By Dann Dulin
Scorned by porn when he tested positive, former adult film performer Derrick Burts is committed to seeing that his fellow actors are cared for.
“I’m sorry…this is still hard for me…,” says an emotionally distraught, tearful Derrick Burts at an AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) press conference in Los Angeles. He swallows hard and pauses to recompose. A hush plummets over the audience. This was the scene in 2010, a few days after World AIDS Day.
The former porn performer, who tested positive after seven months of doing both straight and gay films, has come forth to set the record straight about contracting HIV on the film set. The Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM), which was established in 1998 by an adult industry performer to protect and prevent the transmission of HIV in the industry, claims otherwise. They charge that Derrick contracted the virus in his own personal life. For months prior to the conference, the papers were ablaze with news that a new porn star, known only as Patient Zeta, had contracted HIV on the set. Now, Derrick is giving a face to Patient Zeta.
Several months prior to the conference, in September, Derrick routinely tested and his blood work came back negative. In October, just a month later, he tested positive for HIV. (For the record, Derrick did not bareback and abhors the practice.) The counselor at AIM, Jennifer Miller, reportedly told Derrick that he contracted it while working with another actor who was HIV-positive. “I didn’t know anything about HIV and I thought I was going to die,” says Derrick, who had never tested before entering the industry.
Derrick informed Miller that he was interested in follow-up treatment and she agreed to put him in touch with a specialist. Then, according to Derrick, Jennifer advised him to change his phone number, to delete his Twitter and Facebook accounts, and to get out of town. She then demanded that he not speak with AHF, as they were trying to bring down the porn industry. He complied, quit the industry, and moved back to his hometown of Hemet, California.
Days later, after Derrick’s story hit the media, Jennifer did a 360 degree turn-around and told the press that Patient Zeta (Derrick’s name was never used) had contracted HIV in a non-professional setting. Derrick unequivocally disagrees, as he factually knows from whom he contracted the virus.
Derrick was shocked and crushed over Jennifer’s statement. Frightened, he went into an emotional tailspin. Eventually he contacted AHF and within twenty-four hours he received treatment.
AIM shut down in December 2010, a few days after Derrick’s press conference. It reopened briefly, and then in May of 2011 it finally closed. AIM filed for bankruptcy in the face of mounting lawsuits from other performers. Moreover, their patient database was leaked to Porn Wikileaks.
At Derrick’s conference in December 2010, Michael Weinstein, the president of AHF stated, “We’ve been waging a campaign for several years for mandatory condom use in the porn industry. Derrick came into our care without us being aware or knowing who he was, so he was treated as any patient seeking care who would be treated. It was only after he was in care with us for a period of time that he approached us to say that he wanted to speak out. I personally salute him. Because anyone in front of a bank of cameras like this and anyone talking about a highly personal topic such as this—it takes a lot of courage. I know that he’s doing it because he hopes that it will help other people in his circumstance.”
Today, the twenty-four-year-old is healthy, on treatment, and active. He speaks around the country on the college circuit about his recent experience and also works with AHF. This past summer, Derrick, along with other porn performers, announced “Porn Performer Safety Ballot Initiative.” It’s a measure that would require condom use in the adult film industry in California. To get this on the June 2012 ballot they would need nearly 42,000 Los Angeles voter signatures gathered in four months. Derrick, and others, known as the group For Adult Industry Responsibility (FAIR), piloted the campaign, and, on November 30, 2011, the group acquired 64,000 signatures, which will put the measure on the ballot.
We meet one overcast afternoon at his favorite spot in Los Angeles—Hollywood and Highland Center—in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel. Derrick, who has a hospitality degree, became familiar with hotel living when he was on the road from ages seventeen to twenty as a magician. His first national tour was “Magic For a Cause” for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, where he brought in over $200,000. He even took his act aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines. Due to the demands of entertaining on the road, Derrick ventured into the hospitality industry and, in time, worked as a manager for the Hilton and Marriott chains.
Dann Dulin: It’s nice to see you, Derrick. How are you doing healthwise?
Derrick Burts: My health is great. I am taking Atripla and I have great medical care provided by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. My viral load is undetectable and my T-cells are great.
What initially attracted you to porn?
The money. [He replies quickly.] My girlfriend at the time was in the industry and I was amazed at how much she made! My first job I made two hundred dollars in twenty minutes for a ten-minute solo masturbation scene. It was a dream job. I enjoyed what I did, but there’s a stigma about porn actors. I met many guys and girls who came from professional backgrounds.
Tell me about your background.
I have six brothers now. My oldest brother was murdered when I was sixteen, so I am now the oldest. [While] growing up, I was very involved with school activities and the Salvation Army church. I learned magic and illusion. It was my way of escaping all the problems at home. [He pauses.] When I was a magician I used magic to share a message. Now I am very passionate about educating people by sharing my story, informing young people the important message about safe sex.
How has your family dealt with all of this?
Unfortunately my family found out through the news media and they were freaking out because they thought I was going to die. I explained the disease to them and that my health was great. Since then my whole family has been totally supportive. I thought maybe some of them wouldn’t want to be around me or drink out of the same cup, but they all took the time to educate themselves and understand. That meant a lot to me. They said they still loved me in the same way. When I’m with them I feel like I don’t even have HIV!
Jennifer Miller, the counselor at AIM, reportedly said that you contracted the virus on the set. [Miller was contacted for this story but did not respond to our requests for an interview.] Then she changed her statement saying that you had contracted it in your personal life. Why?
She lied to the media to protect the clinic [AIM] and to protect a multibillion-dollar industry. When she said that, that’s when I decided to step up and speak to the media.
I feel that the closure of AIM is great in the long run. It was a shady clinic and I feel that it puts pressure on the industry to come up with a better system that works. This industry needs to start placing its performers first and the producers need to stop with the greed.
There are claims that you were a male escort; is that true?
This is where the porn industry is trying to misrepresent where I contracted HIV. When I began doing gay films in September 2010, I did register on Rentboy.com. It’s a site that attracts rich guys who want to have sex with porn stars.
Since I was new [in the industry], the work was not coming quickly. You have to work your way up until the producers get to know who you are.
With Rentboy, you don’t have to have sex. You can go-go dance, do escorting, give a massage, perform a strip show—which is what my ad said. Once the ad went in, I got a lot of calls. But most of the guys were weird and crazy, so I never actually met anyone. But when the porn industry found out about my [Rentboy] ad that’s when they tried to use it against me saying I contracted HIV this way.
After the conference in December 2010, what was it like for you?
Because I garnered so much attention, my Facebook turned into…I was getting e-mails from doctors all over the world, attorneys wanting to help me sue the industry, and so many people writing me every single day. I was getting countless e-mails from HIV-positive people telling me their stories. It really helped calm me. Early on, the e-mails were of support, but today I get e-mails from people who ask for my advice: “Hey, I just got HIV and I don’t know how to tell my family. I’m moved by your story just for the fact that you told the entire world.” Or other e-mails say, “You inspired me to tell my family because you told the world.” [Tears form around his eyes.]
What are you doing for income these days?
A few different things actually. I’m still speaking on the college circuit. AHF has also hired me as an independent contractor for speaking engagements. So I’ve been fortunate there. And I’ve gotten back into magic quite a bit now, which has been great.
Looking back, how do you sum all this up, Derrick?
Sometimes it takes getting something life-threatening to really understand the value of your life. I think a lot of people just live life not really understanding how valuable it really is. We take so much for granted. After being diagnosed, I have spent more time with my family—fishing trips, golfing, and so on. What I’m passionate about now is my family, making friendships, and having [romantic] relationships—and spreading this message to others.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.