Pedro Zamora helped shift Americans perspectives on gay people living with HIV and AIDS in the '90s

By Dave Quinn
November 12, 2019 12:48 PM

Monday marked 25-years since the death of reality television pioneer and AIDS educator Pedro Zamora.

The Cuban-born, gay, Real World: San Francisco star — who died at the age of 22 on Nov. 11, 1994 due to complications of AIDS after contracting HIV five years earlier through unprotected sex — was the first person openly living with the disease to ever be featured on reality television.

His commitment ceremony to his partner Sean Sasser, which was filmed for the show, was also the first same-sex ceremony in television history. Sasser died in 2013 at the age of 44 from mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lungs. He had been HIV-positive for 25 years.

Zamora died just hours after the finale of The Real World: San Francisco aired on MTV.

It was the third installment of the reality series, and Zamora’s presence on the show would help catapult it into popularity for decades to come.

But mostly, Zamora helped shift Americans’ perspectives on gay people living with HIV and AIDS.

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Before ever stepping foot on the reality show, he had already spent years raising awareness about the illness and advocating about the importance of education and prevention. His newfound fame gave Zamora a platform to reach people worldwide, shattering myths about HIV/AIDS in the process and jolting the general public awake from ignorance and inaction.

Over the past few years, Pedro became a member of all our families. Now, no one in America can say they’ve never known someone who’s living with AIDS,” then-President Bill Clinton said in a speech given from the White House at the time.

“Pedro is a role model for all of us. He’s shown the courage and strength to move beyond himself, reaching out to others while struggling with his own illness,” Clinton added. “The challenge to each of us is to do something about it and to continue Pedro’s fight.”

On Monday, many of Zamora’s former Real World cast members remembered him.

“His impact lives on,” Rachel Campos-Duffy, 48, wrote on Twitter. “I miss Pedro.”

In the caption of a gallery of photos on Instagram, Judd Winick said that “the world was so much lesser” after Zamora’s passing.

“I’d ask that on this incredible milestone that we try to remember how he lived, and how he literally changed the world, rather than focusing on our loss of him,” Winick, 49, wrote.

“By appearing on The Real World in ‘94, he showed everyone what it was really like to be living with AIDS, to be living out, to love, to be loved by friends, supported by family—to have a full life. And it seems crazy that this was a lesson that needed to be taught. But it did,” Winick said.

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Winick, who is married to his costar Pam Ling, went on to discuss the life they envisioned with Zamora.

“For us who knew him, we still miss our friend. We long to know what life would be like for all of us if he was still here,” Winick wrote. “Pam and I can’t tell you how much we would love for Pedro to know our children. To see how his nieces and nephews have ground. And to see their children.

“We believe that in our deeply troubled times that what Pedro would want most from us is to FIGHT. Because that, truly, was what he was. A fighter, He was kind, giving, generous, BUT ferocious in his dedication to making the world better for his communities. Better for all of us.”

His note ended: “Every year we will get a year older, but he will forever be stuck in amber. Young. Charming. A beacon of inspiration. And also. Funny. Sweet. Always laughing. But we like to think that his memory, his work, his life, will keep on living.”

“Please remember what Pedro would always say: Be safe. And remember to love each other,” Winick said.

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