This article is also available in Simplified Chinese.
“Hi, your STI test results have returned NEGATIVE.” I have received my result from the sexual health clinic once again. As I sat in front of the screen and read these few simple words, I can finally put my mind to rest.
When I look back at the last decade, I feel like I have gone through the process of demystifying STIs. Maybe that’s not the right word; after all, it is not some mysterious supernatural force. But it does feel like it went from STIs being a mystery man in an urban legend, to an acquaintance who would pay me an unexpected visit from time to time. You used to be suspicious of him, fear him even, but eventually you got to know him better, and you learned to get rid of him without being impolite.
STIs are not something new to the LGBTQ community, especially to those who are sexually active. Ok, I must admit I’m one of them, and flashbacks are going through my head as I write. In my years of getting the occasional STIs, I have gone from being muddled and terrified, to not worrying so much when I encounter them again.
In fact, even now I still have gay friends in the Chinese community who know very little about STIs. To them, it is something on a dodgy clinic flyer on the street before they came to Australia. These misguiding ads exaggerate the severity of testing positive for an STI, telling people that once you get it, it can destroy your life, and only the phone number on the sheet can save you. Thanks to these cheap and over-the-top pitches, STIs is considered dirty to many people. We know of the stigma that HIV causes, and for some, it can be similar for other STIs.
The bad rap that STIs suffer makes a lot of Chinese gay guys believe that casual sex is dangerous and filthy, and this mentality still exists, even among young people in their 20s. While sex is a wonderful thing, it’s understandable that the idea of getting an STI can be a hurdle that stops some from exploring sexually.
When I first came here more than ten years ago, I wasn’t aware of the importance of getting checked regularly. Instead, I buried my head in the sand like an ostrich, running away from HIV and other STIs rather than facing the results and the fear that comes while waiting for the results.
But, as they say, the first step is always the hardest. After I found out that the doctors and nurses in sexual health clinics are very friendly and professional, getting tested is no longer an issue. They do not judge me because of my sexuality, my sex activities, or how sexually active I am. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — they give me a lot of advice regarding sexual health. I learn something every time I get tested, and all my concerns disappear eventually. I believe that fear comes from things we do not understand, so as we learn more about something, the fear goes away. Regular check-ups are the responsible thing to do.
My first STI happened a few years later. It was a hot summer, and I was a little more “active” during that time. Three days after a routine check-up, I received a call from the clinic, asking me to “come in and discuss the result”, but they didn’t say what it was. They only told me it was Chlamydia after I rushed to the clinic. Although I had prepared myself for it, I still was kind of upset when a positive result came back, when I didn’t have symptoms. The doctor told me not to worry, just take antibiotic for a week and I’ll be fine.
“That’s it?” I thought in my head, and truly believe now that those flyers on utility poles in China are nothing but fearmongering.
But for me, the most difficult part came after, when I had to tell all my sexual partners around that time to go get tested. Sure, an STI that is diagnosed quickly is nothing to worry about, but deep down I still wanted to deal with it quietly. Therefore, telling my “friends who I explore sex with” is another hurdle to overcome. What made me relieved was that none of them were mad at me, instead they all thanked me for telling them. I only found out later that due to the education efforts done by the clinics, most sexually active people in Australia have become something of a STI expert themselves. It’s not like they don’t care about it; they just learn to face it after destigmatising. They know how to protect themselves, as well as how to seek help when infected.
Since I’ve been talking about getting tested, might as well provide some useful information. If you live in New South Wales, you can use this ‘where to test’ tool to find the nearest testing spot, regardless of your visa status or citizenship. If you do not have access to the internet, you can call the NSW Sexual Health Hotline 1800 451 624 to find out that information I just mentioned.
Some of you might say “I’m on PrEP”. While PrEP protects you from HIV, it doesn’t protect you from other STIs at all. Others might think using condoms can protect you from STIs. It is true, condoms can reduce the transmission of STIs, however, some STIs can be spread even when condoms are being used. So the only way to completely protect yourself from STIs is getting tested regularly and getting treated when testing positive.
As you learn to protect yourself from STIs, don’t forget to remind those around you to get tested too! PrEP, condoms and testing all have their roles in our sexual health, we can’t just rely on a single one of them. Instead, a combination of these options can help us to build a healthier community.
Andy Xie lives and works as a corporate employee in Melbourne. He hosts a Mandarin podcast for the queer community as his B-side. He enjoys collecting stories through conversations and voicing his unique opinions within the Chinese queer community. Andy’s non-binary cat keeps a social distance from him most of the time, but still speaks with him when they are hungry or lonely.