‘Real World’ Alum Danny Roberts On Life, Love & More 20 Years After His TV Debut

Credit: Danny Roberts Instagram

Danny Roberts, to many of us LGBTQ people growing up in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, was a beacon of hope. His adorable & openly gay presence made its debut 20 years ago around this time when The Real World: New Orleans was airing on MTV. Yes, we are getting old.

He wasn’t just another out of the closet kind of gay dude as his story went way beyond that. Danny captivated audiences with many other things including him being in a relationship with a man in the military where his face was blurred while he visited him as the show progressed. It was a jaw-dropping moment for the LGBTQ community as it was something never seen on television before yet both of them boldly took us on a ride that we still remember two decades later.

Things have, of course, changed for Danny in the years since the cameras stopped rolling. He chatted with Instinct Magazine about his past on reality television (including what really went down with his ex), if he would do the show again, being open about his HIV status and so much more in our exclusive interview with him.

Can you believe it’s been 20 years since your season of The Real World aired? What do you remember the most from filming?

Yeah, 20 years is absolute madness. The average age of the viewer at the time was somewhere between 12 and mid 20s; that warps your mind when you realize more time has passed than our ages then. I was only 21/22 at the time.  And the world has CHANGED in pretty incredibly fundamental ways since, especially around views of LGBT.

What I remember most about filming was that in filming the “REAL world”, in reality it felt more like we had departed for the unreal, the surreal; it always felt like being behind the curtain at Oz getting a glimpse at the wizard’s levers. Media is powerful.

You had a pretty memorable cast outside of yourself like Mormon Julie and over the top Melissa. Do you keep in contact with any of them all this time later?

I wish I could say we all kept more in touch with each other but over time we’ve all drifted off into our own dynamic directions. We were all chosen based on having many differing personality traits and beliefs, so as you can imagine that chasm only grows with age. I’d still love to get together with Melissa and crack up a little. I miss those days. I do keep in close touch with Kelley, who is a touchstone for me. We had just traveled through Belgium together days before the lockdown in fact. At this point, I think we’re all parents at this point living pretty busy lives.

Your story resonated so much with the LGBTQ community then and now. Did you realize the impact you had on millions of people early on just for being yourself?

Like most young guys who were just coming out to themselves and discovering who we are at those young ages, I wasn’t prepared for the weight and impact. I just thought of myself as a guy from a small town who was being given an opportunity to speak up and help move the dial. LGBTQ rights and visibility were pretty dire at that time, but you could sense an energy building and a tipping point coming.

Matthew Shepard‘s murder around that time galvanized people in a way, which coincided with me arriving on the screen. I represented the harmless white guy next door that most of America could relate to at a time when America had pretty dark misconceptions about who all LGBTQ people were. Seeing me made people realize that we’re not in fact the monsters they feared, which opened the door for conversation and reckoning. I was blown away and quite personally unprepared to carry that banner as I was battling so many of my youth insecurities then. However, I embraced it as a duty I felt honored to have been chosen to be that person; I think we were all starved to be visible in a positive way, including myself. 

There was also your relationship where your partner at the time was in the military during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. What was that situation like for the both of you with practically the whole world watching and do you keep in touch with him?

My ex from then was indeed an Army Airborne Captain. He was often stereotypically pegged as the Navy, which always gave me a kick. But yes, that was a situation that was highly unexpected as we only met a few weeks before filming started. I hadn’t intended to have a relationship, but it turned into that, unfolding on camera through much of the show. We were googley eyed for each other, which couldn’t have overshadow the complicated reality that at the time under DADT, he was forbidden to be visible as an out gay man, and being on camera revealing it was a double whammy no-no. His identity was blurred and that captured a lot of America’s attention who, like me, had no previous idea that our military had these archaic rules, which have now been erased. It’s an interesting time to discuss this issue as Trump has been flirting with the idea of rolling parts or all of it back to please his base, especially attacking trans rights pertaining to military service. 

We were together for 7 or 8 years after first filming and eventually he left the military service and we did an hour-long MTV News reveal with John Norris at our house in Seattle at the time. It was a big deal then as it was in the middle of the push to overhaul DADT, so it was an important stepping stone in the coverage of the issue. Sadly though, the years living together under that policy, with me being me and a lack of privacy, our relationship unraveled. It’s really incredibly unhealthy to attempt to live as a couple while living a double life and I’m so thankful that we no longer have to submit to such disgrace while serving the nation. Eventually we parted our own ways and went in very different directions in life and don’t speak often.

If The Real World wanted to do a big reunion special or season with your cast would you do it?

Absolutely, it would likely be great and now is a wonderful time to reminisce; I’d love to know what that crew is up to and looks like these days as well as see all the little ones.

How has life changed for you in the years since becoming a household name?

Household name? You’re so kind. I think the arch of my story goes something like this in short:  This experience revealed a rich and meaningful life experience that I embraced in many ways, which put me in a position to be able to make positive societal impact. That is not something that would have happened in my life most likely otherwise. As i’ve grown older, i’ve really turned to extracting myself from that previous identity and working on embracing the core me without that previous imprint. It’s an exciting journey that I’m really incredibly thankful for as I’m aware how much privilege was bestowed on me which I’ve hopefully used to help others who aren’t as visible. That includes the next topic….HIV. 

You revealed your HIV positive status many years ago which is a very brave thing to do. Do you still think the gay community has a stigma about people living with HIV and what do you think we should do to change that?

It was only a couple years ago I publicly revealed it but I had known and my inner circle knew a few years before that. I went on a journey of acceptance with the diagnosis, much like we all go on with coming out, starting with deep shame. The hardest part of that journey for me was overcoming my own lingering and deeply held bias against people with HIV. Those were painful truths to reveal and do away with. It took me a few years to work through that shame and bias, but man did it make me a stronger person on the other side.

To your question, bias still runs rampant amongst the gay community at large. There are varying degrees of acceptance and thank god for those who’ve learned and informed themselves to get past that bias. So many, though, are trapped in a 90’s era mentality and we can spend all day discussing the psychology of it, but it boils down to this essential truth. To keep it short, i’ll give you homework, read The Velvet Rage. Gay men are quite often overcompensating for our own insecurities and traumas by seeking perfection in others, particularly in partners. HIV is a stain that many find revolting and misaligned with that notion of perfection we seek to mask. In a basic sense, it often just comes down to a lack of knowledge about medical advancement and what it means to be undetectable. I get responses that range from shrugs of “cool, glad you’re healthy”, to total physical revulsion. I once had a guy violently yell to me that he couldn’t believe I’d dare even speak to him and that he thought “we should all be put on an island”. It’s an interesting crossroad era to be positive and under good treatment. It again, feels like being behind the curtain in Oz, but this is an issue that again needs visibility and a reminder that it hasn’t vanished. I’d love to see the stigma around this illness fade as quickly as a cure arrives.  

Have you found love and if so how did it happen? If not, what kind of guy do you look for?

I’ve been working on falling in love with me over the past few years, and I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way. What I mean by that is that most of us as young gay men rushed into the brave new world of out gay dating blindly seeking men to fill voids and pain in us. Many of us ended up in codependent relationships a time or two in our adult lives and the goal is to grow out of that and into more holistically healthy relationships. I’ve been on that important journey since a divorce a few years ago. We share custody of our 4-year-old daughter together and we make it work.

It feels good to be where I am; you know you’re in a healthy place with yourself when you don’t feel an empty urge for the “other”. When you’re at peace with being with you, that’s the sweet spot. I’m there now and open to the right person arriving into my life, but that will be when the universe is ready. I generally enjoy deeply self-aware, low ego, humble men who are a bit adventurous and surprise me. I’m bored to tears by anyone or anything that gets too close to conformity. I tend to gravitate to the men out west, where I’ve spent much of my adult life living and playing. Go west young man. I seem to be drawn to teachers often at this stage in life. Wisdom and knowledge are as sexy as a good kiss. 

In conclusion what do you have to say to the people whose lives you impacted?

I’m honored to have been that person; it’s still quite surreal to wrap my head around, especially seeing how far society has evolved since those days. It’s almost easy to forget it even happened. What I hope is that many of you pass on that same courage to others in ways that helps them see the light. It boils down to having courage in a time when many don’t, like for instance right now. Look at the state of the world…. there’s your opportunity to pass the baton and make a meaningful difference for someone who desperately needs it. 

What do you think?