Young gay/bi men tell their personal stories of sex, love, health and hope. From sexual identity to mental health, HIV and staying safe, each story describes life events which have shaped them while addressing topics that matter to our communities of modern young gay/bi men.

ACON’s Young Gay Men’s Project (YGMP) partnered with Thinkspace at the Powerhouse Museum to run a skills-building workshop with a group of young gay/bi men. The workshop taught them skills in multimedia production, empowering them to produce and share their 5 digital stories.

Peer education has always been a vital component of ACON’s work, with young gay/bi men learning about and discussing experiences of HIV and sexual health to prevent new transmission and fight stigma within our communities.

We interviewed each of our storytellers about their stories…

Raging Butterfly

YGMP: Your video deals with some confronting subject matter. Why did you create “Raging Butterfly”?

Storyteller: Raging Butterfly was created to raise awareness about mental illness and the importance of mental health within the LGBTI community. It is not ‘taboo’ or ‘scary’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ to talk about mental illness. In fact talking about mental health can assist people in having a broader understanding and better awareness around mental health topics.

Mental illness does not discriminate and can affect anyone of any cultural background and of any age. People are more than an illness and recovery is possible, with many living healthy, productive and meaningful lives. Each one of us is strong, brave and beautiful. Never give up hope!

This story aims to wash away some of the stigma around mental illness, to empower others to seek help and support, to recover, and in turn be more resilient and live a life they choose to have.
We have been given this wonderful gift of life. Acceptance allows one to welcome the joys as well as the sorrows. These two polarities allow for a balanced life.

YGMP: Bi-polar disorder has affected you throughout your twenties, with your first major episode at 21 and your second one at 28. How has your identity as a gay man impacted upon your mental health?

Storyteller: For a long period of time I felt like I didn’t have an identity. It was as if I didn’t fit in anywhere. Growing up as a young gay man and with bi-polar disorder was not easy. I was however determined to get through life’s challenges.

There have been times when I hated my life, I didn’t want to exist anymore and was filled with toxic shame and self-hatred. At other times I felt “hypomanic”, I felt on top of the world, doing lots of tasks at once, travelling, socialising and being extremely confident. Then it all came crashing down: Loss of a passionate job, loss of friendships, loss of independence—it knocked my sense of self around. Having to be admitted to hospital for being suicidal was traumatic. I thought, “How could all of this happen to me? I hadn’t done anything wrong – no drugs, no alcohol…was God punishing me for being gay?”

My experiences growing up have shaped my identity as a gay man and affected my mental health. For example, when I was in high school from year 7 to 12 I was teased and called “poofter”, “gay”, and “faggot” by my classmates and older boys before I really knew what it meant to be gay. At home I was never allowed to express anything related to being “gay”; I couldn’t go out with anyone who was gay or who even looked gay by my parents’ standards. This affected my social life, self-esteem and self-confidence. When my parents took me to the hospital when I was unwell, I told them that I was gay at that time. Bad timing. They thought it was part of my delusion and that I wasn’t gay at all.

As I’ve gotten older my identity has changed and grown, which has shaped my actions towards living a mentally and physically healthy life. This growth involves me continually getting to know myself better, and taking charge and responsibility for my own life. To grow I had to change my whole lifestyle, seek what was right for me, be authentic and look after myself.

YGMP: You’ve sought refuge in the gay scene and learnt quickly about some of its shortcomings and dangers. In your opinion, what are some of the best ways that young gay men can teach each other about health, well-being and HIV?

Storyteller: I think it is important for young gay men to take 100% responsibility for their life and health! This includes sexual health.

Through the ups and downs of my life, I found that I was engaging in things because my friends were doing it, or because of an “oh-it-will-be-just-once-for-fun-who-cares” attitude, it could never happen to me—I was ignoring what the consequences may be because I wasn’t really informed about topics like safe sex, STIs and getting tested.

I learnt about HIV properly when I completed a Start Making Sense workshop at ACON some years ago—which are great and I encourage people to attend! —it’s a safe group environment, and I was shy at first too! Apart from that course, I read some things online and talked to a few people but it wasn’t that comprehensive. A couple of years ago I came in contact with a sweet, lovely, perfect (in my eyes) guy, not from sexual attraction, just as a friendship thing. When he mentioned he was HIV positive, it didn’t faze me; there is always stigma, and this guy was confident, engaging and smart. He extended my learning.

LGBTI people are at least two or three times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the broader community. There is also a greater risk of suicide and self-harm.

Please reach out if you’re feeling unwell or suicidal, like I was. You may not feel comfortable telling your parents or friends for fear of embarrassment or shame. That is okay. Help is out there. I know you might be afraid or don’t want to make a fuss about it or feel it may pass…but it is better to talk it through with someone who can offer you a perspective you might not have yet. One suicide is too many! Call Qlife on 1800 184 527, or if your or someone’s life is in danger call 000.

YGMP: Until watching your video, I didn’t know that 1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. It strikes me that men are often reluctant to talk about their mental afflictions and emotions. So how can we help to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness?

Storyteller: A lot of the stigma we experience from HIV and mental illness is self-induced. It is important to educate yourself, talk about it and get your facts right.

At the start of the video I say “before we go any further you should know I am bipolar, as opposed to saying “I have bi-polar disorder”. This was done to show how people can take on stigma and see the illness as fully them and their lives, like I did at the start. Now I understand that illness is just a part of who a person is, along with a lot of other facets that makes them a unique person.

We can reduce mental health stigma generally by individually working through internalised stigma, shame, guilt and fear. We can talk more about the challenges that people face in our community. We can educate others that people with mental illnesses are not “bad”, “psycho”, “going to kill and be violent”, or that there is something wrong with them. The media could change the way it reports on mental illness too.

Community support, care and having a positive and proactive approach to people who may be suffering internally and not show it on the outside is important. Funding needs to occur for organisations assisting those with mental health challenges; articles in the press need to raise more awareness, and people need to understand that mental health problems are not the same as physical health problems like diabetes or cancer.

Some men are shy, neglect their emotional and physical well-being, think they know what is best and don’t seek medical help. Some men wash away their problems with alcohol, drugs, smoking, and other addictions to make them feel better. Some may be scared or ignorant. A lot of men end up suffering quietly and all their emotions, tensions, internalised homophobia, shame, traumas and negative filters bubble under the surface waiting to explode. If you see someone suffering or notice they need help, don’t be afraid ask them “Are U OK?” Start a conversation!

YGMP: Metamorphosis is a central theme in your digital story. You’ve accepted the traumas of your past and transformed into a new person through healing and insight, like a butterfly. What direction are you flying in now?

Storyteller: A butterfly goes through various stages – metamorphosis. I feel like after a long time I have my wings, they are not clipped and I am soaring. I am very balanced and stable and I work on my personal development and health every day as best I can. This includes working full time, swimming and gym, trying to eat healthy, socialising, and travelling.

Since my first episode I was able to complete several degrees at university. I have been able to socialise and make friends and connect with others and their authenticity. I have travelled the world to over 20 countries, and worked for almost all the time in different organisations within the public and private sector. There is HOPE! You can recover, it may be a bit of hard work but it will pay off. People with a mental illness may be unwell for a period of time, but certainly there may be long periods of normality and good life. Everyone is different, but I recommend keep trying…

In the future I want to be able to help others with their mental health challenges and I encourage everyone to talk about it – it is not bad, it really isn’t.

YGMP: I feel relieved by the message at the end of your video, which comes across as hopeful, reassuring and wise. How can we encourage young gay men to live authentically and be happy?

Storyteller: PHEW! I encourage young gay men to really embrace themselves and stand up and be proud of who they are. Empower yourself, seek positive role models in the community, work on taking away negative filters that may have been imprinted since early childhood, discuss with teachers, parents or others who you are comfortable with or a service like QLife . Have courage, determination, to talk to someone – maybe a counsellor, therapist, GP, or psychiatrist — don’t just use apps. Things can change – I was like “They won’t change…feels like a lifetime…” –They will, baby steps.

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