Danny Roberts has packed a lot in his 44 years. He’s been a TV star (twice), publicly come out as gay, took on the mantle of LGBTQ+ rights advocate at the tender age of 20, got involved in a high-profile relationship, moved around the country, circled in and out of the corporate world, and became a father. With all that life experience, Roberts says it was something else that really super-charged the personal growth and wisdom he displays on the Paramount+ reunion series The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans.
“The biggest lynchpin of my personal development journey was being diagnosed as HIV-positive several years ago,” Roberts says from his home in Vermont.
A warm Southern sensibility, paired with movie star looks and a taboo-shattering sexual confidence, endeared him to Gen X and millennial audiences when he starred on The Real World: New Orleans in 2000. Though the reality franchise was nearly a decade old at the time, Roberts — along with memorable castmates like wise and hilarious Melissa Beck and combustible Mormon student Julie Stoffer — helped make New Orleans one of The Real World’s most beloved seasons. Roberts was out on the show, revolutionary enough, but he also had a sex life that he didn’t hide onscreen — even though he and his boyfriend took a major risk by appearing in front of the cameras.
Danny Roberts (far left) with his original The Real World: New Orleans castmates in 2000
Roberts’s partner at the time, Paul Dill, was a high-ranking service member during the time of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when LGBTQ+ people had to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity — or be dishonorably discharged from the military, lose their benefits, and have a stain on their careers. The Real World producers blurred out Dill’s face, but Roberts lived with the fear of Dill’s identity becoming public during the show and after. Roberts’s role on The Real World turned him into an immediate symbol of DADT and its costs, while the role of gay rights advocate was thrust on his young shoulders.
“I didn’t have the tools or the real confidence [to handle it],” says Roberts, who appeared on the cover of The Advocate during that time. “I took on a subject much, much bigger than me and that was a very wild ride.”
Now, more than two decades later, Roberts has reunited with his six castmates — and Dill! — to revisit their time in New Orleans and see what has and hasn’t changed in their lives and in larger society. What remains constant is Roberts’s role as activist. Proudly, he speaks about his HIV diagnosis on the show, as well as the trauma that so many people living with HIV, especially gay and bisexual men, live with. What’s different this time around is Roberts’s genuine confidence; he says the boldness he displayed in 2000, both in his activism and his sexuality, was the result of youth.
Roberts says he felt thrust into the roles of both LGBTQ+ advocate and sex symbol after being out on TV in 2000
“I feel like we’re really stretching the definition of sex symbol,” Roberts says of the queer fixation on him that remains to this day. “I’m like a big old nerd. There was a real confidence [sexually and otherwise] there, at least from the perspective of a really naive 20, 21-year-old. Most of us at that time think we have the world strapped down; the confidence that comes from not actually having lived a lot of life yet and had the truth actually shown to you. But the deeper truth is, no, I was not really confident about my sexuality.”
The show served as a catalyst for Roberts, who grew up in Georgia, to come out to his family. There wasn’t much time to think about whether he made the right decision or not: “It happened really quickly and I was actually terrified.” Roberts’s relationship with Dill continued for several years after the show, but grew toxic. Roberts stayed in it for too long because, as a gay rights activist, he felt he owed it to the LGBTQ+ community. After finally ending the relationship, Roberts would be challenged again, this time with his HIV diagnosis, which came as a complete shock.
Roberts (center, in purple jacket) and his The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans castmates enjoy some time on the bayou
“Facing your mortality is a huge changing factor in anyone’s life and you can go two paths with it — you can let it destroy you or you can use it as a gift to inspire you,” he says.
Roberts had decades of baggage to unload about HIV, especially as a gay man coming of age in the ’90s when the disease was still thought of as a death sentence and many believed it was punishment for sin.
“I had to go back and face those deep subconscious truths in myself and unload it as not my own baggage,” he says. “Unloading it was the most amazing pivot for me. It flipped the script in my mind. Those weren’t my burdens to carry anymore. I had a whole new confidence in myself and being able to absolutely own and love myself for every bit of who I am, with all the faults and broken pieces.”
Doing the inner work — which occurred at the same time he was adopting his daughter — was neither quick nor simple, though.
“It was not an easy transaction in discovering that and the journey I went on,” Roberts says. “But on the other side of it, it made me the person I am now, which is very confident in talking about difficult conversations.”
Those frank discussions were front and center on Homecoming. Of course, there were personal squabbles over long-simmering (and understandable) resentments, but the castmates also touch on white privilege, Christianity, and homophobia. Roberts is happy with how the show came out, saying he was hesitant to sign on at first.
“The world has enough reality garbage and all [the cast] agreed we didn’t want to throw more garbage into the world,” Roberts says. The show harkens back to the original intent of The Real World, bringing together people of different backgrounds and forcing them to confront society’s biases and their own.
“The Real World was the first mainstream reality TV that set the groundwork for the genre,” Roberts says. “Our [original New Orleans] season was kind of the end of that documentary reality television; that same year, Survivor came out. The next generation of reality TV became about salacious personalities, competition, taking people down, and crazy drama. [Homecoming] is a nostalgic type of reality TV that does address social issues, emotional issues, interpersonal issues.”
On the series, Roberts initiates a discussion about complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or CPTSD. Roberts talks about suffering from the condition, which is caused by repeated trauma, as opposed to PTSD, which is usually sparked by a single event. Roberts believes most HIV-positive people and many LGBTQ+ people suffer from CPTSD, which can affect how we respond to almost everything in life.
“Everyone in this community, especially with gay men, there is a pervasive sense of expectation of perfection,” he says. “Most of us are not aware of that trauma reaction of always striving for perfection and what it means to have a stain against you; it’s a lot to move beyond. Becoming aware of that and recognizing and steering your reactions and behaviors away from that trauma reaction is incredibly important for so many people.”
Roberts has a laugh with Homecoming castmates Melissa Beck (center) and Julie Stoffer
Roberts continues, “Most of us grew up not feeling safe in many ways, and we’re talking about essential safety. When you don’t have essential safety, you end up with loads of coping mechanisms you’re not even aware of and we can all use a dose of shining some light on that.”
While those not at high risk of HIV, such as white heterosexual and cisgender people, were able to explore their sexualities as young people, queer people had both sex shame and HIV fears hanging over their heads. Roberts says those hang-ups affected his own sexuality as a young man.
“[The fear and shame] stunted our growth as gay men and held me back in my coming out process,” Roberts says. “What we were really taught at the time, ingrained and fed to us, is becoming HIV-positive was a moral punishment for engaging in behavior that’s wrong. That was the largest bag I had to unload. At the end of the day, [HIV is] nature. It’s biology. Mother Nature wants to kill us all and she’s always trying.”
But science and ingenuity now make HIV a manageable condition for millions, something that Roberts marvels at.
“I’m sitting here right now talking to you; thank God for medicine,” he says. “I just frame [HIV] now in a logical way. It’s a virus; it’s nature at work. There is no morality about it, and I think that’s the hardest thing for people to let go of. Thank God, with this type of medicine, we can live entirely different lives than what we expected and were taught back then.”
The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans is now streaming on Paramount+.