By Rodger Streitmatter
When I saw a recent obituary for a man named Sean Sasser, I was instantly reminded of a dramatic moment in the history of the LGBT community and the media.
MTV had introduced its innovative program titled The Real World—many of today’s experts trace the roots of reality TV to this series—in 1992. The show brought seven young strangers together to share a household and have their every move videotaped, edited and broadcast nationwide to millions of youthful viewers.
A member of the LGBT community had been included among the roommates on both of the first two seasons, but the circumstances moved to a whole new level in 1994 when HIV-positive Pedro Zamora, 22, joined the cast.
The charismatic and handsome Cuban American—observers said he had the longest eyelashes in TV history—became one of the first gay people to talk openly before a national audience about his sexuality or about having AIDS. His words were particularly significant because his audience was composed mostly of young people who would carry the lessons they learned from him for the rest of their lives.
Zamora was single when he moved to San Francisco to participate in Real World, but by the third episode he was dating 25-year-old Sean Sasser, who was HIV positive. On week six, they declared their mutual love. By week nine, they were engaged.
All of these events were unprecedented, but those shown in episode 19 were nothing short of extraordinary. During that segment, MTV introduced the program’s 2 million viewers to the concept of substantive gay relationships by airing Zamora and Sasser’s commitment ceremony—the first one ever shown on American TV.
That ceremony included the two men exchanging rings, cutting a wedding cake and vowing their undying love for each other, with Sasser saying, “Show me your vision / Share the love / Take me with you / I love you.”
Perhaps most remarkable of all, for the time, was that the viewing audience witnessed the two men kissing each other—not once, but seven times.
Midway through the taping of the series, Zamora’s health suddenly declined. Producer Jon Murray later said, “He got sick much faster than he expected. That’s when he made us promise to tell his story till the end.”
Zamora was shown suffering night sweats, severe headaches and dramatic weight loss. His fellow cast members grew increasingly worried about him, often covering for him during their weekly “confessional” interviews by telling producers that Zamora was doing fine when they knew he wasn’t.
Zamora died in November 1994, hours after the final episode of The Real World: San Francisco had aired.
After the young man’s death, President Bill Clinton praised him for having personalized and humanized those living with HIV.
Sasser continued his activism for LGBT issues and his work as an HIV educator. In 1995, he spoke at the inaugural White House AIDS conference and was appointed by Clinton to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
He moved to Atlanta in 1995, hoping to open a café. He later worked as a pastry chef at a luxury hotel in Portland, Oregon, before settling in Washington, D.C., last year.
This past June, Sasser and Michael Kaplan got married, after having dated off and on since the 1990s. While living in Washington, Sasser served as a board member of the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families, and he and Kaplan served as foster parents to a 4-year-old girl.
In July, Sasser was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs. He died in August, at the age of 44.
A Washington Blade article quoted Kaplan as saying of his deceased partner and Zamora, “For so many young people, they were the first public faces of HIV they’d ever seen.”
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