Last night was the first night I slept well since Dad's surgery. I'm happy to say he's doing fine. He was ready to leave the hospital hours afterward. This is so my father. After I had breakfast and coffee, I looked up google news. I saw something about The Real World San Francisco. Since this was my favorite Real World season, I took a look. Sean Sasser died. I sat there and thought well damn. People Magazine called him a cast member. Many people were saying he wasn't, which was true. However, Sean was a part of television history.
As Sophia Petrillo would say, picture it, 1994. Bill Clinton was in the White House, telling gay people they could serve in the armed forces! But hey, can you do us all a favor and not say you're gay? Thanks so much! When you saw gay people on television they were usually the comic relief. Or the aunt or the uncle. They might only be there for one Very Special Episode, like when Snake found out his beloved older brother Glenn on Degrassi was gay. We never saw Glenn after that episode, but Snake learned he will always love his older brother, no matter what! Isn't that what mattered?
A young man from Florida around then was packing a suitcase. He was born on February 29th, 1972. A leap year baby, he was twenty-one years old but technically five. He said goodbye to his beloved family, then went to San Francisco. His name was Pedro Zamora. He helped change how we saw gay people on television.
Pedro was born in Cuba. When he was eight he and his family left for the States during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. According to Judd Winick's wonderful book Pedro and Me, they had to leave several family members behind due to red tape.They weren't sure if they would ever see them again. If that wasn't bad enough, Pedro's mom Zoraida died of skin cancer five years later. Incredibly frightened and confused, Pedro started going out at night, seeking affection from older men. AIDS was something that happened to drug addicts and hookers. Not him.
In 1989, his high school was having a blood drive. According to Winick, Pedro needed to get out of class to avoid taking a test he wasn't prepared for. He gave blood, then forgot about it. A month later he was told his blood was "reactive" He was in denial, then got tested. He was positive for HIV virus. In 1989, that was a death sentence. Get your affairs in order, make sure you picked a coffin. You weren't going to be around for much longer. AZT might extend your life, but it was doubtful.
Pedro knew what he had to do: live the best life he could, but educate others. He graduated high school. Went to schools telling kids about AIDS. Soon his work expanded and he testified before Congress. On that trip he met this guy named Sean Sasser. Sean was a chef, living in San Francisco. Pedro was smitten. But all the travel was wearing him down. A friend of his recommended The Real World to him. We all know the tag line: "This is the true story... of seven strangers... picked to live in a house...work together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...The Real World." Pedro thought about it: a way to spread the word about AIDS awareness would be wonderful. Plus seeing that cute Sasser guy again would be wonderful. He did a video, and he landed a role.
That winter and spring of 1994 I went to the City once a week to see Dad, go shopping, write. I walked around, looking for The Real World people. I thought about auditioning but even at twenty one I thought what would they cast me as? The Bitch? No. The Naive Girl? No. So I went looking for them, but couldn't find them anywhere. I didn't know Dave Eggers auditioned. All I knew was on June 23rd, 1994 I was so excited to see the show's season premiere. I wasn't disappointed. The drama! The highs! The lows! I had a crush on Judd the cartoonist. It was so obvious he was in love with Pam, the medical student. Puck was the big star on the show, but he was such a poser, so obnoxious. Rachel (Now Rachel Duffy, a Congressman's wife) worked my nerves, especially when she told an disgusting homophobic joke to her brother. I wanted to smack her. But Pedro was just lovely. I was hoping they could find a drug cocktail that would work for him.
Pedro did see Sean Sasser again. They fell in love, and one night Pedro came home and announced he was engaged. Some people were shocked. Engaged? Wait, you can't be engaged. You're gay. Gay people can't be engaged. But Judd responded "Mazel Tov!" Congratulations! Since I lived in the Bay Area all my life, it didn't shock me at all. It felt right.
Pedro and Sean decided to exchange vows on June 5, 1994. My twenty-second birthday. The wedding was shown six months later on MTV. All the cast members were there (except for Puck, by then he was kicked off and living off those fifteen minutes of fame) as the gentlemen in white exchanged rings, kissed, then ate a beautiful chocolate wedding cake. Judd made toasts while En Vogue sang in the background "What a man" To my knowledge this was the first gay marriage ever shown on television. It wouldn't be the last. It was beautiful yet heartbreaking to watch. By then Pedro was in a hospital bed, slowly dying.
After the show ended production, Pedro was planning to tie up loose ends in Florida, then move to San Francisco to be with Sean. He did have a flareup during the show's production. In one emotional moment, Judd looks at the camera and asks "What do you do when your friend is dying?" There was no answer. Sean stayed with Pedro the whole time. In August 1994 Pedro became sick again while taping an appearance on CBS. He was admitted to a hospital. Judd's parents were among the first people to visit him. Soon he went back to Florida. Since he didn't have medical insurance, Judd went on interviews asking people to send money to a trust fund MTV set up. Money came. I sent five dollars, all I could afford at the time. Weeks later I got a thank you card with Pedro's picture on it. It was on my fridge for years.
Pedro didn't get better. Sean was right by him, along with Judd. Pam took time off from medical school to stay with him. President Clinton called to send him good wishes. According to Judd after he hung up, Pedro was bummed Hillary wasn't on the phone too. However, President Clinton worked with Janet Reno and Donna Shalala to get Pedro's older siblings to Florida. They, along with Pedro's father, were with him when he died. Judd and Pam were there as well, along with Pedro's best friend Alex. And Sean. Of course he was there.
Here's the ironic thing: He died hours after the last episode of Real World San Francisco aired. No fiction writer could get away with that.
Sean went on living. He had to. He found love again, and kept on fighting the good fight. So when I read he died today of mesothelioma (a rare form of lung cancer linked to people living with AIDS) I felt sad. I wondered man, will people remember Pedro and Sean? People did. Comments on various websites read: "RIP. You fought a good fight." "Pedro's waiting for you by the Gates." "So sad, but he and Pedro are together forever now."
We've come a long way from wacky uncles, Very Special Episodes, comic relief, and don't ask, don't tell. What a man indeed.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries