you’ve got quite a long off-season.
A lot of gay sports organisations are really welcoming, great places. And sports, particularly team sports, can really change the way people look at themselves. Especially when a lot of gay guys growing up get told that team sports aren’t for them. Like that they’ll never be good enough or never be successful enough. I’d say, actually get out there and give it a go and if you’re not successful at first then persist with it because it can do wonders for your social life and do wonders for your confidence.
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It can be difficult navigating jealousy. I think my approach is, if I’m asking for a certain freedom, it’s really wrong to deny it to my partner. And that’s my philosophy on it. Even if I don’t enjoy knowing my partners playing up, I’m asking for the same freedom. I think open relationships mean that you bring something back to the relationship. You know, you’re learning something about other people.
Going into my previous relationship we said that we wanted to be in an open relationship. Neither of us were what you’d call promiscuous, but we both wanted the freedom. But there was also a desire after a little while to stop using condoms. I mean I grew up with the Grim Reaper commercials so the safe sex message was really heavily drummed into me plus the education through Fun & Esteem. I really understood what was required for safe sex. So I understood pretty well what that had to mean. It meant having a regular testing regime and taking into account the three-month waiting period. Armed with all that education it was really just a question of negotiating how it would work and what the rules were around what we did with other people. It was quite clear what we had to do. Any sex outside of the relationship had to be 100 percent safe. Any slip-ups we had to tell each other immediately. We had a rule where we would disclose whenever we had sex with anyone else. I think honesty is really quite important especially when you’re talking about condoms and safe sex. I mean I’m a huge proponent of safe sex so my attitude is just not to take risks like unprotected sex outside a very trusting relationship.
The message was too clear to me too early to not follow it. I don’t think that makes me a hero but I think any time you trust other people, you’re taking a risk. So knowing that your partner is potentially having sex with other people, you have to trust that they’re gonna be safe. There’s a certain point you have to get to in order to give that trust. It certainly has to be earned.
I’ve had a few friends who have told me that they’re positive and in some cases it’s because they weren’t handling the stuff around them very well, be it coming out, drugs or low self-esteem, I think people make better choices when they’re in kind of a balanced headspace, so I guess my hope is that sharing my story might put a perspective on how I’ve gotten into that balanced kind of space.
Where Sam grew up
Where Sam studied Political Science
Sam visited San Francisco while on tour with POOFTA
Played a rugby game here with his partner
Toured Minneapolis with his partner as part of the Convicts/Chargers team
Sam and his football team won the Bingham Plate here
Sam went to London with POOFTA for the Bingham Cup
Sam now lives here