Surviving The Real World

Danny Roberts. Photo courtesy of Danny Roberts

Danny Roberts entered the lives of many of us in 2000 during his time in the limelight of MTV’s The Real World: New Orleans. Handsome, charming, playful, and intelligent, he quickly became a favorite with fans of all genders. Through the course of this early reality show, Roberts managed to navigate the complexities of being openly gay in front of a national audience.

The season followed the interactions among seven young adults placed in a renovated Civil War-era mansion. Part of the challenge Roberts faced was that he had a partner in the Army at a time when the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was in effect. This made him, unwittingly, the face of the movement opposing the policy.

After the show wrapped up, he toured colleges around the country for several years, speaking to students about sexuality, coming out and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And then he dropped out of the public eye.

In 2018, Roberts rematerialized, revealing in November that he was diagnosed with HIV in 2011. He struggled with the diagnosis and had several misconceptions about the virus, spending several years in denial and sinking to some dark places.

Thankfully, he emerged stronger from this period of his life, and now he is sharing his experience of living with HIV and talking about the socio-political impact of the virus on the LGBTQ community.

Part of the reason he wanted to publicly announce that he is HIV-positive was the surprisingly averse reactions he got when he disclosed his status to others in the LGBTQ community.

“At this point, you would assume they [would be] a little more informed and educated, but it’s pretty amazing how many are not,” he said. “But until it’s your reality, you don’t generally reflect on it as much. But when it’s your day-to-day existence, then you really understand the degree of ignorance.”

Fear Of Transmission And HIV Stigma

“There’s an insane amount of fear about it, but I am learning more and more,” Roberts said. “Most of us have [negative] experiences growing up, and what so many people do when they’re traumatized is seek an idealistic life as an adult to mask that trauma. Those people never want to be associated with anything that mars that image. So something such as HIV threatens that identity, and that is where so much of that fear and stigma stems from.”

The increased use of technology for social interaction can exacerbate the issue in some cases. Dating apps such as Tinder, OkCupid, Scruff or Grindr make it easier for users to dismiss candidates when they see something they dislike about them or perceive a trait as threatening. It’s much easier to ignore or block someone using an app than it is to interact with someone in a real space. Connections can easily be cut in the interstitial space between the digital and the real worlds. Many HIV-positive people who use these apps find that once they disclose their status, people flee or become verbally abusive.

“But on the flip side of that,” Roberts says, “there are also people who are informed about the disease. So when you find those people, it’s like the magic moment. But we are still at the point where the majority is still in the dark about it, about the truth, about the reality, about what undetectable means. I’m sure that will change and evolve in time. I get it. I wasn’t completely ignorant, but I was definitely not super-informed, either.”

Of course, there are multiple reasons why the HIV stigma remains. Some of them trace back to outdated and incorrect information. For example, many people still believe that HIV is only acquired and transmitted by gay men.

“It’s not even about only the illness,” Roberts says. “It’s so associated with being gay because in the ’80s and ’90s, it was viewed only as a gay disease. It’s very difficult to separate the two concepts, so you go back to also facing the guilt and shame of being gay.”

In Alan Downs’ book called The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, the author proposes that shame plays a large role in the lives of gay men. In the early and middle stages of our lives, we are overwhelmed by shame and compensating for shame. Shame shapes our beliefs and behaviors. Purportedly, we can lose that shame later in life when we are “cultivating authenticity,” Downs writes.

Ingrained Shame

Danny on the cover of The Advocate in 2000.

Roberts feels that shame is at the root of the stigma surrounding HIV within the LGBTQ community.

“I’m sure there’s tons of overlap between stigma and shame,” he said. “Gay men are loaded with shame. Shame is such a toxic emotion. The reason it’s so insidious and dangerous is because it doesn’t sit on the surface. It becomes so deeply hidden and ingrained in so many guys’ psyches that they don’t even know it’s there, and it just never leads to any good.”

He also proposes that some of the stigma within the gay community might be caused by the idea of a gay hierarchy – the notion that there are “A” gays and those beneath them – that has emerged in the last 10 or 15 years.

“There are people who are out [of the closet] now who are not super-comfortable with it,” Roberts says. “And what’s the safest way to make yourself feel comfortable and safe with it? Make yourself feel superior to your peers in some way.”

Researchers posit that some HIV-negative men look at those who are positive as a threat to their overall identity, to the health of the community, and to the public perception of gay men.

Some gay men believe that people infected with HIV only caught the virus because they were promiscuous and amoral, forgetting that it only takes one encounter with someone who is infected for seroconversion to occur.

When someone with HIV holds on to the disapproval they receive, or perceive, from others within the community, self-stigma may follow. People affected by self-stigma tend to internalize the disparaging notions about HIV that their peers embrace. These impressions can lead to more feelings of shame or guilt and further diminish people’s own self-worth.

HIV-related stigma can harm a person’s mental and emotional well-being, even causing increased suicidal ideation; can socially segregate them based on their HIV status; and can lead to rejection by sexual partners. Fear of negative social consequences can also affect people’s willingness to get tested, seek treatment, educate themselves about HIV transmission, or disclose their status.

Undetectable Viral Load

However, the LGBTQ community can take steps to lessen or even eradicate HIV stigma. Roberts suggests that at this moment, we should take the time to understand what having an undetectable viral load means and how that plays a role in being safe with a partner.

Here’s a starting point: Viral load is the amount of HIV in a person’s blood. Medications called antiretroviral treatment – for people living with HIV – prevent the virus from making copies of itself. That, in turn, causes the person’s viral load to drop.

Most people living with HIV who take antiretroviral medications daily as prescribed reach an undetectable viral load within one to six months after starting treatment, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. After a partner living with HIV has achieved an undetectable viral load and maintained it for at least six months, the NIAID states, “there is effectively no risk of sexual transmission of HIV.” To maintain this undetectable viral load, the partner with HIV must continue to take every pill every day as directed.

Roberts sees confusion about the differences between “undetectable status” and taking PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis.

PrEP is a pill taken daily to greatly reduce the likelihood of HIV infection. An increase in the number of people who use these medicines may also reduce HIV stigma within the community.

Recent studies indicated that PrEP users tend to be less prejudiced against partners who are HIV-positive. PrEP provides them with a sense of comfort because it is highly unlikely that they will acquire the virus from others. Studies also indicate that non-PrEP users tend to fear and see HIV-positive men as significantly less attractive and desirable. But their ideas may change if they begin taking the medication.

If PrEP use continues to grow and acceptance of individuals with HIV is cultivated, stigma within the community may diminish.

But to see an increase in PrEP use, the health-care industry must change so that HIV drugs are available to everyone who needs them, Roberts said.

“It’s a crisis, and it’s only going to get worse and worse. And there are no real answers being presented.”

The U=U initiative

The Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) initiative is working to spread the word about HIV transmission. Organizers hope that it will reduce the shame, fear of sexual transmission and stigma. The movement was launched in 2016 by the Prevention Access Campaign to ensure that groundbreaking research reaches the people it was intended to benefit and to clear up confusion about the science supporting the campaign.

So far, the message has been slow to spread, due to barriers that include culture, politics, medical providers and research associations. But the campaign is beginning to permeate those obstructions via local HIV/AIDS organizations and individuals working tirelessly to inform others of the U=U message. In time, their work will hopefully lead to a change in the broader belief system associated with HIV.

Reducing stigma will also mean dismantling the derogatory language associated with HIV. Using the term “clean” to describe someone who is HIV-negative and “dirty” for individuals who are positive, for example, implies that “clean” people have power over “dirty” people. It allows the negative individuals to send the message that HIV-positive people are impure, unclean, or amoral.

Roberts is hopeful for a true cure for HIV sometime in the next 10 years. Recent news about two patients who have been “cured” of HIV and the possibility that three other individuals may be indicates progress, but there is still more work to do.

Today, Roberts lives in New York City. He’s the healthy and proud father of a girl who’s nearly 3 years old. He considers himself a survivor. He spent years in hiding, working through his own demons after being diagnosed with HIV, encountering stalkers, and going through a less-than-ideal relationship. The Real World still affects his life in both good and bad ways.

“I [will] always be known for that piece, but that was a long time ago and I’ve been through some pretty intense, weird shit. Most people don’t normally end up with a stalker, let alone multiple, and they all stem straight out of that.” But, he adds, “I’m quite aware of what makes a sociopath and what they look like now.”

One positive thing that came from those experiences, though, is that he’s especially self-aware now, which he considers an invaluable trait to have.

Roberts wants to use the knowledge he’s acquired to help others through their struggles with HIV diagnoses. He’s faced many negative feelings on his journey and hopes to help others avoid the agony he endured.

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