In 1989, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Keith Haring’s iconic painting summed up the anger of a generation of gay men decimated by the disease. Trembling figures marked for extermination—not unlike, they believed, an earlier generation of gay men had been marked for extermination by the Nazis—they faced two primary enemies: the fear of the US government (and Americans generally)—a fear that was based on ignorance—for AIDS and people who were living with it, and the silence of those who were suffering because of the refusal of a society paralyzed by fear to do anything about it. The only answer, Haring and so many of his peers believed, was for gay men to “act up” and “fight AIDS,” and the most effective way to do that, they believed, was to speak up and do it loudly, so loud that no one—not even Ronald Reagan, who famously refused for years to say the word “AIDS” as the epidemic was raging—would be able to ignore what was happening.
So much has changed in 25 years, and so much has stayed the same. HIV, we are told, is no longer a death sentence. (And it is true that the widespread availability of antiretroviral medications in the US has transformed the virus into a long-term, manageable condition—except, of course, for the hundreds of thousands of poor people, people of color, trans people, immigrants and others who, in a society that still considers healthcare more a luxury than a right, find these life-saving medications beyond their reach, like most of the 30-something million positive people who live outside North America and Europe.) Ignorance, fear, and silence were the key elements in a formula that added up to death; and if there is less death, so too, there is less ignorance and there is less fear (gone are the days of small-town hysteria over people with AIDS using public swimming pools), and if we are less ignorant about HIV—and less fearful of people with HIV—the costs of breaking the silence for HIV positive people are much less severe. There may even be some positive value, for some positive people, in speaking about HIV: Greg Louganis is more intelligible—and more acceptable—to us than Rock Hudson.
But given the choice between Rock Hudson and Greg Louganis, I would choose Rock Hudson. For Keith Haring and his generation, the dangers of ignorance and silence were deadly, but the equation has shifted. It is not so much, anymore, that we “know” too little about HIV and HIV positive people: we know too much. And if silence was the rule, some HIV positive people are not just permitted but invited to speak, and if they do it right—softly, telling us what we already knew, and assuring us that we have nothing to fear—these docile bodies of the condemned may return to the land of the living.
Enter, now, Danny Pintauro. If you are lucky enough to live under some rock that shields you from contemporary social discourse in America and its endless stream of spectacles (and commentaries from “experts” whose qualifications tend not to extend beyond having an opinion), then you might not know who Danny Pintauro is, why he is so dangerous, and why you should care about what he has to say and what people are saying about him.
As the very blonde and wholesome son of Angela Bower in the 1980s sitcom, Who’s the Boss?—which would have been entirely intolerable but for Angela’s highly sexualized, somewhat queer mother, Mona—Danny Pintauro held the gaze of pop culture for a minute before joining that tragic legion of people we used to know: He became a Former Child Star.
Eventually, after a stint as a Tupperware salesman, Danny landed a job managing a PF Chang’s in Las Vegas. Having grown bored, I presume, with that decidedly unglamorous job, Danny Pintauro did perhaps the smartest thing a former child star turned restaurant manager could do: He went and told Oprah he’s a former meth addict and HIV positive.
Even before many of us had managed to figure out who the hell Danny Pintauro is, he had anointed himself the new “celebrity” spokesperson for positive people and inaugurated his “Beacon of Light” speaking tour, which has included stops at Us Weekly, People, and an appearance on that bastion of cultural criticism, The View, where he was slut-shamed and interrogated by two fellow former child stars, Raven Symone and Candace Cameron Bure. Among other jaw-droppingly stupid questions, Candace and Raven asked whether Danny takes responsibility for his bad behavior (for which he is apparently now being punished with HIV) and whether he practices safe sex with his partner. Apparently finding nothing problematic with the assumption that The View‘s hosts, its viewers, and everyone else on the goddamn planet have a right to know the details of his sexual practices, Danny fumbled through a mostly incomprehensible answer—which seemed to indicate that the two do not always use condoms—and concluded with a totally incomprehensible effort to explain what “undetectable” means in terms of risk. (Danny might, as smarter people like Laverne Cox have done when confronted with the stupidity of cisgendered, heterosexual “journalists,” just refused to answer the question.) Finally, in one of the most bizarre moments of this thoroughly bizarre exchange, Danny was dismissed by Bure with a “statement,” written by whom, we were not told, but delivered in the most authoritative voice one might expect from a former star of Full House. And in just a few condescending words, Bure’s mysterious statement rejected what everyone who knows anything about HIV transmission today knows—that “undetectable” means non-transmissible—and threw poor Danny back on the cross by suggesting that, even if he has repented for his promiscuous past, he continues to endanger the life of his HIV negative husband.
To its credit, the internet quickly responded with outrage at Danny’s treatment on The View, but criticism for Danny—the “face of HIV,” as Candace Cameron Bure put it—has been less forthcoming. (Two notable exceptions include the always fearless Mark King, who has expressed some doubts about the believability of Danny’s story, and the Huffington Post’s Ken Schneck, who questions Danny’s capacity to be a “spokesperson” for HIV-positive people but seems resigned to the fact that, while “[h]e isn’t the spokesperson we chose … he’s the one we currently have. And he needs to do better.”) Not content with his trainwreck appearance on The View, Danny has subsequently mounted a campaign to appeal to and comfort two ostensibly very different camps (neither of whom really gives a shit about the lives of HIV positive people): straight people who find anal sex between men distasteful and hateful gay men like Michael Weinstein and Larry Kramer, who seem to find sex in general distasteful and, more dangerously, who have vilified as sluts and drug addicts men who use PreP (HIV meds that have been shown as effective as condoms at preventing transmission to negative people). Danny, though—out of respect for the irrational fears and insecurities of homophobic straight people and judgmental old gay white men—has declared that, in fact, he was victimized by an “irresponsible” HIV-positive meth addict who shot a load in his mouth, thereby infecting poor Danny with HIV. And to the criticism that Danny is, well, full of shit—because HIV is very rarely, if ever, transmitted through oral sex—Danny has reiterated his victim status (and his normative—which is to say, non-promiscuous, non-anal—sexuality). To none other than the illustrious Perez Hilton Danny explained, “I was so upset when I figured out that it was through oral [because getting it through a 12-hour gangbang would not be at all upsetting, we presume]. I had been SO good!”
Sometimes, I am told, snowflakes fall in hell, so maybe Danny—like the role he played on TV when he briefly mattered to a few people—really was a “good” boy and just made that one innocent mistake that would destroy his life (and, years later, bring him back to life). I wish, however, that Danny would just go back to his managerial position at PF Chang’s. He is much better suited to that position because the only thing he has effectively done in his new position as a “beacon of light” is reiterate a profoundly heteronormative discourse of HIV, which suggests that some positive people are more innocent and more worthy of being treated like humans than others (straight men and boys like Arthur Ashe and Ryan White, who get HIV through blood transmissions, or even straight men like Magic Johnson, who get it from fucking women, and now also, apparently, “good” gay men who use condoms religiously but, every now and then, when they are lured into the scary world of drug abuse by dangerous, irresponsible HIV-positive gay predators, taste a bit of toxic cum). These positive bodies are worthy of compassion, even respect. But the others—promiscuous gays who like taking it up the butt, sex workers, drug addicts, black men on the downlow—in Danny’s worldview are not righteous victims but predators, dangerous, irresponsible people who put themselves and others at risk and therefore, in the end, deserve what they get (unlike poor Danny).
Danny is, indeed, not the spokesperson positive people chose. But he is also not the spokesperson we need. We do not need another celebrity spokesperson who lacks the courage to tell the truth about our lives without apologizing for crimes we did not commit. We do not need a spokesperson whose strategy for being a “role model” and “fighting stigma” is to demand that we all just repent and hope that the world will, if not forgive us, at least feel sorry for us, for what we have done and who we have become. We do not need Danny Pintauro.
When I said I would take Rock Hudson over Greg Louganis (or Danny Pintauro, both facsimiles of the same original), it was not pure hyperbole. Silence would, I think, be less dangerous than the blind regurgitation of a discourse that provides support to a status hierarchy of positive bodies: those we should let live and those we should leave to die. What Danny Pintauro and Greg Louganis and Michael Weinstein and Larry Kramer and AHF and HIV Equal and pretty much every other fucking person and/or institution with the power to say something about HIV have done is ensure that, for those of us who cannot—or choose not to—accept our diagnosis as punishment for some prior sin, repent, and promise never to be bad or do bad things again, HIV is a death sentence. It is a death not of the body but of the person, a banishment not so much from the organic as from the social. We become the walking dead, human bodies stripped of humanity, something like Agamben’s “werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither.”
There might be a kind of freedom in this space on the margins, where some things can be seen more clearly than they can be seen from the center. There might even be, in this space between the human and the non-human, the freedom to imagine another reality, in which an army of honest, fearless, unapologetic positive people offer a big righteous fuck you to bourgeois heteronormative (and homonormative) sexual morality, refuse the narrative of victimization (which must, after all, distinguish between victims and villains), and insist that all our bodies—whatever distasteful practices we engage in—are equally valuable and equally human.
So, then, dear Danny, I say this to you: Milk it. Call Andy fucking Cohen and try to get a reality show. But you are not a beacon of light. You are not a spokesperson. And if it is too much for you to imagine some other life for yourself, then go back to the one you know, in which case I will have the Shaking Beef.