a gay icon from reality tvs early years makes a hesitant return

A Gay Icon From Reality TV’s Early Years Makes a Hesitant Return

04DANNY ROBERTS1 facebookJumbo

GRAFTON, Vt. — When you cross into Vermont from New York, the road opens up and the Green Mountains emerge. Make it to Grafton (population: 645), and your cell service largely evaporates. This was where, on a recent day, Danny Roberts was standing in the doorway of the tiny cabin in the woods where he lives with his 6-year-old daughter. His eyes are crinkly now; his sandy hair seems uncertain of its next move. He has grown out a beard.

His daughter was out for the day, Mr. Roberts said. His mother, who was visiting for the week, was watching her.

“It’s kind of the elephant in the room with my family,” he said. “We don’t talk about the reality TV thing.”

When he first put himself out there, in the ninth season of “The Real World,” he was young and a bit naïve. Now, at 44, he’s doing it again, for reasons he can only half-explain.

The phrase “reality TV” was just becoming part of the everyday lexicon when he found himself jammed into a house in New Orleans with six other young people who — with the help of a few narrative contrivances — were taking their first stumbles into adulthood.

When he and his fellow players left “The Real World” for the real world, the stumbling continued, and Mr. Roberts learned that the TV version of himself had become a shadow that traveled with him. Danny Roberts meant something to people.

If you’re not a member of the microgeneration able to bust out the chorus to the Spice Girls hit “Wannabe” from memory, there’s a good chance you have no idea who Mr. Roberts is. But for a swath of gay elder millennials whose formative years unfolded to an MTV soundtrack, his reappearance as a cast member on a streaming return to “The Real World” on Paramount+ is likely to spark that old zig-a-zig-ah.

In 2000, Mr. Roberts was something new in pop culture: a gay sex symbol zapped into the basement rec rooms of teenagers who had never encountered such a creature. Gay people, at the time, were becoming more visible on TV — thanks, in large part, to earlier installments of “The Real World” — but none had the wholesomeness and confident sexuality that Mr. Roberts, then 22, exuded with every flash of his Mona Lisa-meets-Backstreet Boy smile.

The project of L.G.B.T.Q. visibility was going through an awkward phase in that time. Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out in 1997 created a sense that things were changing. But her sitcom, “Ellen,” was canceled one season after her revelation.

“Will & Grace,” another sitcom, broke some ground by chronicling the relationship between a gay man and his straight friend, but discerning viewers couldn’t help but notice that it had about as much bite as “I Love Lucy.” In 2000, “Survivor,” then in its first season, delivered an openly gay (and, often, openly nude) antihero in Richard Hatch, who schemed his way to million-dollar victory. But he was a rather dark, Machiavellian figure.

“The Real World” had featured L.G.B.T.Q. people since its 1992 debut — most notably Pedro Zamora, a young activist from the third season, who died of AIDS-related illness a day after the finale — but Mr. Zamora’s impact was complicated by deep sadness.

Mr. Roberts, born and raised in small-town Rockmart, Ga., was something different from his TV predecessors. Rather than playing a jester, villain or de-eroticized Ken doll, he was chill, joyful in his identity, and he seemed to glow with an unapologetic sex appeal.

For gay adolescents in a time before social media, who relied on television for glimpses of fellow travelers, the sight of him bopping around the “Real World” digs in his black boxer briefs was both an awakening and an indication of new possibilities.

Unlike Mr. Zamora, Mr. Roberts was, at the outset, not particularly motivated by activism. His boyfriend during the filming of “The Real World: New Orleans,” an Army officer named Paul Dill, appeared on the show using only his first name, and his face was hidden to conceal his identity. These were the days of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Bill Clinton-era policy that allowed L.G.B.T.Q. people to serve in the military under the condition that they stayed in the closet, and Mr. Dill could have lost his job if he had been revealed.

The couple took the risk of going before MTV’s cameras not in protest of the policy, but because they couldn’t bear to be apart. Mr. Dill’s blurred-out face in his several appearances became an enduring symbol of the injustice of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” as well as the liminal space gay people occupied.

“I really didn’t know what ‘Don’t Ask, don’t tell’ was,” Mr. Roberts said. “I didn’t know the ramifications. We really should have at least changed his name.”

The decision would have consequences. After baring himself to the cameras, Mr. Roberts returned to everyday life only to be forced back into a new kind of closet as he tried to continue the relationship.

“Every day, we lived with fear,” he recalled. “Of his career being destroyed. Of being dishonorably discharged. And I had my own fear. He was stationed in North Carolina, so we’re in the South, and every kid out there knew who I was.”

“You know, Matthew Shepard was just a couple of years before this,” he continued, referring to the gay college student who was kidnapped and murdered in Wyoming in 1998. “You keep repeating in your head: I’m going to get gay-bashed in the parking lot just trying to get my groceries.”

After breaking up with Mr. Dill in 2006, Mr. Roberts settled into a life that seemed to mirror the increasing ordinariness of gay men in America. He became a recruiter in the tech industry. He married, adopted his daughter and divorced. (“I don’t recommend marriage,” he said.) In 2018, he announced that he had been living with H.I.V. since 2011. He moved to Vermont.

Then, like an old flame, “The Real World” came calling. Mr. Roberts said he found it difficult to resist the paycheck and the chance at closure. “It was a nostalgia thing,” he said. “It’s returning to the scene of the crime.”

This time around, he’s more mindful of the way his presence on TV can create change. “For me, personally, all the progress that L.G.B.T.Q. people have made in the last 20 feels very tenuous now,” he said. “This is a chance to remind people about what things were like then, and that we don’t want to go back there.”

The new show, “The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans,” doesn’t entirely abandon the reality TV conventions it helped pioneer. In one episode, a drunk cast member tumbles out of an S.U.V. and face-plants on the sidewalk.

But as the seven old housemates return to their New Orleans haunts, they carry with them the baggage of middle age. Mr. Dill makes an appearance in a poignant scene on the show’s third episode, coming face to face with Mr. Roberts for the first time since 2006. His face is now fully visible.

As Mr. Roberts strolled the grounds of his rural property on a gray spring day, the easy charisma of his younger self was in evidence. Since 2020, he has been seeing a farmer who lives one town over. (They met on the dating app Scruff.) “He had no clue I’d been on TV,” he said. “I don’t think he grew up with cable.”

This time around, there’s nothing to hide. But some habits die hard: Mr. Roberts declined to share the farmer’s name.

And while he has mixed feelings about the path that “The Real World” led him down, the experience was as important to him as it was to his fans all those years ago.

“I think a lot of people who are marginal, especially who are gay, especially from that time, you felt invisible,” he said. “It’s this deep hole of emptiness. Doing that show was the most exciting, beautiful part of my life at that point. I got my first taste of what confirmation feels like.”