February 29, 1972– Pedro Pablo Zamora
“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. 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, and is credited with launching the modern reality genre on television. Seven young people were chosen to temporarily live together in a new city in one residence while being filmed non-stop. Now, such a set-up seems old hat, but in the early 1990s, it made for riveting television viewing.
The series depicted issues such as sex, prejudice, religion, abortion, illness, sexuality, AIDS, death, politics, and substance abuse, but it was also the standard for reality TV shows: rednecks, party girls, virgin Christians, substance abusers, goody-2-shoes, gay people, douchey bike messengers; allowing them all to fight their tiny culture wars on television.
But, through the 30 seasons, Zamora of The Real World: San Francisco in 1994, its third season, continues to make an 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. Zamora 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 AIDS educator. When the opportunity arose to audition for a spot on The Real World, Zamora saw a chance to further his message of AIDS awareness.
The young HIV educator was always on message. 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’s The Real World can 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 in order to pay for his medical bills. Pre-Obama Care, Zamora received Medicaid, but could not, due to his AIDS diagnosis, qualify for an insurance policy.
Cast members Pam Ling and Judd 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.
“The world lost a hero. His family lost more. And, like the many he fought for, Pedro was deprived the long life he deserved. He changed how people think and feel. We can honor him by continuing to listen, to learn, and to grow.”
“I think that people really responded to the fact that Sean and Pedro put their story right out there. They were really honest, and it’s hard to ignore that. I think people connected with them, not just living with HIV, but who they were as people.”
Winick’s graphic novel, Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, & What I Learned, was published in 2000. It was awarded 6 American Library Association awards, and Winick won his first GLAAD Award.
Pedro (2009) is a very moving biopic produced by MTV and The Real World creators, written by Dustin Lance Black the cutie pie who won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Milk (2008), and fiancé of British Olympic diver Tom Daley. The terrific film 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 have been allowed to leave Cuba to join the family in Miami. The real Clinton also introduces the film. The Zamora family did not accept Sasser, however, and Zamora was too ill 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 did not need to have a lover anymore”. Sasser was not allowed to see Zamora during his final days.
In 2010, Pedro director and co-writer Paris Barclay and Black were nominated for a Writers Guild Award. Pedro also received a Humanitas Prize and a GLAAD Media Award.
In his short life, Zamora did much to advance awareness and understanding of HIV, as well as to change his generation’s acceptance of homosexuality.
For most of the first decade of the 21st century, Sasser was married to Michael Kaplan, and he was famous as a pastry chef in Portland. They were my neighbors and friends. Sasser was taken by cancer in the summer of 2013. The Sean Sasser Memorial Endowment Fund At AIDS United was established to support programs that improve the health of gay men of color. Sasser’s widower is the CEO of AIDS United. When he married Zamora in a commitment ceremony at The Real World house, audiences were not horrified, as they might have been just a decade earlier, but charmed. Their romance was voted “Favorite Love Story” out 30 seasons of Real World of cast members dating and falling in love. Zamora both educated and inspired a lot of people.
Co-Creator/Executive Producer of The Real World, Jonathan Murray:
“With Pedro, we brought an openly gay, HIV-positive man into households across America, something that had never been done before. When we cast Pedro, we knew he was someone special, but we had no idea the impact he would have on our society, our culture and putting a face on AIDS. We’re proud to have helped introduce him to the world, and we’re proud that 20 years later, his impact is still being felt.”
A Leap Year baby, Zamora would have been 13 years old or 44 years old today. No matter how you count it, it would be a better world if he was still with us.