TOM’S STORY: “SERO-DISCO”
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…
YGMP: Tom, the title of your story is a play on words, referring to your party-filled lifestyle and serodiscordant relationships, where one partner is HIV positive and the other is negative. Is having a boyfriend just one big disco?
Tom: Like any good party, relationships can have incredible highs… though these don’t always last in the bright light of day. Having a boyfriend is definitely not always one big party, there can be a lot of challenges that come up along the way. In my relationship, HIV was one of those challenges. But why let it get in the way of a good relationship?
By taking precautions we can look after our health while following our hearts.
YGMP: Going on Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) after discovering that your boyfriend was positive may have prevented you from contracting HIV. How might life be different if you became HIV positive too?
Tom: At the time I expected the result of my HIV test to come back positive as well. Though I thought that if I did become HIV positive, at least my boyfriend and I would go through it together. HIV treatment means that people who are diagnosed today can lead pretty normal lives, so I knew that I’d be ok if it happened. Of course, it’s better to avoid contracting HIV – but there is a lot of support out there for people who become positive.
Fortunately I was given a strong course of PEP. I’m not sure if it was the PEP or just luck that prevented me from contracting HIV as well. After all, my boyfriend and I were having a lot of sex at the time and we weren’t using condoms.
I’m sure a positive diagnosis would have changed my life. Positive guys have to live with the stigma of that diagnosis every day and may be rejected as sex partners or even boyfriends by negative guys because of it. Though there are also really great peer-led programs for people living with HIV like Genesis at ACON or The Institute of Many (TIM). This means guys who have been diagnosed get to meet amazing new people in the same situation. So it wouldn’t all be bad!
YGMP: Your story communicates some important life lessons, encouraging boyfriends to take precautions to ensure that they don’t contract HIV. How have your past experiences motivated you to educate your friends, lovers and community about staying safe?
Tom: This experience has prompted me to want to share my story, so that others can hopefully learn something from it. Knowing the ‘right’ thing to do is often different to actually doing it in practice. We all make exceptions for ourselves and people we know and all ‘slip up’ from time to time. Balancing risk, pleasure and intimacy can be a difficult thing – I share my story to let people know that, even with love and the best intentions, things can go wrong.
I mean, after he had been diagnosed my boyfriend and I decided we’d use condoms with each other to prevent me from contracting HIV. Though even with that knowledge we didn’t always use them – sometimes the urge to be intimate with someone you love is stronger than your concern about your health.
While my relationship didn’t last, the experience helped to motivate me to communicate messages around sexual health that carries on with me.
I now work for ACON in a peer education role promoting sexual health. Fortunately the HIV prevention landscape is changing. While condoms remain the most effective means of preventing HIV transmission there are increasingly more options for us to use so we can have fun while protecting ourselves and our partners from HIV.
YGMP: Antiretrovirals are effective if taken consistently, causing fewer side effects than they did in the past; and it’s a likely reality that gay men will have access to Pre Exposure Prophylaxis (PreP) soon, in many countries throughout the world. How do you anticipate our sexual behaviour changing in the near future, once these new prevention technologies are made more widely available?
Tom: Treatments are better than they’ve ever been and positive guys who take them and maintain an undetectable viral load (UDVL) have little chance of passing on the virus. I’ve also started taking Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) as part of a demonstration project being run in NSW. It’s a pill a day that helps to prevent HIV – used in combination with condoms when appropriate. It’s great to have these options becoming more widely available and I wish they were around when I was in my previous relationship. They would have made me feel much less anxious about being in a serodiscordant relationship and the risks of HIV.
I hope to see a future in which there is less stigma of people living with HIV and more freedom to have the sort of sex we want, safely. The spectre of HIV causes so much anxiety in our sexual relationships – it would be great to see a day when that anxiety is gone and we’re free to pursue the sort of sex we want without worrying.
YGMP: Tom, you now work for ACON’s Young Gay Men’s Project, coordinating the peer education programs for 18-26 year old gay and other same-sex attracted men. What workshops does ACON offer young guys who want to learn more about gay relationships and sexual health?
Tom: ACON offers a range of different workshops. Start Making Sense is the best one to begin with – it covers topics around identity, coming out, the scene, relationships and how to keep safe. Adult Themes (as the name suggests) is more adult-oriented, focusing on sexual techniques and where to find the sort of sex we want to have and do so safely. Getting it Online is all about Grindr and other hook-up apps and dating websites. No matter what you’re interested in about the gay world there’s a workshop for you and it’s a great way to meet some other young guys and make new friends. These workshops run one evening a week for six weeks (four weeks for Getting it Online) and are for guys aged 18-26.
YGMP: Of course, a lot of people won’t be able to access the workshops held at the ACON building in Surry Hills. What are the advantages of distributing digital stories across social media?
Tom: This project is designed to reach a wider audience of young gay men than those that are able to attend our workshops. Of course, the videos can’t explore these topics in as much depth as the workshop format allows – however, it is hoped that some of the experiences shared through our workshops can be made into digital stories. This could be great for people who can’t make it to our workshops here in Sydney, or could give people a taste of some of the discussions that happen in the workshops if they’ve been thinking of coming along.
If people are reading this and think they might have a similar story they’d like to share they can sign up for our next digital storytelling workshop.
Thomas Munro is 28 years old. He is currently working on peer education initiatives at ACON.
A new Tell Your Story workshop will be running in April 2015. If interested in joining, contact ACON’s Young Gay Men’s Project on email@example.com or 02 9206 2076.
This workshop is open to young gay men, and LGBTI people who want to learn new skills to tell their story.