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 had a fairly normal upbringing growing up. My parents were divorced, which is not abnormal these days. My mother travelled around a lot and I was always the new kid on the block. I got through high school getting good grades which is great but I didn’t end up going to university. I did a lot of short courses instead and travelled extensively through Europe.
I knew there was something different but I thought it was because I had moved around a lot and I just thought, ‘Oh, it takes a long time to get to know people.’ That was just my world, I didn't realise that there were options or other realms that could be explored.
When I was 19, I decided to put on my backpack and go to America for three months. It was quite frightening actually. Now that I look back, I realise how naive I was, I was just really green – like an unripe banana. Doing that gave me a taste for travel and allowed me to realise that, ‘Oh, the world is bigger than what I know.’ After that, when I was about 21 years old, I ended up going to Europe and doing a Contiki tour, which was great. It was a hell of a lot of fun and I even met a girl who ended up becoming my fiancée. We were together until I was 27, which was about six years. We came back to Australia and then ended up going back to London to live for a couple of years. With that whole experience I still felt very straight. There was still no gayness on the radar for me. I would look at guys and think, 'Oh you're really cool and you dress well.' I did not realise that there was a sexual attraction.
I remember that I had struggled as a child because my parents were divorced and we were moving all the time. I really wanted to be in a nurturing family unit and that's probably what I was more attracted to rather than the relationship. After a while, we stopped having sex, it had sort of dwindled away, so I had started to wonder, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I started to look at alternatives and think about my sexuality.
Two weeks before the wedding was meant to take place in New Zealand, she left me, for reasons outside of my sexuality.
When that fell apart it was quite devastating and all really horrible. It’s one thing to have never known what it’s like to have someone in your life but it’s another to see how life could have been and have it all fall apart. It’s a completely different kettle of fish.
After years and years of therapy, I realise now that there were abandonment issues from my childhood. I look back at it all and see it as a blessing in my life because it gave me the experience and knowledge to talk to or help people. It wasn’t until after we broke up, when I went through all those emotions that I’d started to explore my sexuality.
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When my mates would talk about their last hook up on a night out, I never really got excited or saw the fulfilment in that. I thought, ‘There’s got to be somewhere that I fit.’ I started to get into The Leader newspaper and have a look at options. I started to experiment with calling 1800 numbers where you’d have a live chat and then organise to hook up with somebody. That was how it all started, moving onto the next step of exploring my sexuality. As someone who had lived a very straight heterosexual life, I felt thrown into this realm of gayness but I didn’t know where to go.
I went through this period for about two years and then decided to go on another trip to the States to explore my sexuality. The moment that I landed, I was very determined to explore myself. That day, I went straight to a sauna and started being really ‘out there.’ I met this amazing guy who happened to be a priest - he was just phenomenal and he was an exceptionally good man. I look back now and think of how naive and green I was, but he had this nurturing and caring quality about him. That trip to the States lasted for about three months and I ended up spending most of my time with him.
Whilst I was away I decided that I felt most comfortable in the skin of a gay man and that I was going to come out when I got home. I bounced out of the closet and told my mum, but I didn’t tell my dad. I also told my friends and their reaction was, “Yeah, no shit Sherlock,” kind of thing. It was relatively easy just laying it on the table. Then I thought to myself, ‘Well, now what? Now I have to go and make friends, where do you go?’ I remember going to The Peel one night and I was so intimidated that I lasted there five minutes, it was really quite frightening. I was 28 at the time, which wasn’t too long ago but I have changed a lot since then. After I left I thought, ‘Well that didn’t work, now what? Where do I fit in? I’m not the only person in the world like me, where are they?’ It wasn’t so much that I felt sure of definitely being gay, I was also very confused. I wanted to be able to just have a conversation with someone about something in common. A lot of the time I would feel people would talk to me about stuff and I just didn’t get what they were talking about. When I started experiencing things with men, I felt, ‘Yeah, this is where I fit in.’ It wasn’t some big epiphany or anything but I realised that this is what I was supposed to be. I wasn’t out to prove anything to anyone, it was more just finding where I fitted in.
I ended up contacting a Christian group because I thought, if nothing else, what I'd learnt from my friend in the States was that at least I can trust God. If anything, if I found a Christian group, at least they've got faith behind them and it would be a safe environment because I was scared shitless at this point. I was looking for safety. So I ended up ringing this Christian organisation, not knowing anyone who was a part of it and attended one of their monthly meetings. That was my first introduction into gayness and even then I still felt like I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have a religious upbringing, but at least it was safe.
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I ended up going to house parties and started to explore more. I also went to The Exchange and the rest is history, basically. I then found Gaydar and introduced myself to a circle of friends. I just started socialising, trying to be me and trying to fit in. It was good to be around those like-minded people for a while. After only about 6 months on the gay scene, I met a guy online that I ended up being with for six years. He was an absolute saint, such a gentle soul and a beautiful character. The first time we met, he came to my apartment and it was meant to be just a Gaydar hook up but we ended up staying together. We built quite a good life and even built up some businesses together. We worked well together as a couple but it wasn’t always smooth sailing, we had our fair share of challenges.
The businesses we started together started to become very successful so I started looking outside of the relationship for something more. We had started playing with drugs together and getting into the party scene quite heavily. I ended up meeting somebody that I thought was everything anyone wanted to be and I ended up falling in love with him. I realise now that a lot of crystal meth was involved which had a big effect on how I felt about this new guy. I knew that it was involved but I didn’t know to what capacity and how powerful the drug was. My boyfriend and I ended up breaking up and he moved away. This new guy turned out to be nothing like what I thought he was for a variety of reasons. With all that happening, the excessive partying, the crystal meth and him moving away, I went into a complete meltdown. I was really pushing the boundaries. That coupled with the drug taking made me feel like I was invincible but at the same time it was very isolating.
We ended up losing out businesses and all my friends ended up moving away. My family didn’t know how to deal with me so they just didn’t. I was going through a very dark time, taking a lot of risks and I wasn’t taking responsibility for my actions. When I was with my boyfriend, we would go for sexual health checkups every three to six months, whereas after that I wasn’t thinking about it at all and had lots of unprotected sex. When you start to explore yourself sexually, whether you’re on drugs or not, you’re introduced to a particular environment because you’re in that exploratory mode. You may meet someone who has all these experiences in that particular realm and the natural thing to say to them is, “Yes, let’s do it.”
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I think all my risk taking was a symptom of a bigger problem of me not knowing who I was or what I was doing. I went into complete self-destruct mode. Even in really great, fruitful relationships I would sabotage myself, just completely fuck them up.
It was during this time that I ended up contracting HIV from going to a sauna and not being safe. I can’t isolate it as a single event though, I feel that contracting HIV was part and parcel of the whole experience of everything going sour.
I found out very quickly that I had contracted HIV, within 6 weeks. At the time that I was seroconverting, I didn’t actually know what was happening to me - I felt really ill and was vomiting for two days but I thought it was just food poisoning. It wasn’t until much later that I realised, looking back, what was happening to me. What led me to actually being tested was that I’d had a dream after that about a friend being tested positive. Without assuming anything I had this feeling that was actually more about myself. So the next day I booked in to have a test and a week later I got my results which came back positive. I remember not knowing what to do and I even asked my doctor, “How do I react? How do other people usually react to this kind of information?” All he said to me was, “Shayne, you’re HIV positive, but we need to do a follow-up test. You can Google these sites for more information.” I think I almost felt a sense of relief which was part and parcel of what I was going through.
In hindsight, the doctor could have probably delivered the information in a better way which is something I have actually been working on lately – working with doctors on how to deliver that information to their patients appropriately. I know these days they have pre and post-test counselling which I think is phenomenal because it actually gives the patient the opportunity to express how they are feeling. I think that area has made a huge step forward and I think that people should embrace that. Having that kind of news dumped on you like that is quite hard, not that it’s the clinician’s fault either but it’s a good system to have put in place.
The website that I was sent to was absolutely useless. I was looking at my screen and trying to get some sort of emotional support which was just a pointless exercise. You can hug your computer screen if you like but it’s not going to work. When I started telling people, I realised that they were even more upset than I was. That was a massive shock and I felt like I had to support them, which was really weird. I was in the same space again as to when I was coming out whereby I didn’t know what to do and I just needed to explore.
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The challenge was walking through these doors at the Victorian AIDS Council and understanding what was going on for me psychologically. I ended up seeing a therapist for about 18 months that was trying to help me through it. For me it wasn’t the physical side of HIV that affected me, it was the psychological. It was like a magnifying glass on my emotions, dealing with the fear and rejection.One of the biggest decisions was whether to go on medication or not. It’s just another psychological head fuck because there were so many different opinions about it back then. There wasn’t as much clarity as there is now.
My life was all about survival. The business had folded, I was just working to survive. I didn’t know which way was up. I was still trying to explore and realised there’s a whole new world of HIV and what it means sexually. There’s an HIV positive collective here where you mix with other positive people. I started having conversations with others about dealing with the fear and rejection of being HIV positive. That is something you don’t have to deal with if you’re having sex with other positive guys which became quite convenient because you don’t have to have that conversation. It’s all quite isolating in itself because you’re limiting yourself to certain partners.
The questions that I was asking myself were, ‘What do I do with this? What do I do with this thing that I've got and how do I now turn that around?’ I went through the process in my head realising that that this was not going away and wanted things to be better than what they were. One of the things I did through VAC was joining the People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) Speakers’ Bureau a couple of years ago and I thought this was one of the ways I could give back, or, in a really selfish way, deal with myself. I managed to have open, fluid conversations and talk about things people are afraid of or not willing to express. Everybody has a story of their own journey and I totally respect that. A lot of my healing has come through that space.
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I haven’t taken drugs for a long time now but I still do have an element of risk taking, it’s just a lot more controlled now. I take a lot more risks in business now and I channel all my energies into resourceful places, rather than un-resourceful, so I still get the same thrill. It’s no different, it just serves me rather than not. Crystal meth for me just heightened everything that was already there rather than creates anything. For some people I know that have taken it, it does nothing for them. I think by nature, if you have an exploratory kind of personality where you want to see the fire is actually hot by putting your finger in it rather than just being told that it’s hot, that’s the kind of ingredient you need in the mix. I think in general it is just an un-resourceful state because the gay world can open up so many risks, especially around sex and a lot of the times you would act upon impulses when you normally wouldn’t.
Up until earlier this year, I was on the board of PLWHA and I'm looking to be re-elected at the next AGM. I have very firm ideas about how I want to serve the HIV community on a much bigger scale. I have this mentality where I’m not running anymore and actually just acknowledging that this is who I am. One of the things I notice when I talk in high schools is that people are genuinely interested. You’ll get the occasional smart-arsed remarks as an initial reaction but once you peel off those layers then people actually want to know about all that stuff. It has all helped me get from that dark place to where I am now.
I have this naive notion that we can just go out there and tell the world that this is the way it is and everybody’s just cool about it. However, there is stigma and discrimination out there for a whole range of reasons. I think there needs to be a conversation about ignorance that surrounds stigma and discrimination, not necessarily just with regards to do with HIV or being gay, but everything. When this happens, as an HIV positive gay male and I overhear a conversation that is clearly discriminatory from a view of ignorance, what do you do? We could walk away from that conversation or we could join the conversation, find out why these people think like that and educate them properly. For me there are two things that could happen, you could be a victim and move away from it, or you can move towards it to help educate them properly. I’m not saying that is an easy road to take but it is important to be proactive with it. You can ask them, “Why do you think like that? Can I offer you something to think about?”
I have open conversations about different areas of my life around HIV and being gay. For the most part, people are open to listen and genuinely interested.
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When people read my story, I’d like them to gain a sense of inner strength to take action. The action may be walking through the doors of the VAC or to help somebody else with their journey, rather than not. With every action that I’ve taken over my journey, there’s been a huge amount of healing. I do still have that question wondering where I fit in. That feeling hasn’t gone away because I’m a high achiever in all areas of my life and so I’m constantly looking for like-minded people. I’ve got the gay thing ‘sorted out’ and I can go into any gay bar by myself and at least know a few people. I guess there is a level of comfort there and I do fit in to the gay sphere but being gay is not who I am. It’s only part of who I am. I think the transition has been put together like a jigsaw puzzle rather than suddenly feeling I fit in and this is my life.
I've now got a partner that's HIV positive as well and we have a great relationship but I express myself in other areas now, not through sex. It's not through un-resourceful behaviour; it's through resourceful behaviour.
I met my current partner online and it was meant to be just a casual hook up but it moved on from that. I made a decision to be in a relationship because this is what I wanted for myself and I actually create goals for where I’m going. I wanted to be in an extraordinary relationship and so we have created one. It’s mostly about yourself because the external world is a reflection of how you feel about yourself. Now we have a really great life.