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 just outside of Hamilton in New Zealand, I was raised as a country kid rearing sheep and cows and whatnot, which is quite far from my current urban existence in Collingwood. It was quite magical really, growing up in New Zealand the Maori culture have such a strong influence and culture so when you’re a kid you believe that the stream has a spirit, that these volcanoes erupting in front of you were spirits – when you’re a kid that stuff is mind-blowing. I left there when I was eight and I could say my formative years of who I am now happened here in Melbourne.
I grew up in the far fringes of Melbourne and went to school in the country that was sort of sheltered in a way. When I reached 14, I started wanting weekends away in the city with friends so that’s when I started branching out. I always longed for the city. It was where I was comfortable. If you threw me on a farm now it would be really awkward!
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I came to terms with being gay probably when I was about 12. I started sexually experimenting at quite a young age of about eight, mainly with girls but nothing below the neck. I might have been gender blind back then, and then I started to notice boobs and that’s where they lost me at age 10. So at puberty, that’s when I realised and there was no going back.
As a kid I was always effeminate and a lot of self-loathing came from my femininity. Since then I’ve come to thrive at it because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a flaming queen, the greatest figureheads and the strongest pioneers of our liberation were the ones with lisps and limp wrists, and we should never forget that.
But before I became comfortable in my own skin, it’s not like I was in denial or anything but the taunts of being called gay were hard. It’s almost like someone is telling a secret about you and you don’t want anyone to know.
Also at that age, before you learn anything about pride, there is always a negative connotation with homosexuality. If someone is calling you gay, it’s a negative thing. The earlier people learn there is absolutely nothing wrong with being GLBTIQ, the happier people will be. It’s great because I’ve seen it more and more that when kids are being called gay nowadays, they’re just like, “so what”.
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Being a gay kid was not great before I came out, but as soon as I came out, everything immediately became better. I’ve learnt from many episodes in my life that as soon as you take away the power of bullies, they will have no ammunition against you and you’ll be so much happier. The fewer secrets you have, the more power you have. So the second I came out was the second I took the power from my bullies and really owned myself.
I had a very close clique of friends who I didn’t go to school with and I told them first. I had a friend who was my pretend girlfriend for two years. She knew everything and we had a fake relationship that I presented to school before I eventually came out. She supported it all and she would hold my hand and I took her to my year 11 formal. We will always have a very close bond.
When it all finally came out, it started from a few rumours that swirled around when I was at school camp. The rumours went round until I couldn’t deny it anymore. It was pretty good because we were isolated from anyone outside, like my parents, from finding out. It was dealt with fantastically – a couple of really progressive teachers sat me down and were like, “Steve, it’s awesome that you’re gay and you’re going to have an awesome time!” It was really fantastic, my school was 100% supportive. It was a conservative Anglican private school but I was the only out gay kid at school, but despite this I never felt alone, I never felt alienated and I was treated really well. I went on to become the school’s first openly gay prefect, so all-up high school was a really positive experience.
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I first came out to my mum when I was 13 and it was this huge grey area we’ve never really spoken about. We always tiptoed around it because I wasn’t comfortable. I didn’t think she would be comfortable talking about it either and I had the impression they were very conservative. My mum was great about it when I told her, she told me how much she loved me, but she also told me, “don’t tell your dad, I don’t know how he will react.” That really affected me and I spent the next few years hiding it from my dad.
When I eventually came out to my dad at 17, his initial reaction was, something along the lines of, “I’m so proud of you Steve, I love you, you’re amazing, it doesn’t matter.” Apparently my mum had spent the formative years dropping hints because he wasn’t as switched on to it, and she maintains that his reaction if I came out earlier would have been far less positive. So all that time I spent being angry about my mum’s reaction by warning me against telling my dad, I didn’t realise it was really in my best interest. I can thank my mum for doing the groundwork in preparing other people for my coming out even if it meant looking like the bad guy; I can’t thank her enough for that.
Very recently however I have reframed my whole coming out process which has been quite incredible. My mum told me that a few days after I was born, she knew I was different. She said she had basically been preparing herself, almost from the moment I was born to be something different. She actually told me she was looking into potential transition options because she thought I was going to come out as transgender. It was a complete shock to me, “nope, I’m just gay.”
I like to use the term queer though as it is an umbrella term. Whether you’re gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual or intersex, I believe that we all fall under one category as the “other,” a superbly wonderful ‘other’ at that. I believe in queer exceptionalism, in that, we are very special, we are a unique proportion of the population that can exist free from the shackles of the heterosexual mould, if you let yourself.
In that way I call myself queer, but then at my core, I’m a gay man and I strongly identify with the gay liberation movement. I believe in a strong connection to our past and our shared history because we were born this way, we didn’t choose to be gay. We can’t unlearn being gay, so we’ve got this connection to tens of thousands of years of history that people try and brush off.
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When I went to school in California, I was out from the second I got there. The school I went to had a straight alliance and not that many schools have a straight alliance back in Melbourne, especially not private school. That was when I really started to gain the confidence to be who I wanted to be.
I had my first same sex experience in Disneyland, which didn’t actually involve any sexual contact. You know those Spanish Donut things called Churros? Well a gay guy who was in the year above me shared the end of a Churro after some pretty overt (albeit very mid-teen) flirting.
It was legitimately the most amazing thing that ever happened to me!
Not only did I just have this intimate moment with a guy for the first time, but it happened in a foreign country, in Disneyland (how romantic, right?) and with this beautiful guy but most importantly it happened in public, and from this first encounter I experienced no shame, no guilt, just pure, unbridled puppy love. Thanks to that one little churro.
I think my first sexual experience was with a guy that I picked up online who was quite a lot older than me. I was 15 at the time and we went and kissed in the park in front of the Exhibition building, which was exciting.
To be honest a lot of my first sexual experiences were done for the sake of doing them and so that I could say I’d done them but it was with people I wasn’t necessarily hugely attracted to. However I see no issue with that, I wanted to gain experience and try lots of new things, it has also taught me that appearance isn’t everything but that enjoyment is paramount.
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I did a naked photo-shoot at one stage.
The porn itself wasn’t that exciting, it is actually hugely unexciting which is the funniest thing. I went onto a rooftop, and I whipped my dick out solo. I got some photos and a brief one second video, the whole process was over after 20 minutes. From that, some guys decided to send the photos to my family members and put it all over Facebook and social media. I realised I’m fine with guys who are seeking porn to see it but for it to be pushed upon people I go to school with, or for it to be pushed upon people who don’t really want to see it is actually quite rude.
That definitely upset me but like I said before, I learnt at a young age that as you take fuel from your bullies they can no longer use it against you. So I went onto Myspace and Facebook immediately, posted my own photos and said, hey everyone here’s my dick, it’s on the internet. I’m sure most of you have photos of your dick and your tits on the internet, don’t judge anyone and let me be me. From that I had enormous amounts of positive reaction, and my bullies disappeared into irrelevance. It was a really defining moment for me and now I have no secrets, I’m completely open with what I do and it just makes me a much happier and healthier person. It’s great to be able to go out and not be afraid of getting my photo taken in a jock strap or being able to have fun with my friends. In fact, next time you’re at a sauna, check in on Facebook, it’s a great way to break down the stigma attached to exploring our sexuality.
It was a hugely liberating experience that made me comfortable with myself. It helped me realise I’m an aesthetically appealing guy, I may not be everyone’s cup of tea but this experience made me feel sexy. A lot of the time when I go out all I’m wearing is a jock strap or some other revealing outfit and people say, “oh, you must be so confident.” I’m not necessarily confident, I’ll always aim for improvement, but I still love who I am right at this moment, so why wait 10 years until I have a six-pack for me to dress how I want? Time is ticking, so time to get your clothes off and love yourself!
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I’m currently studying at the University of Melbourne and I’ll be doing my thesis on the marketing of HIV. I have a huge interest in sexual health and HIV, this virus has been incredibly formative in our identity as gay men, it has shaped us and I believe our response can make us stronger. This all may have come about when I was about 18 and some of my sexual partners were HIV positive. They were huge role models in who I am today and they taught me that you can have sex with HIV positive guys, which at the time was so scary because there was so much stigma around it. I owe these guys so much for teaching me about it all, the best tool in the fight against stigma is education, I’m so grateful to have been taught this at a young age.
At the AIDS 2014 conference last year, we marched from the exhibition centre to fed square and I was with all my friends – that was a huge defining moment for me. In the following period I realise that I have a voice and that people listen will listen to me and that I sometimes I make sense. I see injustices now and I see solutions and I want to do everything that I can to reach those to better our community.
I initially did some volunteer training here at VAC and I remember the facilitator telling me, just be careful because people at clubs or parties are going to be sceptical and say, “oh here come the condom police.” If condoms alone as a public health policy worked, we would not see the epidemic anymore. On a broad level this singular approach doesn’t work 100% which is where other options need to come into play. I believe in an adaptive approach to sexual health. You have to think about what fits the situation and the individual.
For some people, sexual health decisions and their risk reduction strategies shouldn’t rely on an in-the-moment point where you have to put a physical barrier on your penis. So often those decisions are muddied by alcohol, drugs, passion, the man or woman you’re with – so often those decisions aren’t made properly and maybe condoms aren’t the best and only option. If condoms do work for you and you’re using them appropriately, then by all means please keep doing it. We need to look at the overall picture and I really believe people need to use what works for them.
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I’ve had years of experience in my risk reduction strategies. Everyone has their own innate ability to read people and read situations. I learn my own ways of doing that, I use serosorting, not in a way where I’m HIV negative so I only choose HIV negative partners. I choose HIV positive partners who know their status and are on medication so that have an undetectable viral load – I’ve relied on this ever since I was 18. I have great trust in that because you’re far more likely to get HIV from someone who believes they’re HIV negative and not on medication than from someone who is HIV positive and is undetectable.
Over 90% of people living with HIV in Victoria have an undetectable viral load, this gives me great confidence in our cohesion as a community in tackling the epidemic.
For me however, it’s the situation – if I think there has been a huge risk, than PEP is an option. That is the way it has always worked for me. People just need to be more clued on. It’s also that people throw caution to the wind because they’ve always had this one-size-fits-all approach with condoms. People put themselves in a high risk situation in a sex club or simply in the bedroom and say, ‘well I’m already having bare-back sex with this person so I suppose I’ll just have to have bare-back sex with the next five people and whatever happens happens. I deserve whatever fate I get.’
No one deserves to get HIV, there are so many ways you can have the sex you enjoy most and avoid HIV. I have seen gay guys admit defeat too early. But it’s not only gay guys admitting defeat that’s an issue, they’re being told to admit defeat. I was told for years that based on my sexual practices I was going to come into the clinic for my next HIV test and it will come back positive. I was always called “lucky” but I was offended by that term, I don’t put it down to luck, I always took so many precautions to avoid HIV beyond the blatantly obvious condom. What the doctors and nurses couldn’t see or ask on the usual sexual health surveys were the conversations I was having with partners, the negotiations and steps to become intimate and trustful of someone that are what I really put down to avoiding HIV thus far, alongside practical precautions. Most importantly I also learn how to say “no,” and if I have any unease going into a situation once armed with all the right information on the situation and the partner, the word “no” was my saving grace on many occasions. I was determined to stop the supposed “inevitable” from happening but I was determined to keep having the sex I want. From pulling out, to strategic positioning, to serosorting, to undetectable viral load to condoms and now to PrEP, there are so many ways to avoid HIV, there is simply no excuse anymore for me to feel like it’s inevitable - we live in an incredible time.
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I am 100% for PrEP for people who believe that it will work for them. I’m a huge proponent of the idea that we will end HIV transmissions by 2020 if we all do our bit and that’s my end game. That is what I want to contribute to and I believe PrEP is definitely going to be an important part of that, it’s essentially a vaccine you take daily, isn’t this wonderful! Condoms just don’t work for 100% of the population and so for people that they don’t work for, we need to support them, without judgement. We need to give them access to all options that will help them with their sexual health.
People are going bring in a moral argument against PrEP and the medical argument around STIs. People think that because you’re on PrEP you’re not going to use a condom and expose each other to a whole bunch of STIs. Nobody said you’re not going to use a condom. PrEP is just another layer of protection and I believe the majority of people will use condoms too. Yes, there will be people who won’t use condoms and use PrEP for bare-backing but let me ask you this, did you use a condom the last time you sucked someone off? Because you could get gonorrhoea from that, you could catch herpes from someone even if you used a condom. Skin contact of the genital area can spread STIs too. So the moral panic around barebacking and rising STI rates is that, just a panic. How about we push a positive message and tell people that by regimenting your sexual health by going on PrEP (which requires regular testing and doctors visits), we will actually see STIs be caught early and their rates actually fall? Let’s tell people that this is possible. So don’t throw caution to the wind, own your sexual health and don’t be told you’re going to be a danger, do all you can to be the solution.
Things like serosorting, undetectable viral load, pulling out, those all require a lot of cognition, they all require a lot of thought, often in the moment. People are often afraid of thinking during sex. I definitely think a lot during sex, even if I’m in a back alley beat or something, I will negotiate safe sex or what I believe to be safe sex. It’s also just great for peace of mind, I always say never go into a situation where you might leave questioning what you’ve done. Be confident in the sex you’re having and who you’re having it with, and this means thinking and talking more. But hey, thinking and talking about sex is great!
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I’m hugely sex positive, so basically I want to see everyone having more sex, happier sex, healthier sex. I would not call myself a proponent of bareback sex because what works for my risk reduction strategy certainly won’t work for everyone, and everyone’s adversity to risk is different. However, I can fight the shame and stigma around bareback sex so that people can make better informed choices about their sex lives and risk reduction strategies. We need to view our sex lives outside of the morality argument and frame it as a question about health. We live in an age where we can have the sex we want and we can do so safely, we just need to educate ourselves better on realistic health outcomes and the art of negotiation. At the same time we need to be respectful of other peoples’ decisions on how they want to reduce their risk of transmitting HIV. I’ve seen cases of it here, where people on PrEP will exclude guys who choose to use condoms, but come on, if you really like the guy, accept his choice and have great sex with him. We don’t want to make PrEP the superior option, there’s nothing superior about either condoms or PrEP as long as we are all doing our bit to reduce the risk of transmission.
A lot of guys in Melbourne make assumptions and think I’m HIV positive because I’m so vocal in the field. I had friends telling me I needed to make a Facebook status update declaring my HIV status. But I say there’s nothing wrong with living with HIV, the most wonderful people I know are included in that group, and I have nothing to prove, so people can go ahead and assume my status, but never ever assume the status of your sexual partner. We need more negative guys talking about this stuff. Every pos guy started off negative so there is that intrinsic link between the two communities. And to be honest, many negative guys will end up positive before we end new transmissions, so let’s drop any pretence and all work together for a better community.
The divide between neg and pos is going to become smaller and smaller. Having PrEP accessible and available removes the onus of protection from the virus, the onus of responsibility to be spread more equally between the two.
As a bottom, I’m so happy I now have an option where I am protected from HIV because I know I took my blue pill this morning, I don’t have to worry about the top slipping the condom off or having the condom break, because I have done my bit, it’s no longer one partner’s responsibility, it’s both. We need to start thinking together as a whole. We are all part of this community and it will take all of our effort because we all want the same end goal of ending HIV. I’m comfortable with my sexual health and how I’ve got myself covered. I now want to help everyone else. I think that’s the way other people need to take it. We all need to help each other.