Former child star Danny Pintauro says he’s been unfairly criticized by some AIDS activists for saying he thinks he became infected with HIV through oral sex, and that his decision to raise the subject has drawn needed attention to HIV prevention efforts.
In an interview with the Washington Blade, Pintauro says he never made a definitive statement that he was certain that oral sex was the means through which he became infected more than 12 years ago.
“Everybody has their own version of the truth. And I’ve since said a couple of things about how I’m not 100 percent sure,” he said, recalling that he has long reflected on his intimate relations with a male partner through whom he believes he became infected.
“You never know,” he said, adding, “I spent the last 12 years sort of trying to figure out what happened that day, and that’s my best guess.”
Pintauro, 39, is well known for his portrayal of Jonathan Bower on ABC’s 1980s sitcom hit, “Who’s The Boss?” He made national headlines when he disclosed just over a month ago on Oprah Winfrey’s “Where Are They Now” show that he was HIV positive and had been addicted to crystal meth.
He has since announced he plans to tour the country to generate a renewed phase of AIDS activism and to deliver to young people his personal message on how he overcame his struggle with crystal meth abuse and how staying away from the drug scene can help people avoid HIV.
Last Saturday, Oct. 24, D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Health presented Pintauro with its annual Courage Award for a person with HIV “who has shown remarkable courage and leadership in the fight against the disease.”
Whitman-Walker Executive Director Don Blanchon presented the award to Pintauro and Atlanta AIDS and women’s rights activist Dazon Dixon Diallo at the conclusion of the organization’s Walk to End HIV, which drew close to 5,000 participants and was expected to raise more than $600,000 for Whitman-Walker’s local AIDS programs.
Pintauro and Diallo were among those who led the annual Walk to End HIV through the streets of downtown Washington.
“When you come out today and you see 5,000 people of all walks of life, the diversity of this great area, you see an expression of hope,” said Blanchon minutes before he presented Pintauro and Diallo with the Courage Awards.
The public response to Pintauro’s disclosure on the Oprah program that he was HIV positive appeared to be overwhelmingly supportive.
But his comment less than a week later on “The View” that he thought he became infected through oral sex drew immediate criticism from a number of AIDS activist bloggers. Among other things, they pointed out that no case of oral transmission of HIV has been scientifically confirmed.
Experts on HIV transmission, including researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have said transmission through oral sex is theoretically possible but difficult if not impossible to confirm because virtually all of the data they have is based on personal reporting of sexual practices by people infected with HIV.
“Receiving fellatio, giving or receiving cunnilingus, and giving or receiving anilingus carry little to no risk,” the CDC says in a statement on its website. “The highest oral sex risk is to individuals performing fellatio on an HIV-infected man, with ejaculation in the mouth,” the CDC statement says.
The statement adds, “Even though oral sex carries a lower risk of HIV transmission than other sexual activities, the risk is not zero. It is difficult to measure the exact risk because people who practice oral sex may also practice other forms of sex during the same encounter.”
Dr. Raymond Martins, Whitman-Walker’s senior director of clinical training and the organization’s former chief medical officer, said his view based on the voluminous data and scientific studies on HIV transmission that he’s seen is that transmission through oral sex is “extremely unlikely.”
According to Martins, some studies based on patient interviews show that the chance of becoming infected with HIV by performing oral sex is less than one in every 10,000 acts.
He notes that the anatomy of the mouth, unlike the anal canal, has a thicker lining of protective cells, making it much harder for the virus to get close enough to either blood in the mouth or white blood cells in the mouth where the virus could enter.
“And then at the same time, the saliva is protective,” he said. “It doesn’t allow HIV to be as viable.”
Added Martins: “In the anal canal the lining is very thin and so it tears easily and so a lot of times HIV comes in direct contact with blood or with the white blood cells that are directly below the surface.”
Martins and CDC experts have said due to the easier transmission through the anal canal, people engaging in anal intercourse should always use a condom for protection.
Pintauro has said since coming out as HIV positive that he may have had sores in his mouth due to his abuse of crystal meth, which can cause mouth ulcers, and that could have facilitated his becoming infected through oral sex.
Martins said the studies showing that the risk of infection from oral sex with someone who is HIV positive is less than one in 10,000 must have included people who have had abrasions in their mouths.
“It seems not to increase the risk dramatically if at all,” he said, even when ejaculation occurs in the mouth.
Pintauro, while not disputing data showing oral transmission is unlikely, points to the CDC statement saying oral transmission is possible.
“Yeah – the chances are incredibly slim, I admit that,” he told the Blade. “But you’d be surprised about the number of people who contacted me in the last week and a half saying that that’s the same way that they believe they’ve contracted it,” he said.
“And you have to remember that I’m throwing meth into the picture. So any of these statistics are going to change or any of the chances are going to be different when you put in that factor that I’ve been doing that for God knows how many hours,” he said.
Asked if he was surprised by the criticism over his statement about oral transmission, Pintauro said he was not.
“You can’t go into doing something like this and expect to get 100 percent in support,” he said. “But I was a little surprised because the backlash was coming from the people that I wanted to become – these AIDS activists mostly.”
“And I was surprised because I didn’t expect that the negativity would come from within the community,” he said. “I thought if anything it would come from outside the community where stigma is based.”
He said he was also taken aback when some of the AIDS activist critics accused him of being uniformed on HIV transmission and the scientific data on HIV.
“And I’m saying, now wait a minute. Why don’t you go and look at the CDC’s website and look at the fact that they say that it is possible all be it very difficult,” said Pintauro. “I feel like you’re the one who’s uniformed, right?”
Added Pintauro: “But the idea is sort of to get past that and get to the bigger issues and get to the broader topics that we need to focus on. And let’s get there. It’s time to skip that and talk about taking better care of each other.”
Pintauro came out as gay in 1997, a development that also drew widespread coverage in the entertainment media. Last year he and his partner, Will Tabares, were married.
The full transcript of the Blade’s interview with Pintauro follows:
Washington Blade: It has been reported that you have begun a “Beacon of Light” tour to carry out your new role as an AIDS activist since coming out in September as HIV positive. Can you tell a little about that?
Danny Pintauro: I don’t quite know what that means yet. It was sort of a moniker given to me about this year. And I’m definitely excited to turn it into a tour. Right now I’m still just getting through the initial stuff, getting through the initial interviews and media and all that. And then once that settles down I can really focus on finding the things to go to speak at. I will try to go to every Pride that I can around the country and speak and teach and learn and make a difference in any way I can.
Blade: By Pride, do you mean LGBT Pride Day events in different parts of the country? Don’t they take place mostly in June?
Pintauro: Yes, a lot of them are in June but believe it or not there is actually a ton all throughout the year. Some of the smaller ones are in September even. Los Vegas is in early September. They’re all there for Pride and they all want to get involved so I’ll be able to talk to the most people that way I think. We’ll see.
Blade: Where are you based now, Las Vegas?
Pintauro: Yeah, Las Vegas. It’s fine. It’s just Las Vegas. One block off the strip on either side and it turns into suburbia. And it’s very boring – believe it or not.
Blade: It doesn’t have the reputation of being boring.
Pintauro: I know. But you know when you live there its quite boring. And you don’t want to go anywhere near the strip because it’s too expensive.
Blade: Can you tell a little about what prompted you to come out as being HIV positive on the Oprah show? Did you make your decision to do this when her producer called you in advance of the show or did you think about this in advance? How did it come about?
Pintauro: About five or so years ago I was living in L.A. and I thought it was a great time for me to talk about it then. And so my publicist friend and I at the time decided who would be the best person to talk to about this? Who would be the one to treat it right? And we could only decide on Oprah. I mean there was nobody who was going to do it better. So we actually made some steps. We called her show at the time to see if they would be interested. But there was only about five more months of her show left and every episode was full until then. Everyone wanted to be on those last five months.
So it didn’t work out. But I’m ok with that. It wasn’t the right time it turns out. But then cut to April and I get a call from the producers just wanting to do a regular ‘Where are they now?’ Just – he works at PF Chang’s in Los Vegas. My publicist friend said look, this is your chance. They’re coming to you now and you’re never going to have this opportunity again, at least not with Oprah.
So I made the decision to tell them what I would really want to talk about. And they were not expecting that at all, of course. But the producer was like – she said I’m so honored that you want to trust us with this information. Is it alright if I call Oprah and see if she would be excited about it? And I was like, no please, don’t call Oprah. I said of course you can call Oprah and see what she thinks. The next day she called me back and said Oprah is so, so honored and can’t wait to sit down and interview with you in person.
Blade: We now know what happened after you did it. But did it surprise you that although the public reaction appears to be overwhelmingly positive, you created a controversy among some AIDS and LGBT activists over your statement in another interview the following week about how you got infected. Could you call that reaction a backlash?
Pintauro: You can call it that, yeah. I wasn’t surprised. You can’t go into doing something like this and expect it to be a hundred percent in support. You just can’t, especially in the age of the Internet where anybody with a computer can write an article and have it posted somewhere. But I was a little surprised because the backlash was coming from the people that I want to become — these HIV activists mostly. And I was surprised because I didn’t expect that the negativity would come from within the community. I thought if anything it would come from outside of the community where stigma is based. But the fact that it came from within was really surprising.
And it is what it is. Everybody has their own version of the truth. And I’ve since said a couple of things about how I’m not one hundred percent sure – I have no idea. But that’s not the point. The point is when did your doing it wrong become more palatable than I’m sorry – I’m here for you. Let’s get through this. Let’s help you become the great activist that you want to become.
Blade: Do you still think there could be the possibility of becoming infected through oral sex?
Pintauro: Yeah – the chances are incredibly slim. I admit that. But you’d be surprised about the number of people who contacted me in the last week and a half saying that that’s the same way that they believe they’ve contracted it. And you have to remember that I’m throwing meth into the picture. So any of these statistics are going to change or any of the chances are going to be different when you put into that factor that I’ve been doing that for God knows how many hours. And you know, what’s happening in your body and the person you’re with – he’s not on any medication so his viral load is very, very high.
But yeah, it could happen anyway. It could be anything. It could just be that his viral load was so high that our fluids mixed in some other way and that was enough. You never know. But I spent the last 12 years sort of trying to figure out what happened that day, and that’s my best guess.
Blade: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website now that although oral sex carries a much lower risk of HIV transmission than other sexual activities, the risk is not zero.
Pintauro: That’s the funny part to me. These people are trying to say I don’t know what I’m talking about and that I’m not informed. And I’m saying, now wait a minute. Why don’t you go and look at the CDC’s website and look at the fact that they say that it is possible all be it very difficult. I feel like you’re the one who’s uninformed, right? Does that make sense? But the idea is sort of to get past that and get to the bigger issues and get to the broader topics that we need to focus on. And let’s get there. It’s time to just skip that and talk about taking better care of each other.
Blade: Concerning your plans to make public appearances to talk about HIV and HIV prevention, what would you say to young people about your own situation, including your crystal meth problem? Looking back, can you perhaps say what you should have done that you didn’t do?
Pintauro: I think just the fact that meth was involved in the first place is going to make for all kinds of scenarios that don’t have to happen in the first place if you’re not getting into the drug scene. But I’ve been talking to people who had been drinking so much that they blacked out and don’t remember exactly what they did. And I have friends who are not doing drugs and are still that one time getting HIV. It’s a matter of complacency. It’s a matter of making sure people are still doing what they need to do to protect themselves. And I feel like people are doing that less. And it may be because they don’t have a frame of reference for the fear and sort of the scary side of HIV. But we’re also seeing a rise in men over 50 who are also getting HIV. So it’s not just the young kids. I think everybody is taking too many steps back. It’s still a problem. It’s not going to go away. And just because you can take one pill a day doesn’t mean you can throw caution to the wind.
Blade: You’ve talked about your coming out as gay and now coming out as someone who’s HIV positive. How has that impacted your relationship with your family and your parents?
Pintauro: Coming out as gay in 1997 was hard for my parents. You know they didn’t have a lot of frames of reference at the time. PFLAG was barely in existence. They didn’t really have anyone to go to or talk to about what it means. So they had to figure out how to handle it on their own. And I thank them for doing it as well as they did considering the time we were in.
The HIV was no problem at all. By now we’ve got my lovely husband who is in the picture, and they love him. They know that we’re in a sero-discordant relationship so they get that we’re doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves. And for my parents, it was Oprah. Oprah’s involved. How exciting, you know? So they’re just proud of me for making the message and taking it out there. They’re following along. I keep calling and my dad will say like, oh, they’re not getting your messages across in that article you did. So it’s nice to sort of hear them looking for what’s coming next and paying attention.
Blade: With the name Pintauro, are you from Italian American family?
Pintauro: A little bit, yeah. One side is Italian and the other half is Polish, English, Irish, and German. So I’ve got a whole crazy mix of blood going on. But yes, the Pintauro last name is Italian.
Blade: The fact that you and your husband are married makes you a living example of how far the gay rights movement has come with marriage equality nationwide. Have you thought about where the gay and LGBT movement should be going now?
Pintauro: That hits the nail right on the head. And I’ve been saying that a lot lately, which is that we’ve been so focused on becoming socially acceptable and so focused on getting more rights as with marriage and any other sort of health benefits. You name it. We’ve been so focused on it. And we’ve been achieving amazing things and it’s wonderful that we’re achieving these things. But I think in doing that we’ve forgotten about each other a little bit. And we’ve forgotten about taking care of each other. We’re so focused externally. But now I think that we should focus internally again. And we’re really good at rallying as a community, you know? And I think it’s time that we rally within to stop the spread of HIV and make how big of a problem meth is much more apparent in our community. So that is literally where I think we should focus next – is on each other.
Blade: One aspect of the gay movement that has been talked about recently is the Stonewall riots as depicted in the recently released move called Stonewall. As someone who has experience in the film industry, have you had a chance to see it and form an opinion on it?
Pintauro: I haven’t yet, no, I haven’t. I’ve been reading the articles and reading about the controversy. It’s a really fine line because the film maker is so proud of the work. And I have to allow him to be proud of his work and I have to allow him to feel like he’s done a really great thing. I feel everyone is going to have their thoughts on if it was done right or if it was done wrong. But I think I’m also having that happen now. People are saying he isn’t doing it right or you’re not doing it the way we want you to have done it. I’m just happy – the thing I’ve been saying is people are talking. I’m getting people to talk. And I’m getting people to have that conversation again. And so if anything, I think the movie really sort of allowed us to have that conversation again, to remember where we come from. And the number of people – young gay men especially – who had absolutely no idea about Stonewall and what that meant could come across this article –even if it was a bad article. They’re still going to read that article and they’re going to want to learn more. And then they’re either going to see the movie or do some research on Stonewall that brings them back to our history. So whatever the movie is, it’s brought everyone back to our roots and sort of learning about that again. And that’s ok.
Blade: Are you thinking about seeing the movie at some point?
Pintauro: Yeah, sure. There’s just been so much going on I have not had a chance. But yes. For sure — I have to see anything that has to do with our community, especially in a historical sense. So yeah, stay tuned. I’ll post something about my thoughts on it.
Blade: As we approach 2016 the presidential election with all the candidates running, both Republicans and Democrats, do you have any preference among the candidates?
Pintauro: You know if there’s one thing I’ve never ever been very good at its politics. My husband is the politician – or the one who follows all of it. Believe it or not, he and I are both still trying to figure out who we really trust and who we really believe in. I think it’s going to depend a lot on the coming months. I definitely feel like I would trust Hillary in the White House 100 percent. But there are other people who have just as great ideas and opinions and methods for getting things done in the White House. So I’m listening to those. Of course, anybody who’s going to get into the White House and potentially take away my rights or anybody that I care about and love is not somebody who I’d want in the White House. Stay tuned. We’ll have to wait and see.
Blade: It seems that among the Republican presidential candidates, most if not all don’t support LGBT rights.
Pintauro: I mean anyone who expects a Republican to appreciate the gay community or LGBT rights is fooling themselves – at least right now. Look, we may get to a place where a Republican gets into office and they understand the impact that they have on the world and they will take some steps to learn more and to at least come to terms with the fact that the LGBT community exists. I would hope that they would do that. We’ll see.
Blade: Despite all of the existing HIV prevention programs throughout the country, no matter what they do, the new infection rate has remained the same and has not gone down, particularly with young gay men and gay men of color. Do you have any thoughts on what you might say to young gay men who are just coming out?
Pintauro: Yeah, I feel like they just need to learn more about what HIV is and what it means. But it all comes back to getting tested for me. If you don’t feel comfortable enough to get tested because you are afraid to get tested, you don’t want to know the answer, or you don’t want to become that guy who’s got HIV you’re not going to get tested. And that for me is the biggest problem. If everyone got tested and everyone knew their status we would eliminate HIV or new infections altogether because everyone would know. So it’s a matter of getting people to get tested. What you do in your bedroom – obviously I’d like for you to be taking precautions. But if you’re getting regular tests and checkups then at least we’re taking care of that aspect and at least we can hopefully prevent you from passing the virus on to someone else.
I have a close friend in Las Vegas whose partner got incredibly sick and they thought it had something to do with his blood and his heart. Nobody thought to do an HIV test at any point. He didn’t even think to do it. It turns out that he had ten T cells left because he was that far along with HIV that it had become full blown AIDS. And somewhere in that line he passed it on to the boyfriend. If they had both gotten tested long before they could have completed avoided that ever having happened in the first place. Whatever it is they did in the bedroom if they had had those tests in the first place they would already have known and would already have been able to take the precautions they needed to.
Blade: Concerning the crystal meth issue, do you have any advice for young guys who are toying with it and saying oh I can keep it under control and do it as a recreational thing?
Pintauro: It doesn’t work. Meth is not the kind of drug that you will be able to do recreationally. And even if you do your brain chemistry becomes so far off so fast that you still have a lot of recovery to go through. And then there’s that thing that happens too where a lot of the time you’re doing meth and having sex so you’re combing the two and you lose sight of what having sex without meth looks like. And that’s really hard to find again. I take that – that’s from experience for sure. If you don’t want to lose sight of what it feels like to be normal in a sexual environment don’t get into it in the first place. Whether or not it makes you feel invincible or sexy or as dirty as you want to be – not dirty as in dirty dirty but dirty as in dirty dirty – It’s not worth it. It’s just not worth it.
Blade: You mentioned in another interview that you thought there is a linkage between meth use and S&M-bondage practices. Have you gotten any flack for that?
Pintauro: Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten a little flack. And I don’t mean to say that the BDSM community is completely intertwined with crystal meth. In my experience they were always connected. I don’t know if my experience is a separate version or if it’s the norm. It doesn’t matter because the idea is the BDSM community is such a tight community, they take so much good care of each other, they’re so welcoming and accepting that I want them to do more to not welcome meth into that environment. That shouldn’t be a part of that. It’s about all of the other stuff and it’s about being in the moment. You can’t be in the moment in that kind of environment if you’re doing meth.
Blade: A lot of people have talked about your role as a child star in ‘Who’s the Boss?’ But can you tell a little about how you managed around the same age as you were in ‘Who’s the Boss’ when you appeared in the horror movie ‘Cujo,’ where your character was trapped inside a car in a garage with his mother and menaced by a huge monster dog that was killing people left and right?
Pintauro: It was a great movie. It’s got all the suspense. It’s got the actual story content. You actually end up caring for the characters. Nowadays it’s just very like slash and burn and kill. This has got that really nice edge to it. You never know what coming next.
Blade: But as a child actor was it scary for you?
Pintauro: No, no.
Blade: When you’re behind the scenes and in front of the camera it’s more like doing a job?
Pintauro: Yeah – and that’s what takes it away. Like I was acting so well that everybody kept saying it’s just pretending. And I was like I’m fine. But in the actual scene they thought I was going to be traumatized by filming it. But when you’ve got like half a car – they cut the car in half so they could put a camera inside. So when you’re seeing that and you’re seeing like these cute dogs with catchup on their face it’s not that scary.