Who’s the Poz? Danny Pintauro and the HIV Blame Game
With a great platform, comes great responsiblity, writes Nic Holas.
Recently, Who’s the Boss? child star Danny Pintauro disclosed to Oprah the world that he was HIV+. This is an act of some significance, for him personally and for the HIV community, and is deserving of praise. Sadly, that such a public disclosure is seen a brave thing to do reveals how far we’ve still to travel in de-stigmatising HIV. While Pintauro’s act of disclosing his status should be universally applauded, the message he brings with it warrants a little more scrutiny.
While the currency of Pintauro’s fame had been devalued to a “Where are the now?” level, he still occupied a space in nostalgia for those of us who grew up with 80s sitcoms. This was an age of pre-Seinfeld, pre-The Simpsons television in which sitcoms were neat little moral fables that explored the family-centric values of the Reagan era. Symbolically, Pintauro’s recent disclosure becomes a pingback to that era, a time when HIV meant the plague of AIDS, and President Reagan wouldn’t even say its name. Now one of the pop cultural artefacts of that era is not only saying the word HIV, he is identifying as it. Ironically, it is what Oprah would call a ‘full circle moment’.
WATCH: Danny Pintauro reveals he his HIV+ to Oprah
The power of an HIV disclosure in the public eye isn’t to be underestimated. Pintauro will no doubt be reviewing thousands of messages, tweets and comments from other HIV+ people. On top of that, he has gone on a massive media junket, including a disastrous interview on The View. All of this would be creating a swell of pressure, expectation and exposure. The worst thing for him and the community would be the express train to backlash, breakdown, then burn out. However, his platform seems like it's purely based on his personal experience of HIV, and that’s a problem.
WATCH: Danny Pintauro speaks about his HIV status on The View
It’s troubling that Pintauro claims he’s taking 'full responsibility’ for his actions, then appears to be doing the slow slide into the HIV blame game. Firstly, Pintauro pins his conversion on someone he says “failed to disclose”. Which also suggests Pintauro didn't ask, either. However that transfer of personal responsibility is precisely what is used to throw HIV+ people in jail for 30-plus years, and enforces this idea that poz people are ‘infectious’ and ‘out to get us’.”
Pintauro initially said this guy was probably dead because he “wasn’t taking care of himself”. If I were this guy sitting at home watching an anonymous fuck from 12 years ago tell Oprah, The View, HuffPost Live and more that I was a criminal, without any evidence beyond his assuming that I knew I was HIV+ and chose not to tell him, I’d prefer he believe me to be dead.
However, the narrative has shifted again because Pintauro claims he has since found the man’s name in an email and is “searching” for him. I hope for this man’s sake, Pintauro never finds him. In the US, poz men are getting arrested in police stings that entrap them for choosing not disclose their status when chatting online. How would such a system react to the man who (possibly unwittingly) passed on HIV to little Danny from Who’s the Boss?.
The other aspect of the HIV blame game being played out by Pintauro is his history of crystal meth use. In the initial Oprah interview, Pintauro did what very few had managed: to identify that meth wasn’t the reason he became HIV+ but acknowledged it was present in his life at the time. Pintauro claims he turned to experimenting with crystal because he recognised some inhibitions that were holding back from engaging in his sexuality. Meth, he said, was a shortcut to overcoming those.
Initially, Pintauro seemed driven to highlight the problematic aspects of crystal use and let gay men understand how it can lead to serious ongoing health and lifestyle issues. Then, in the face of further media scrutiny from more moralistic presenters and unhelpful peers, that nuanced and complicated message shifted to meth (and a liar) being jointly responsible for his HIV infection.
In another new interview in which he chose to reveal this information, Pintauro claims his meth usage lead to a compromised immune system which saw sores appear in his mouth. These sores created an entry point for the HIV he says he obtained whilst performing oral sex (on the man who failed to disclose).
WATCH: Danny Pintauro talks about his meth use and how he contracted HIV with Us Weekly
Danny Pintauro's quickly shifting stance on acknowledging the complex issue of gay men, meth, sex, and shame and how it intersects with HIV, has leapt to a blunt, poorly researched, and ignorant platform.
Pintauro states he wants to make undetectable ‘sexy’ and meth ‘unsexy.’ As if the complex aspects of gay men’s fight against HIV can be reduced to an annual WeHo ‘hot or not’ list.
A public opinion on HIV is a tricky thing to manage. You have to listen to the community, but you can never fully represent them. If you have the privilege to speak publicly as a Person Living with HIV, you have to be motivated by more than just “this thing happened to me, so it is a universal truth”. While community advocates are not doctors or researchers who often speak to anecdotal experiences instead of hard data, they also must be wary of where their morals intersect their microphone.
If Pintauro wants to be an advocate for HIV+ people, he needs to stop throwing them under the bus he catches from interview to interview. A celebrity disclosing their status is a brave and powerful thing to do. Blaming your HIV on anything to reduce the sting of a moralising, judgemental studio audience is the opposite.