Metro Weekly

Positive Messenger: Danny Pintauro discusses PrEP, meth and refocusing on HIV

Danny Pintauro hopes his new role as an HIV activist will put the virus back into the public light, particularly among the LGBT community

Danny Pintauro - Photo: Thomas Evans Photography

Danny Pintauro – Photo: Thomas Evans Photography

“I wanted to tell you this a long time ago, but I wasn’t ready. I’m ready now…. I’m HIV-positive.”

With those words, Danny Pintauro revealed his HIV status not only to Oprah Winfrey on her TV series Oprah: Where Are They Now?, but to the public at large. Afterwards, Pintauro — an actor who, in his youth, played Jonathan Bower on the ABC sitcom Who’s The Boss? — told People magazine that he regretted not being a “beacon of light” who could act as a role model for younger LGBT people.

Following his revelation, Pintauro was hailed for speaking openly about his HIV status, his methamphetamine addiction — which he says contributed to his contracting the virus — and his plans to raise public awareness during a time when media attention once lavished on HIV has waned. In what has been dubbed the “Beacon of Light” tour, Pintauro has embarked on a mission to alert the wider public — and the LGBT community in particular — about the threat that HIV still poses and the importance of getting tested, knowing one’s HIV status, and seeking the appropriate treatment.

As a result of his efforts in re-energizing HIV activism, Pintauro will be honored by Whitman-Walker Health with their Courage Award at the 29th annual Walk to End HIV this Saturday, Oct. 24. Pintauro — who was previously interviewed by Metro Weekly in 1999 about his experience coming out as gay — hopes to use the event to gain experience for what he expects will be a year of traveling across the country.

“The ‘Beacon of Light’ tour is just a moniker somebody gave to the fact that I’m taking a year off to make some changes. I don’t even know what that means yet,” Pintauro says. “Depending on how big the response was to this, I was literally ready, and am still ready, to go from Pride to Pride across the country and speak to as many people as I can.”

He acknowledges that the biggest obstacles to communicating his message are complacency, apathy and sometimes even outright ignorance about HIV, particularly among younger members of the LGBT community, where transmission rates are increasing.

“The problem is that the younger generations don’t have the frame of reference,” Pintauro says. “For my generation, there’s still that sense of fear that people were dying, and that makes HIV scary. So you’re more likely to take care of yourself, because you don’t want to die just like those people did.

“But for the younger generation, they don’t have that fear, they don’t have that frame of reference,” he continues. “For them, it’s ‘I’ll just take one pill a day and I’ll be fine.’ What they don’t understand is: what if you don’t have insurance? Can you afford $3,000 a month for a bottle of pills? Or what if in 10 years, you don’t have insurance, suddenly you’re not going to be able to take the medication that you have been taking, you’re going to become resistant to it, and, potentially, you could die just like everyone did in the 1980s. But explaining that to someone in their early 20s who’s loving life and being free is hard. So we have to figure out a way of getting through to that generation.”

Pintauro wants to deliver a wake-up call to the LGBT community. As well as reducing the stigma around the disease, he is attempting to motivate them to become re-engaged in the fight against it — though that’s not without its hardships.

“There was a person on Facebook who said, ‘Oh, look, another gay with HIV…’ And I was furious that they would have the audacity to type this out. And then I said, ‘You know what? They’re kind of right.’ And that makes me mad, that, as a community, we’re letting this stereotype perpetuate.”

Pintauro is calling for the gay community to return to its historical roots in organizing and grassroots activism. He points to rallying, which we’re “incredibly good at,” as key to helping the HIV epidemic in the ’80s.

“Everyone got involved,” he says. “Whether it was holding signs at a rally, cold-calling politicians, or visiting people who were sick and bringing them food. We just did this with marriage equality and Prop 8…. Can you think of a time in the last 10 years that we rallied within our community to eradicate HIV or highlight how big a problem meth is? I don’t think you can. And that’s what I mean by getting our stuff together.”

METRO WEEKLY: You’re embarking on this new journey as an HIV/AIDS awareness activist. Tell us about your initial diagnosis as being HIV-positive.

DANNY PINTAURO: Believe it or not, I was actually scheduled for my 6-month blood work, which I had done about two weeks before. And I received a phone call from my doctor. Back then, it was actually still a two-week process to get that blood work back. So my doctor scheduled an appointment for me to come in.

I feel like I would have known if he called and said, “You need to come in,” that something was wrong. But I think I remember him telling me we needed to talk about my cholesterol, and maybe something else, to get me to come into the office, so that I wasn’t freaking out.

I walked to my doctor’s appointment on my lunch break and we had that conversation, which I don’t actually remember at all, and then the next memory I have is walking back to work. I have this vivid memory of looking up at the tall buildings in New York City, and realizing that I would have to deal with it after work.

When I left work, I was heading home, and I got out of the subway and was walking up my street, and — it was obviously a fateful event — my best friend, in New York City, at that time, was walking past me. And he’s never in that area, so it was really weird. We stood on the street and talked about it a little bit. And then decided that we’d all get together later that day for a meal, to talk about it some more.

MW: What was the aftermath of the diagnosis like?

PINTAURO: The first three or four months were awkward. I couldn’t really wallow in the corner and not do anything. I had to go to work every day, so I did that. And then I’d think about it. And here and there, I’d throw in a weekend doing more meth, and that obviously didn’t help, but I thought it did. At the six month marker, I decided to take the summer off. I went to Provincetown with some friends and decided to stay. While we were there for the week, I got a job and found a place to stay for the next three months, just in Provincetown, working at the front desk of a hotel there. Just trying to process and not be in New York City.

When you’re in New York City, and you know, “Well, I went there with this person, and I’ve done this,” it’s just hard and weighs heavily on your mind. And so, to go somewhere that just doesn’t have those memories, where I could think it through and breathe, was great. After that, I was pretty good. I came back to New York and was looking for jobs as an actor. And I was blessed the next year to go to Kansas City and get a job in a show called Sheer Madness. I really got to work on my craft, and I got to focus on doing a great job and being this character, and it sort of brought me to another place. And by then, I was really doing pretty well with the news.

MW: Did you know how you contracted the virus?

PINTAURO: There’s obviously been lots of talk about that. I know exactly who the person is. And I’m pretty confident about when it happened, what day, what we were doing that day. Anyone who has seroconverted has spent endless hours looking at that time, saying, “What did I do wrong?” or “What could I have done differently?” or “If I hadn’t done this, would I be okay?”

Look, I wholeheartedly admit that it could be a whole slew of other ways to have contracted it. As soon as you throw meth into the picture, the rules change. So I don’t know for sure, I’ve spent the last bunch of years sort of feeling like that it was something that I probably did with him orally, but it could have been anything. I think everyone who goes through it, goes through that feeling. And I’ve had people contact me saying that they have similar stories. And that’s nice to hear. I don’t know — everyone’s truth is their truth, and their version of their own story is their own version. I’ve spent the last 12 years having that version of the story.

I definitely know who the person was, and I’m confident that this person was not on any medications, so the one thing I imagine is that his viral load was very high, he did a lot of drugs, he wasn’t taking really great care of himself, and that combination is not good, when you combine meth and sex and all of that.

MW: I want you to address that for a minute. You have gotten a lot of backlash from commenters on gay and HIV-positive blogs for saying that you contracted it orally, because it is a rarer form of transmission than anal sex. Some people have even accused you of fudging the details or not being honest about your activities. How do you respond to that criticism?

PINTAURO: All along, I have never said, in any conversation, that I am 100 percent sure that’s how I contracted it. But it’s not impossible, and when you throw meth into the picture, everything changes. But the idea for me that’s really frustrating is: why does it matter? We should be focusing on the bigger issues, on the larger topic.

They say that I fudge the truth or that I’m lying. Why would I lie? If anything, it doesn’t fit into the message I’m trying to get across. So, if anything, should I have changed the story to say confidently that I was barebacking? I didn’t. The frustrating part is that I feel like the biggest blowback that I’m getting is from these people who I feel like should be on my side and helping me through this process.

I’m very new to this. I’ve been doing this for 18 days. Am I going to say all the right things at all the right times? Absolutely not. Some of the people I’ve been working with for the last few weeks have been doing this for years, and they’re still getting blowback from people based on the things they say. It’s impossible to please everyone, especially in this age of technology, where anyone access a blog site, or the HuffPost, or wherever.

But I feel like the biggest message I’m trying to get across is that stigma is the biggest problem when it comes to HIV still being around. People don’t want to get tested, because they’re afraid to find out. They don’t want to know, because they don’t want the stigma of being “that guy.” What I’m finding is that the stigma within our community is as great, if not greater, than the stigma coming from society as a whole.

The thing about it is I’ve been listening to those people, and I’ve got some really great people I’m working with to help me hone the words and what I’m speaking about. I’ve done a ton of research, so I feel I’ve got the knowledge behind me, and just need to work on the words. And that comes from being a brand new activist, and someone who’s just figuring this out. The nice part about it, though, is a lot of people have written back to those people and said, “Hey, let’s just be supportive. He’s new at this. Let’s give him some slack.” And that’s been good, because it’s gotten the conversation started in another way, which is “You guys are the ones who are activists, why don’t you get on his side, as opposed to blast him all over the Internet for his word choice.”

MW: Let’s talk about one of the contributing factors to your seroconversion, which is drug use. How did you get started using meth, and how did it get linked to sex?

PINTAURO: I only did meth when I was looking to have sex. For me, it never became the kind of drug that I needed to do to get through a work day, or because I felt like it. It was always, “Here’s a great weekend. I’ve got three days off. I’d love to find someone to hang out with.” And I’d want to find someone who was also doing meth to hang out with, because that only made sex so much better.

And that’s the problem: meth heightens your level of sexuality, and your limits are gone. The things that may scare you about sex are suddenly not scary. Meth makes you feel invincible. It makes you feel really sexy and really desirable. I feel like because the easiest way to find meth is through Grindr or any of the websites where you can hook up with people who are doing meth, the link to sex becomes more intrinsic as well.

When I did ecstasy, I felt great, I felt sexual, but I didn’t feel more confident. I didn’t feel like I had a bigger everything, or a better this. I just felt good. But with meth, I felt bigger, better, more confident, more capable and more desirable. Who wouldn’t want to experience that? And some of the people I know or have encountered definitely latched onto that confidence. Maybe they’re just not great in social situations, or don’t feel like they’re that desirable, and the first time they do meth and feel like they’re awesome and invincible. That’s going to be alluring.

I’m actually talking to someone on the internet right now, someone who came to me through my Facebook page, and they’re starting to have this moment — it happens to a lot of people, and it definitely happened to me — where you start to lose sight of what sex without meth feels and looks like. And that’s a little scary, because you think, “I don’t know if I can even have sex without meth.” You start to lose that image of what sex was like before or without meth.

That’s why counselors have to look at your sexual health just as closely as the drug, because you need to get to a place where you can separate the two again, where you can feel sexual and feel healthy about your sex life, and feel good about your experience, outside of using the drug.

MW: How did you first get introduced to meth?

PINTAURO: I had just gotten out of a tumultuous relationship, and I wanted to start exploring my bondage side. I was looking into being submissive, and what all that meant. And it just so happens that the person I found to do that with had meth. I didn’t know it when I went over there, but he was gorgeous, and he was exactly what I was looking for. So I thought, “I’ll try it,” and then had this mind-blowing experience and wanted to do it again the next time. Suddenly, I felt like I was willing to try anything when it came to BDSM, and that was a great feeling.

I’ve been saying that, and some people are frustrated that I’m connecting meth to the bondage community, and that’s not my intention. From my experience, they’re intertwined. But I don’t know whether that’s just my experience or whether that’s a bigger problem.

The times after that, for the next three years, were a combination of knowing how good the sex was on meth, and maybe a little bit about what was happening in my life — I didn’t have a job, or was not seeing any men, or felt fat, or was feeling some depression. It depends on what was happening at the time during those years. But my initial introduction to meth was through bondage/sex. And I feel that’s true for a lot of people. Most of the people I’m connecting with now are saying that they got into meth because of sex.

MW: Did you ever go through withdrawal?

PINTAURO: Yes, of course. For me, it can range anywhere from one to seven days of comedown. Think of your worst alcohol hangover, and throw in a chemical content — it’s your worst chemical hangover. I don’t know how else to describe it. It often meant five days of just awfulness. The first two days, I’d sleep, barely eat, lose weight. And in that time, my brain chemistry is off, so I’m feeling incredibly depressed and incredibly guilty about having done it again, and angry with myself. So it was just these five days of awfulness. It got so bad, I would consider wanting to do the drug, and all I could think about was that it was five days of awfulness that I was going to have to go through after doing it. And that became enough to make me want to stop doing it.

That’s not true for everyone. Look at it this way: if you don’t have as bad of a comedown from doing meth, it doesn’t resonate with you. But withdrawal comes with any drug. It never got to a place for me where I couldn’t get through a day without doing meth. It did maintain itself as more recreational than that. But a drug is a drug. And it should never have gotten to that point in the first place.

MW: When we talk about engaging in risky behaviors, whether that’s drug use or unprotected sex, whatever shape it takes, is there a mental health aspect that is being overlooked, and how do we treat that?

PINTAURO: I definitely think there is a mental health aspect to it. I’m not informed or educated enough to delve into where it comes from and what it means, but I’m definitely seeing that in my personal experiences.

I had a guy say to me, “I’m just coming out of this awful relationship, and I haven’t done it for years and years, but something compelled me to want to do it again.” I think that’s true with any substance abuse, alcoholism, you name it. I think some of that mental aspect is stronger in the gay community because of our internal struggles with being gay, in terms of our family and friends. And maybe even our internal struggles within the community, whether that’s “I don’t have enough friends,” or “I don’t have a lot of friends,” or “I go to a bar, and I don’t ever get hit on.” There’s a whole range of feelings that could lead someone to go down that road.

But with mental health, especially in our community, we’re dealing with the issue of being gay and coming to a place where we feel like being gay is not an issue at all. I don’t think we’ve gotten to that place as a community yet. A lot of people still have issues when it comes to being gay. I also know that some people get into drugs or alcohol because of their HIV status. If we can’t get them to a place where they don’t feel that it’s a death sentence, or their life is over, or they can’t expect to have anything positive come from their life with HIV, we’re going to continue to see that problem.

MW: You’re being given the Courage Award from Whitman-Walker Health. What does that feel like, to be honored, given your fairly recent entrance into the world of activism?

PINTAURO: You know, I’m not a confident person in general, and I’m still finding my own levels of confidence. I don’t necessarily feel like a hero. I don’t want to feel like a hero. But I did a brave thing by coming out as HIV-positive to the world. That alone takes courage, and so I can definitely see that.

I couldn’t be more honored and I couldn’t be more happy that people are recognizing my courage. But get back to me in a few more months, once I’m confident about being an activist, once I really start to see the help I’ve been giving. I already am seeing that. I’ve been talking to one guy on Facebook — I wrote back to him and he told me, “I just turned someone down for getting together to smoke crystal.” And I thought, “Oh my gosh. What can we do to help you not want to do that?” And we talked about getting into a meeting, and talked about speaking with friends. I’m not qualified to talk him out of it, but I can certainly give him some ideas of who to go to or what to do. So I can see some of the positive changes I’m making, but right now, I’m honored. I’m just honored. I don’t want to be a hero, I just want to be an example of what not to do. And it does take courage to admit that.

MW: It’s interesting to hear you, as a former television star, say that you’re not confident. Where do you think that sense of insecurity comes from?

PINTAURO: It’s really clear for me, at least. It goes back to the years after coming off of Who’s the Boss? As an actor, it’s been incredibly difficult for me to ever have gotten a job again. And believe me, I’ve tried over the last 20 years. I was out of the spotlight for six years while I finished high school and went to college, and then I came back into the real world and tried to get my career going again. And by that point it was “child celebrity” and “child celebrity who’s gay” and the combination at that time was the end of your career. I feel like over the years, no matter how far away from my child celebrity I get, it doesn’t seem to be able to go away from this scenario.

Or, maybe, I just feel like the fates have told me that I’m not supposed to be an actor. And that’s fine. Maybe this is what the fates were trying to get me to do. But inherently that’s going to create self-doubt, especially when you associate the doubt with being a celebrity and being in the limelight. And now that I’m in it again, that doubt is sort of creeping up. I’m working on it, and I’m sort of coming through it, because this is completely different. This, to me, isn’t about a popularity contest.

Being a child celebrity is like a popularity contest. It’s like, are you old enough to have a fan base? And are you able to get a job because of that fan base? Kind of like Alyssa Milano. She was old enough to have this huge fan base, so when Charmed came around, she was immediately considered for the role, because they knew she’d be able to bring people to the show. But I was too young, and I wasn’t even really paying attention. I wasn’t the one getting covers of teen magazines. I wasn’t even trying. So the doubt comes from that.

MW: When you recently appeared on The View to talk about your status, the interview was criticized by many in the LGBT community who felt that Candace Cameron Buré and Raven Symoné attacked you and your husband in a way that was viewed as poz-shaming or sex-shaming. Did you feel disrespected?

PINTAURO: It’s complicated, because I knew all of those questions in advance. I found out some of them were coming right before the show. I can’t expect much more from The View in the sense that it’s the kind of show where controversy gets people watching. And you’ve got a diverse group of people who have very, very differing opinions. You have to be prepared for all of those opinions when you go on a show like The View. I knew that when I said yes, even before I knew who was going to be doing the interview with me.

What was frustrating to me was the part with my husband. He had prepared to answer a different question, which was: “On your very first date, Daniel told you, before your first kiss, that he was HIV-positive, and you didn’t bat an eye, and were 100 percent on board because you trusted him and his character. Tell us more.” They flipped it on him at the last second and expected him to talk about our sex life. She basically said, “Do you guys bareback?” in so many words. I just was astounded that it had happened. It threw me off enough that I wasn’t ready for the answer. He’s new to being in the spotlight. He’s well-spoken, and really gave a great answer. I cut him off a little bit, because I didn’t know how he was going to respond, and I wanted to protect him a little bit. That was the part that was really upsetting, if anything. For them, in the middle of a live show, to throw that at him, was really unprofessional and unfortunate.

But I don’t regret it at all, and I almost thank them for it, because it got people talking. And it got people angry. And it got people looking at the media and how they handle HIV. And looking at how the media still doesn’t know how to handle HIV and the conversation around it. They’re still stuck at, “Do you take full responsibility for your actions?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m on your show talking about it. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t taking responsibility for it.”

MW: Without probing into your sex life, I do want to ask you about PrEP versus condom use. Do you think PrEP is a good thing for serodiscordant couples?

PINTAURO: I’m a huge proponent of PrEP. I have been since I first heard about it. But I’m a huge proponent of the whole conversation when it comes to PrEP. It is, technically an inoculation for HIV, in a sense. It could literally eradicate HIV for the gay community if everyone who was negative started taking it. The thing that needs to be said when it comes to PrEP is that you still need to take precautions in some way, because HIV is not the only STI going around out there, and not every STI is treatable. So you still need to be taking care of yourself. It doesn’t give you carte blanche to have bareback sex. That’s not fair to the person you’re having sex with, and it’s not fair to yourself. So as long as that part of the conversation is spoken about, I’m a huge fan of PrEP. It’s going to make a huge difference in terms of the contraction of the virus, provided that you take it consistently and you take precautions to prevent yourself from getting other STIs.

MW: Let’s talk about undetectability. What does an “undetectable” status mean and what are its implications?

PINTAURO: Undetectable means that the level of the HIV virus in your blood is so low that the technology we have to detect HIV in the blood cannot detect that number. The number of copies of HIV is so low that the machines that test the blood come back with the undetectable answer. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t any HIV in the blood, it just means that the number of copies are so low that the machines can’t tell how many copies are there. For me, undetectable means that as someone who is HIV positive, you are taking care of yourself. It means that you know that you’re HIV-positive and you’re doing something about it, not only for yourself but the people you love.

One of the things that I had really wanted to talk about on The View, in some way, shape or form, was being undetectable and what that means. And I ended up using their question as the opportunity to discuss that somewhat. I really didn’t get into enough detail, and I don’t think anyone really understands what it means. For me, that’s one of the big topics: being undetectable, and how it affects the relationship. And how there aren’t any examples of anybody who is undetectable passing the virus along. That should be a part of the conversation.

Stigma is obviously a big thing in our community. If we can get people who are HIV-positive, who are taking care of themselves, who are taking their meds — if we can get people to a place where being undetectable isn’t a scary thing, then people might be more willing to come out and talk about being HIV-positive. And that, inherently, is going to help the stigma go away. I feel like HIV is the new closet. The more people who come out and talk about being HIV-positive, and talk about taking care of themselves and their partners, that will take care of a lot of the issues associated with that.

MW: You said that HIV is the new closet, and you’ve talked about the stigma associated with the virus. Before you met your husband, was disclosing your status difficult and did you ever feel rejected because of it?

PINTAURO: Of course. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s HIV-positive who hasn’t had someone in the past decide not to hang out with them. It just comes with the territory. A lot of people are fearful of HIV, and they make the choice not to spend time with someone who’s HIV-positive. And that’s fine. I can’t force them to accept me.

It compares in so many ways to being gay. Twenty years ago, coming out as gay was very scary, because you were afraid for your life, you were afraid everyone in your life would abandon you, you were afraid of losing all your friends. We all know what that list is compiled of, because we’ve all thought, “Oh, God, if I tell people I’m gay, all this is going to happen.” We’re in a place where that doesn’t happen as much anymore.

The more people who come out as gay, the more likely that a person is going to realize that their neighbor is gay, or the guy at the cubicle next to them is gay, or the person they laugh with at the supermarket every Saturday is gay. If you put it in the context of someone’s life, it becomes much less scary and much less taboo. If we can do the same thing with people who are HIV-positive, the stigma will become less, because you know someone and you care about that person.

Danny Pintauro will receive Whitman-Walker’s Courage Award at The Walk to End HIV on Saturday, Oct. 24. The event will start and end at Freedom Plaza, located at Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street NW. Activities begin at 7 a.m., with a 5-kilometer timed run starting at 9:15 a.m. and the walk at 9:20 a.m. For more information, or to register, visit walktoendhiv.org.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com