The accidental activist
Twenty-two-year-old Danny has a secret. And it’s not the one he shared with his parents just before he moved to New Orleans last winter. By now, more than five weeks into MTV’s latest incarnation of The Real World, everybody knows Danny is gay. Today, Danny’s dealing with an entirely different secret: his boyfriend, Paul.
Paul is in the military. And like most service members who want to keep their jobs, he’s in the closet. Neither his parents nor other family members—nor even his best friends—know he is gay.
But because of Danny’s participation in the 20-something soap opera (in which seven strangers live together and have their lives chronicled for five months), he and Paul have been thrust into the battle over the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
That’s where things get tricky for Danny (who asked that his and Paul’s last names not be used). Just when MTV is making him one of the most recognizable gay faces among those in their teens and 20s, his very notoriety threatens the anonymity and the livelihood of the person he cares for most.
With his just-out-of-bed good looks and oh-so-comfortable Southern drawl, Danny would have hooked the attention of Britney Spears–soaked MTV viewers even without the military controversy. In fact, the Rockmart, Ga., native had no intention of taking on military brass when he first agreed to move to the Big Easy.
“There were two reason I wanted to do the show,” Danny says, curling his lips as if he has a pinch of tobacco between his cheek and gum. “First, I wanted to get out of Atlanta.… I had just graduated from [the University of Georgia], and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with life.” And second, he says, “going on the show was a chance to, hopefully, dispel stereotypes and show the public…that there are so many different types of gay people.”
But when Danny met Paul in Atlanta less than two weeks before taping was set to begin in New Orleans, the unfolding of their innocent love story became much more than that. The two realized that if Paul were to visit Danny in New Orleans, he would inevitably end up on the program—an obvious violation of the military policy, which allows gay people to serve as long as they keep their sexual orientation hidden from everyone.
“We thought we were going to have to go for five months and not see each other,” Danny says. “But then two weeks into the project [Paul] was like, ‘I’m coming.’ ”
The twist surprised the show’s producers almost as much as it did the new lovers themselves. “When we cast Danny he didn’t have a boyfriend in the military,” says Real World cocreator Jonathan Murray. “He was actually high on some other guy.” But after only a few weeks into the show, Danny and Paul “didn’t know if they could survive being apart,” Murray says. So “we agreed to not show Paul’s face or give away any distinguishing characteristics.”
Not that Paul’s visits were an unwelcome addition. Stories like his are The Real World’s lifeblood. In fact, this isn’t the first time the show has touched on the issue of gays in the military. Last season, Hawaii cast member Ruthie Alcaide had a girlfriend who was in basic training. But Murray says Ruthie’s girlfriend wasn’t concerned about being seen on the show and that she left the service before the series aired.
“Once these things get dropped in your lap, you want to deal with them as best you can,” Murray says. “It even goes back to when Pedro [Zamora] got sick [from AIDS] on the show in San Francisco. We had no idea—nor did he—that he would get sick. But then it’s, ‘OK, these things have happened. How do we deal with it in a way that not only lives up to our program’s being an entertainment show but also maybe raises some interesting issues?’”
In Danny and Paul’s case, that meant letting their romance play out like any other—except that Paul’s image is blurred on-screen (almost as if he were on Cops rather than The Real World¨. “I have to be very careful what I reveal about him,” Danny says of the time he first showed pictures of Paul to his housemates. “I could ruin his career, his life.”
When he and Paul are apart on the show, Danny struggles with issues of fidelity (successfully, he reports today, aside from a few stray kisses during Mardi Gras). And the few times Paul is able to visit the New Orleans mansion, soft music plays as they smooch in the hot tub.
“It’s like we are best friends and are completely relaxed around each other,” Danny says about Paul. “It’s just so sickeningly perfect.”
Melissa, the 23-year-old housemate to whom Danny first came out on the show, says he was “100% successful” in his effort to dispel stereotypes of gay people, adding, “I’m a fan of the show and have watched [previous seasons], and I’ve been just a little put off by the portrayal of some of the gay characters because they feed into a stereotype that is unfair.”
Nowhere in the house is Danny’s influence more obvious than with his housemate Julie, a 20-year-old Mormon who called homosexuality “disgusting” during her audition for the show.
“When [Julie] learned I was gay she had to completely break herself down and change her views,” Danny says. “And by the end of the show, she did a 180 and was completely as antihomophobic as it gets.… I want the public to have the same reaction as Julie.”
But that’s as far as Danny wants his activism to go for now. His and Paul’s participation in the show has introduced millions to an issue many gay people consider one of the biggest obstacles in the struggle for equality—gays in the military. But after five months in front of the camera, Danny just wants to focus on their relationship—in private.
“I would like to speak out [against “don’t ask”],” says Danny, who eventually wants to start his own youth-oriented travel business. “But the more I would bother with that, the more I would piss the military off and give them a reason to find out [Paul’s] identity. That’s the last thing I want to happen.”
Aside from the publicizing of the show that’s expected of cast members, Danny says he and Paul are going to “stay low.” “We’re going to live [together] in a fairly small town in a random place,” he says, adding that he now plans to go by his first name rather than “Danny”—which is his middle name—to create an extra layer of privacy. “Obviously there is a fear that people are going to recognize me, put two and two together, and automatically know who [Paul] is. I want to avoid that as much as possible.
“The way I look at it is that when we go out in public places, we have to think about where we’re going [and] who’s going to be there,” Danny says. “We need to try to avoid places where the crowd that will be watching the show would hang out in large numbers.”
Despite all the precautions he and Danny are having to take, Paul, who breaks his silence for the first time with The Advocate, has little bad to say about the military or about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “It’s not the policy [that’s the problem]; it’s the people who are part of the military—like the American public—who are just not very accepting of that kind of lifestyle,” he says.
Reluctant to give too much information about himself—other than to say that he was already in the military when he realized he was gay 312 years ago—Paul says he will probably leave the service in about a year. “They tell you the rules, and if you don’t want to follow them, they find a nice, easy, safe way of getting yourself out,” he says, adding, “It was never my intention to fight military policy.”
Nine seasons into The Real World, Murray has seen cast members deal with everything from HIV and AIDS to abortion and alcoholism. Now that Danny has “humanized” another issue, Murray isn’t surprised to see him and Paul shrink a bit from the spotlight.
“People will probably look at them and try to turn them into advocates, but I don’t know if they’ll want to do that,” he says. “The gay men and women in the military are asking to be able to do their jobs and, when they’re not at work, be able to live their lives openly. And I think that’s all [Danny and Paul] are trying to do as well.”