When Danny Roberts appeared on Season 8 of MTV’s groundbreaking reality TV series The Real World: New Orleans, the then 22-year-old from the small city of Rockmart, Georgia had no idea how quickly he’d become a gay icon. The resulting fame actually left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he revealed in a recent interview.
Although The Real World had featured gay male cast members before Roberts — most notably Pedro Zamora, the HIV-positive Cuban-American from Season 3 of The Real World: San Francisco — but there weren’t too many other recurring gay characters on TV when Roberts appeared in 2000: Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom got cancelled in ’98 after she came out, Spin City’s black gay character didn’t make too many waves and both Will & Grace and Sex and the City had only started in 1998 and were just getting warmed up.
Denied openly gay characters on other shows, Roberts’ gayness gained him immediately notoriety along with the fact that he was dating a closeted U.S. military officer while on the show. His then-boyfriend’s face had to be blurred out whenever he came to The Real World house for fear that he’d be discharged under the military’s anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. As a result, Roberts became an inadvertent activist against the policy, a serious role he wasn’t really prepared for.
“I don’t know if I would have done that show again seeing how it has affected my life in the long run,” he says. “What I eventually came to realize is I came out of that show with a deal of PTSD. I was really young, I was thrust into the limelight, not only just as a young kid but also to represent a very heavy issue. I wasn’t really out, I wasn’t prepared to carry that banner.”
Roberts says that his frame of reference for being gay at the time was Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student who was tortured, beaten and left to die in 1998. So he often felt afraid for his own safety out in public, especially since he was widely known as a gay man. The possibility that his military boyfriend might be identified and outed as well added an extra layer of fear and apprehension, he says.
“It was not a healthy way to live…. I went home to visit my hometown at one point during the first year after the show and just I remember walking through town. There was a festival going on, some kids were interested like, ‘That’s the guy on MTV,’ but I could hear a lot of them saying, ‘That’s the faggot’ … it did a lot of damage.'”
He says his experiences after The Real World left him with PTSD, and it took him 10 years “of life and therapy” to get over it. Even so, the election of Donald Trump made him experience similar feelings like people were out to harm him. Nevertheless, he’s now 40-years-old and lives in Boston where he has shared custody with his two-year-old daughter, Naiya.
He acknowledges that while many young people just see The Real World as an early reality TV show, it “introduced America to real gay people for the first time and made them human.”
He says, “It’s so irrelevant now, but MTV and The Real World, if it weren’t for those organizations and that entity, I don’t think gay rights would be anywhere near where it is right now.”
“Things have changed in a huge positive way,” he says. “We’ve made massive steps forward, but as you see where are are right now with our government, nothing is guaranteed and no one should ever feel comfortable,” he added. “No one should ever feel like this is all owed to them, because at the end of the day, it’s truly not. Nothing’s owed to us and we have to fight for it.”