“As gay young people, we are marginalized. As young people who are HIV-positive and have AIDS, we are totally written off.”
I was still in my 30s when the The Real World (1992-2013) premiered on MTV in 1992. I smartly stopped watching The Real World, or for that matter, MTV, when I turned 40-years-old. The Real World, which was inspired by the PBS documentary series An American Family (1973), was the longest-running program in MTV history and one of the longest-running reality series. It is credited with launching the modern reality show genre on television. Seven young people were chosen to temporarily live in a house together in a new city while being filmed non-stop. Now, such a set-up seems old hat, but in the early 1990s, it was riveting television viewing.
The Real World took on issues such as Sex, Prejudice, Religion, Abortion, Illness, Sexuality, HIV/AIDS, Death, Politics, and Substance abuse, yet it was also the template for future reality television shows: Rednecks, Party Girls, Virgin Christians, Substance Abusers, Goody-Two-Shoes, Fags, Douchey Dudes; allowing them all to fight their tiny culture wars on television for our viewing pleasure.
Through the 30 seasons, Zamora of The Real World: San Francisco in 1994, its third season, continues to make the biggest impression. Zamora and his six cast-mates: Mohammed Bilal, Rachel Campos, Pam Ling, Cory Murphy, Puck Rainey, and Judd Winick moved into the house at 953 Lombard Street on Russian Hill on February 12, 1994, and filming commenced.
Zamora was a Cuban-American gay man who died from complications from HIV the day after The Real World: San Francisco season finale aired. He was diagnosed with HIV in his junior year of high school, and by the time he was 19-years old, he was fully involved in a career as an HIV/AIDS educator and activist. When the opportunity arose to audition for a spot on The Real World, Zamora saw it as a chance to further his message of HIV/AIDS awareness.
He brought a scrapbook of his education work to show his The Real World cast-mates, immediately lectured them on HIV transmission, and took them along on his speaking gigs. He and his boyfriend, Sean Sasser, had a tear-jerking commitment ceremony before the television cameras. Anyone who saw that season of The Real World will never get Zamora’s story out of their minds.
Once The Real World: San Francisco season ended filming, Zamora fell fatally ill. Zamora had no medical insurance and MTV set up a trust fund to pay for his medical bills. Pre-Affordable Care Act, Zamora received Medicaid, but he could not, due to his AIDS diagnosis, qualify for an insurance policy.
Cast members Ling and Winick rushed to be by his side at a hospital in Miami. Their friendship deepened and together they embraced their friend’s cause. A year after they moved out of the spotlight, they moved in together. Ling became an M.D. specializing in HIV Health, Judd writes for DC Comics. They are now married and living in San Francisco. Tales Of The City author Armistead Maupin spoke at their wedding ceremony.
Winick’s graphic novel, Pedro And Me: Friendship, Loss, And What I Learned, was published in 2000. It was awarded six American Library Association awards, and Winick won his first GLAAD Award.
Pedro (2009) is a very moving biopic produced by MTV, written by Dustin Lance Black, the cutie pie who won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Milk (2008), husband of Olympian Tom Daley, and the creator of When We Rise, the LGBTQ Rights miniseries which ran on ABC a year ago
Pedro includes a reenactment of the phone call of appreciation to Zamora and his family from President Bill Clinton, who thanks him for his work, and who facilitates, along with Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary Of Health And Human Services Donna Shalala, a reunion of Zamora’s older brothers and sisters, who were allowed to leave Cuba to join the family in Miami. Clinton also introduces the film. The Zamora family did not accept Sasser, however, and Zamora was too sick to explicitly communicate to them the importance of Sasser in his life. This led to confrontations between Sasser and the Zamoras, who told him that: “Pedro does not need to have a lover anymore”. Sasser was not allowed to see Zamora during his final days.
Sasser and his second husband, Michael Kaplan, had been my neighbors in Portland in the first part of the 21st century. He was shy and sweet and funny. In August 2013, Sasser, who had been HIV-positive for 25 years, was taken by Mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lungs. He was just 44-years-old when he left this world.
Sasser’s relationship with Zamora helped break the taboo against showing two men in a loving, stable relationship on television. When they exchanged vows in a commitment ceremony in the The Real World loft, it was the first wedding for a same-sex couple in television history.
The Sean Sasser Memorial Endowment Fund at AIDS United is used to support programs that improve the health of gay men of color. The Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship at The National Aids Memorial Project supports the education of emerging young leaders committed to ending the HIV/AIDS.
In his short life, Zamora did so much to advance awareness and understanding of HIV, as well as to change a generation’s acceptance of gay people. When Sasser married Zamora on The Real World, audiences were not horrified, as they might have been just a decade earlier, instead they were charmed. Their romance was voted “Favorite Love Story” out 30 seasons of Real World of cast members dating and falling in love.
A Leap Year baby, Zamora would have been 13-years old in 2016 or 46 years-old today, or tomorrow; I don’t know how Leap Year babies celebrate. No matter how you count it, it would be a better world if he was still with us.