While appearing on Saturday’s episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now?, the Who’s the Boss? alum revealed his own experiences mixing sex and crystal meth as a means of launching a campaign to raise awareness about the problem in the gay community and to stop what he believes is an oncoming epidemic.
But the biggest bombshell of the night came when Pintauro revealed that he is HIV-positive.
“I am speaking out because I want everyone who continues to ‘tweak’ and party to know that it is not worth the price,” Pintauro tells PEOPLE. “I want my community to wake up, stop being complacent and start taking care of each other. We need to be the best we can – safe and healthy.”
Pintauro’s experimentation with meth began after he ended a two-year relationship and wanted to pursue facets of his sexuality that had previously “terrified” him. For him – as for many members of the gay community – it was an easy, if dangerous, fix.
“You suddenly lose all your inhibitions, you have no limits, you have no boundaries, you feel invincible. You feel incredibly heightened when it comes to your sexuality, and everything sounds and feels exciting to you. In that subculture of BDSM and bondage, it makes sense that a drug like that would go hand in hand with testing your limits and trying new things and getting dark and dirty and sexy and all of that,” says the former child star, 39. “So unfortunately those lifestyles have gotten intertwined, and that’s exactly how I got into it in the first place.”
Safe but Still Positive
Pintauro says he can pinpoint the moment when he contracted HIV in February 2003 to a sexual encounter when he was using meth. His story is not typical – but also not unusual.
Even in the depths of his crystal meth dependency, “I was one of those people who does condom checks,” says Pintauro.
Growing up in the ’80s, when HIV/AIDS was first becoming part of the national conversation and was often explicitly – though misleadingly – labeled a “gay” disease, Pintauro (who chose to come out of the closet in 1997 after the National Enquirer threatened to out him) says that “just having a thought about a man made me feel like I had gotten HIV. I was that guy.”
And in the relationship that ultimately led to his HIV-positive status, he says, “Even in the height of having this crazy good time with this guy, I still made him wear a condom.”
But, as Pintauro wants to make clear, taking every precaution still doesn’t protect habitual drug users, especially those abusing crystal meth, from contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
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“Meth is the kind of drug where your immune system goes to s— in a minute,” he explains. “Having done it for multiple hours, or perhaps I had been doing it for a day or two or maybe over the last couple of weeks off and on, my immune system wasn’t recovering, and I was so much more susceptible to anything that came my way.”
He continues, “This guy was not on HIV medications, so his viral load was through the roof, I’m sure – especially because he’s doing a lot of drugs and not taking care of himself – so those factors combined to still find a way to have me contract HIV.”
“And that’s the really scary part,” he says, “because you can do everything you think you need to do to take care of yourself, but because of what meth does to your brain and to your body, no matter how hard you try, you’re still opening yourself up to those possibilities – whatever STI you can think of, it’s so much more prevalent than you’re going to pick that up.”
The risk is even greater for people who are less vigilant about protection: “The meth forces you to lose your inhibitions, so of course you’re going to say, ‘Oh, I don’t need to use a condom,’ or, ‘I’ll be fine this time’ because you’re lost in it. It’s no good, no good.”
Pintauro, then 27, received his diagnosis during a routine battery of tests two weeks later.
“From my perspective, I had been trying everything I could to make sure I was safe,” he says. “If I had done anything that I thought was unacceptable, I would have freaked out so badly. It really did come out of the blue for me.”
The emotional fallout was deep: “At the time, my thoughts were very heavy in the ‘No one is ever going to love me now. No one’s ever going to want to have sex with me. I should just give up on trying to find someone.’ ”
Though his diagnosis came in the midst of increasing success for medical treatments and during a time when the disease was continually losing its stigma, Pintauro says, “There is so much negativity surrounding HIV and just the concept of it, that a lot of people just aren’t comfortable with it. They might say they are, but in the back of their mind, they’re terrified of it.”
“And that’s okay,” he says. “I can’t force them to not be terrified of something. I was terrified of it for the longest time. I understand that terror.”
As far as forming relationships, though, it was a hurdle because “I didn’t want to get emotionally involved and then find out that I’d have to sort of help them through this – because that doesn’t make me feel good, to know that someone is worried about touching me.”
Self-Acceptance and Finding Love
Over time, Pintauro emotionally and physically came to terms with his new status.
By the time he met Wil Tabares, to whom he’s now married, Pintauro says, “I told my husband on our first date.”
“If you’re paying any bit of attention, you realize that HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore,” says Pintauro, who admits he was unprepared to be a role model for his community when he came out of the closet in 1997.
Now, with this new revelation, he wants to embrace that role: “That’s one of the ‘beacon of light’ aspects of this whole situation that I want to take on. You can live a healthy life, you can have a happy life.”
He hopes to continue destigmatizing the disease and opening up dialogue: “For me, HIV is the new closet in the sense that, until we all come out of the HIV closet and start talking about it we [won’t become] more accepted.”
By engaging in open conversation about the realities of the disease, he says, “I think we’ll make a big difference.”
Looking Inward, Moving Forward
Pintauro says he’s “never really been an activist,” but he’s now ready to face any reaction to both his past crystal meth use and his HIV-positive status.
“I’m coming at this with good intentions and with big goals,” he says. “My goal is to literally go door to door making a difference somehow with both of these topics for the next year.”
But having faced both sides of the public’s response to his coming-out, he anticipates that many “people are either going to say, ‘I told you so,’ or, ‘Look, he’s just like the rest of them.’ ”
He continues, “I think as long as I can sort of let that go and say, ‘Yeah, I am just like the rest of them, and you could be, too,’ then I’m okay with it. The idea of being gay, coming out as gay and having a meth problem is not that far-fetched of a concept. And that’s a problem.”
And he hopes that message, along with his forthcoming activism, will be a force for positive change in the gay community at large.
“I feel like in the gay community, we’ve been spending so much energy trying to become socially acceptable and so much energy trying to make marriage happen – which I think are 100 percent important – and, in doing that, we’ve forgotten about taking care of each other a little bit. Back when the AIDS crisis was happening … back when we weren’t really socially acceptable, we still took good care of each other because we only had each other. We didn’t have all of our other friends and coworkers or any of that to turn to,” he says.
“Now that we’ve gotten to the place, we need to look within again. We need to take a step back, and we need to say, ‘Okay, here’s where we are, and here’s what we need to do to get our community back to that place of taking care of each other.’ “