It’s been more than 30 years since Danny Pintauro stole America’s heart as the bright-eyed, energetic Jonathan Bower on the hit TV series Who’s the Boss? An entire generation grew up alongside him from 1984 to 1992, watching each week as he learned life lessons that were neatly tied up over 30 minutes of wholesome family entertainment. However, the 39-year-old actor turned activist says the biggest lessons in his own life took much longer to learn, though the answers to a few seem obvious in hindsight.
“I watch old episodes of Who’s the Boss? and I think, God, he is just so queer. I don’t know how I hadn’t figured it out [back then],” Pintauro says, laughing, in a recent interview with Plus, the expanse of Los Angeles stretched behind him in the view from a penthouse office. “Maybe I was just being naïve and not thinking about it, but I really didn’t hone in on the idea…until I was already in college.”
However, shortly after taking his first steps out of the closet in 1997, Pintauro’s celebrity made him a target. The National Enquirer threatened to publicly out the former child actor. But rather than allow the tabloid to reveal his story, he agreed to an interview and proudly stated, “I’m gay.”
Nevertheless, while he appeared to be confident as he revealed his true self to the world for the first time, Pintauro admits he wasn’t ready to help move LGBT visibility forward.
“It’s one of my regrets in life that I didn’t do anything about it,” he says. “[After coming out] I got a lot of messages from guys who told me things like, ‘Thank you so much. You’re the first [guy] I can relate to.’ But I’d only been out myself for about six months, so I was still trying to figure out what gay meant to me.”
Pintauro says part of figuring out his sexuality meant playing with the “rougher side of sex.” After moving to New York, he began to explore his 50 shades of gray in BDSM, a vibrant subculture in which participants play with erotic elements of bondage and submission. For some, it’s a quick dabble; others, a lifestyle.
Unfortunately, the young actor was also introduced to crystal meth at the same time.
“I wanted to try being submissive and figure out what that meant. And in New York it just so happened that the people I was encountering, or the one person in particular, was doing meth,” says Pintauro. “He was a leather god. I would’ve said yes to pretty much anything at that moment. He had meth and I said, ‘All right, whatever, I’ll give it a try,’ not having any concept of what that meant or what would result from that.”
He stops and takes a deep breath before continuing. “So we did it the next weekend and the weekend after that. Then I did it with someone else. Before you know it, I’m doing it every now and then [while] exploring those submissive sides.”
For the young man who felt his childhood celebrity held him back from fully embracing himself earlier in life, he says the drug removed all of his reservations. “The big thing with meth, for me at least, was I had no inhibitions. There was no such thing as a safe word,” he says. “You feel more sexual. You feel a heightened sense of everything. You feel powerful. You feel really attractive. Any sort of self-doubt? All gone.”
Pintauro says the drug also removed his sense of judgment. Soon, he began engaging in risky sexual activity, and in 2003 he tested positive for HIV.
“Those are the words no one ever wants to hear,” he says of the day he learned he’d contracted the virus. “I remember thinking that my life would never be the same.”
While a supportive network of friends and family helped him deal with the initial shock, Pintauro says he had difficulty acclimating to his positive status. Still, after a few years, he considered coming forward, thinking he might now be ready to be the voice of change he wished he could’ve been after revealing his sexuality.
“I contacted Oprah before her daytime talk show went off the air. It didn’t work out then, but thank God, because I was not ready,” he admits. “I was using activism as a way to put stuff in my life that was going wrong in a box and tie it in a bow so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. But in the last six years I’ve really come into my own. I’ve developed who I am as a person.”
He contributes a large part of his newfound focus to his husband, Wil Tabares. The two married last April, and when he received a call to inquire if he would be available to appear on an episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now? he says he felt as if “the fates were telling me now is the time.”
He decided to come forward, but this time with a plan to use the darkest experiences of his life to fight the stigma and ignorance surrounding HIV in hopes others could learn from his mistakes. However, after his candid conversation with Oprah aired in September, he soon discovered his unflinching honesty was not embraced by everyone.
Days after he began sharing his story, he made an appearance on The View where he was interviewed by follow former child stars Raven-Symoné and Candace Cameron Bure. The two women not only surprised him with their “pointed tone” when Cameron Bure asked if he “took responsibility” for his choices, but also when Symoné put his husband on the spot with an unrehearsed question about the details of their sex life.
“They had prepared him to answer a different question, and he had a great answer developed that was about celebrating serodiscordant relationships. But instead we get, basically, ‘Do you or do you not bareback?’” he says. “I think what we learned [in that moment] is that mainstream media hasn’t really come that far in the last 10 years.”
One of the reasons mainstream media is so ignorant in conversations about HIV is that there are few living celebrities who are open about their positive status. Charlie Sheen, who revealed his HIV diagnosis in November, and Magic Johnson are perhaps the most famous HIV-positive people in the world, with a few other notable public figures like Olympian Greg Louganis and fashion designers Jack Mackenroth and Mondo Guerra. This is why Pintauro’s coming-out has been such a big deal, because, despite all the progress that has been made in HIV treatment, stigma continues to keep influencers in the closet.
However, as disappointed as Pintauro was by the insensitive questions he and his husband were asked on The View, he was even more frustrated with the backlash he received from fellow HIV activists after he revealed in an interview with Us Weekly he believed he’d contracted the virus through oral sex. He’d hit a nerve. The risk of contracting HIV through oral sex is significantly less than with anal or vaginal sex, with some activists and researchers maintaining that the risk is nearly zero percent. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that ejaculation in the mouth, especially combined with factors like bleeding, oral ulcers, and other sexual transmitted infections, can increase this risk of HIV transmission, and recommends using condoms or dental dams during the act.
“The part that frustrates me is I’ve had very little negativity coming from anywhere except for within my community and specifically from other HIV activists,” he says, noting there were unique circumstances he didn’t wish to divulge that increased his risk of transmission while performing oral sex on the person he believes infected him. “I don’t want to change how brutally honest I’m being, and I can’t apologize for what I consider to be my truth. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit the PR mold for being an HIV activist. But in talking about the idea since then, [I’ll admit] I don’t know 100 percent — I was doing drugs. But that’s my truth. I’m not going to lie to tell a better story or to make it fit the story I’m trying to tell.”
He adds, “Any time you add meth to a scenario, you instantly change all the statistics.”
Despite the few bumps in the road he’s encountered after coming out about his status, Pintauro continues to charge forward on his mission to educate people about the dangers of HIV. He’s particularly concerned about the spike in infection rates among young people. He believes this generation has lost respect for the dangers of the virus because of breakthroughs in treatment and doesn’t consider the health risks of other STIs. The rate is particularly staggering among young men who have sex with men. A 2014 CDC report showed that the annual number of new HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men between the ages of 13 and 24 increased by 132.5 percent between 2001 and 2011.
To address this crisis, Pintauro has become an advocate for pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a daily treatment that can reduce the rate of HIV transmission by up to 99 percent. The World Health Organization has even endorsed its use for at-risk groups, and has estimated that PrEP use by gay men over the next 10 years could reduce worldwide HIV transmission by 20 to 25 percent.
“I’m a huge supporter of PrEP. If you add PrEP to the equation, we virtually have the tools to end new infections and that’s so exciting. But people barely know about it,” he says. “And you have to take it every day for it to actually work. Also, just because you’re on PrEP doesn’t mean you can’t use condoms. What about all of the other STIs that are out there? Some of which are just as difficult to treat and none of which you want to have. It still requires responsibility and the misconception is that we’ve surrounded PrEP with this free-for-all.”
He adds, “Yes, we’ve come far enough that you can take one pill and you’re fine every day, but that’s not the answer, because you either need to be able to afford a bottle of pills, which is $3,000 a month or more, or guarantee insurance for the rest of your life. What if you start taking medication, and in five years you lose your job for a period of time?”
Pintauro hopes to arm a new generation with knowledge of the tools available to help them in the fight against HIV, including the proper use of preventive treatments such a PrEP and a greater understanding of “what it means to be undetectable,” which refers to when an HIV-positive person has suppressed the virus with medication and thus nearly eliminated the risk of passing it on to others.
“If we can get to a place where HIV-positive men who are undetectable can feel proud to say that — and other people will potentially feel like that’s kind of sexy — then it won’t be about slut shaming because they’ll understand it’s really hard to pass HIV on to someone when you’re undetectable,” he says.
Pintauro is also aiming to change the way we discuss our status — both positive and negative — to create a future where knowing your status is sexy.
“I’m not proud to say I have HIV, but I can be proud to say I’m taking my medications. I’m taking care of myself. I’m healthy and in turn I’m taking care of the people I spend time with,” he says. “If everyone knew their status, then we could pretty much eradicate new infections…. What if we could find a way to make it that knowing your status was really cool? If we could create an environment where a person can say they’re proud to know their status, proud to be on top of it, and that makes it a little bit sexier? I think inherently we’d get more people to know.”
Watch highlights from the conversation in the latest episode of Advocate Spotlight below.