When Danny Pintauro sat down with Oprah Winfrey in September and disclosed his HIV status to the world, he sparked a conversation about stigma, HIV prevention and drug use to a massive TV audience. But when Pintauro went on ABC's The View to chat with fellow child stars, Candace Cameron Bure and Raven-Symone, he dowsed that spark with gasoline and lit up the social media stratosphere in a blaze of controversy.
As his media tour continued, the insensitive questions he had been asked by Symone and Bure combined with his account of how he believed he contracted the virus spawned some fiery opinions that have left many divided.
I got the chance to catch up with this brand new HIV activist and chat with him a little about his first month as an openly HIV-positive celebrity and give him a chance to respond to the criticism he has faced.
My first question is a must for every interview. I want to know what your current theme song would be if you had to choose one?
Pintauro: A delicious song called 'I Am Not A Robot' by Marina and the Diamonds.
The lyric "Better to be hated than loved for what you're not. Guess what? I'm not a robot.' says it all!
So Daniel, this must have been an a whirlwind two weeks since you publicly revealed your HIV-positive status. Tell me, what has been the biggest surprise that you have encountered so far?
Pintauro: You cannot go into telling the world you're HIV+ and not expect surprises; you also can't go into it assuming everything will go as planned. But I think what has surprised me the most is that I'm talking about having a life-threatening illness and a drug problem and people, mostly from my own community, are criticizing me for my word choices, my apparent lack of knowledge, and doubting my truths. When did we get to the point where 'You're doing it wrong' became more palatable than 'I'm sorry and I'm here for you?'
Many people were quite upset about the way your interview went on The View with Candace Cameron Bure and Raven-Symone. Now that you have had some time to process it all, is there anything you wish you could have talked about?
Pintauro: I wish I could have redirected the questions better and brought them back to how stigma is still one of the biggest reasons people are afraid to get tested (I mean, what better an example of stigma then that interview?).
But I'm new to this world of activism and I'm still learning how to do it, I know what I'm talking about (you should see the huge binder of information I have) but I'm not perfect; I've been doing it for fifteen days. But, in a weird way, I wouldn't have wanted to change the interview because it got people talking, in a big way... and that is my biggest goal, to get people talking in every corner of the U.S. So, for that, I thank them...
Your former co-star, Alyssa Milano, publicly came out in support of you during an emotional discussion on The Talk. I think your fans want to know if you have had a chance to chat with her since then?
Pintauro: Yes! She actually called me while she was driving to The Talk but it was early in the morning and I didn't answer. It was a lovely message and I left her one after seeing her on the show. Later that night we started texting; she was my everything for the next few days. Encouraging, loving, concerned and just overall wanted to be on my side. We talked family and husbands and she connected me to some really terrific people. I am unbelievably grateful for our new story and look forward to creating lots of new chapters.
Plenty of people have come out publicly with their HIV-positive status, but few have done so on a couch with the Oprah Winfrey. Why did you choose to come out now in such a public way?
Pintauro: I've experienced the stigma first hand many times over the years. I've seen people turn a blind eye to meth on Grindr or similar sites and I'm shocked that so few people even know the meth hookup sites or porn sites exist. I have friends who have nearly died because they were afraid to learn their status (10 T- Cells) and I know someone who is homeless because of meth.
So I decided I needed to do something about it; I've turned a blind eye, myself, long enough. I have so much respect for every single person who has dedicated their lives to keeping people talking about HIV and meth but it makes me angry to know that it took a child celebrity coming out about it to get people to start listening again.
What were some of the fears you had about revealing your status?
Pintauro: You might laugh but the biggest fear I had, by far, was that I would tell Oprah and tell the world and nobody would care. That I would simply go about my life but now the lady at the grocery store would know my status. But I knew that even if that happened I was ready to go door to door to actually make a difference. I really didn't have any fears after that because I was prepared to face everything head on.
You received a lot of heat from the HIV-positive community when you answered the question on how you contracted the virus. In a Huffington Post blog, one critic wrote, "By going out of his way to link his HIV transmission to oral sex, Pintauro has muddied the overall issue of how we talk about HIV/AIDS via a more palatable transmission method. It would have been one thing if he was suddenly putting himself forward as the poster-child for the dangers of oral sex, which aren't currently part of the health class curriculum. Instead, he did the opposite, minimizing this detail with the horrid summary statement of "it's that easy.""
Can you respond to this?
Pintauro: I was having sex on meth and, although I want to believe I was safe and used a condom the right way, the truth is that when partying with meth and other drugs none of us can be absolutely sure. There are people who have sex sober and they still become HIV-positive despite their best intentions.
I have a friend who contracted HIV because he drank too much but doesn't actually remember what he did or didn't do. I have another friend who hooked up with one guy outside of his relationship and seroconverted. Mistakes happen but, like anyone who has seroconverted surely has done, I have spent endless hours going over that day trying to figure out what I did wrong. It serves me no purpose to lie about this and I'm not going to fudge my truth because it 'muddles the overall issue.' I'm not here to tell the story 'they' want me to tell. I'm here to tell my story.
Look, as more and more people came out of the 'gay' closet the community started making big advances; that ended the stigma enough to get us to where we are now. People who are HIV-positive are going to need to come out of the 'HIV' closet for us to end the stigma and make big advances... but with so much internal hate and judgement in our community, that isn't going to happen anytime soon.
We all cringed when Raven-Symone turned to your husband and asked him about your sex life during your interview on The View. Now that it has been a minute, how do you feel about him being brought into the discussion in the way he was?
Pintauro: Though my husband and I have been preparing for this for months he is just getting into speaking in front of a national audience. He had prepared a great answer to another question: 'Danny told you about his status on your first date, you said that you were 100 percent okay with it because of his honesty and character. Can you tell us more?'
It's sad that he didn't get a chance to show America what one of the hundreds of HIV-negative men and women who have decided they love their partner enough to be in a healthy serodiscordant relationship looks like. An opportunity to give hope to so many HIV+ people worried about finding love nixed in favor of talking about our sex life.
It hasn't even been a month since you took on the role of HIV activist. Tell me, what do you see yourself doing in a year from now?
Pintauro: I've been saying since the start that once the national firestorm dies down is when the real work begins and I still believe that's true. In a year from now I hope to be speaking across the country and the world (notably Australia where meth is a big problem) about PReP, complacency, meth, and stigma.
I hope to be igniting a fire within our community to rally as hard to remove HIV and meth from the gay community as we have just recently rallied to achieve marriage equality. We know how to rally, its time we rallied within. And I hope to be speaking with people regularly in some way... perhaps a Youtube channel or column, to give face to the many people who chose to come out of the HIV closet, who choose to be proud of the fact that they are undetectable and taking care of themselves, or who may still be in the middle of it.