By Jeff Walsh
For many gay youth, falling in love is a distant dream. While their heterosexual peers are making their first awkward forays into dating and romance, queer teens usually either play it straight or go asexual. Few are out, and those who are usually can't find a date due to lack of options.
When MTV's Real World was filmed in San Francisco two seasons ago, it featured Pedro Zamora, an openly gay, HIV-positive Hispanic heartthrob. Zamora didn't waste much time in beginning to date and falling madly in love with Sean Sasser, who is also HIV-positive.
Pedro and Sean's romance was documented on the show and gay teens everywhere got to see something that still seemed like a fantasy to so many -- that they can fall in love, be happy and live a productive life.
Pedro died after the show had finished taping, leaving behind an incredible legacy for gay and HIV-positive youth, as well as Sean, his husband.
Sean, 28, has since relocated to Atlanta from San Francisco. He is a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign and its National Coming Out Day project as well as other AIDS-related charities. He does AIDS prevention education and lectures at college campuses across the nation, and hopes to someday open a cafe in Atlanta.
Sean said the feedback he gets from the young people whose lives he and Pedro touched is the main reason he continues speaking out and being visible.
"That's why I'm doing what I'm doing," he said. "The college circuit is grueling enough, but getting that feedback from people, especially people in a lot of the rural communities I go to is pretty much why I continue to do it."
Sean now thinks Pedro knew exactly what he was doing by appearing on The Real World.
"I think Pedro had a grand scheme for the whole thing and what the impact might be. That was why he was so adamant about doing it and staying in front of the cameras as much as possible," he said. "While it was happening, we had no idea what MTV would use and how far they would go in portraying the stuff that we let them see ... positively, or even accurately. So, pretty much, it was like, 'Let's wait and see what happens.' And as the show started airing, we were like 'Wow, this turned out pretty nice.'"
But even though Pedro volunteered to be on the show, Sean said he never thought twice about letting the cameras record them both as they began dating and falling in love.
"It wasn't much of a decision. After spending time with him, I realized I wanted to spend more time with him and there was just this little nasty presence around all the time," Sean said. "We had time alone. The camera wasn't always there, which was kind of good. And I also began to buy into the idea that although it may be uncomfortable, the impact is overwhelming."
Now, Sean is incredibly happy with not only the portrayal of he and Pedro's lives on MTV, but of the impact seeing it has had on so many young people.
"It feels good to me, because my own youth childhood was not a fun thing to deal with being gay, and the pressures around keeping things hidden," he said. "Now, I've been able to be a part of something that is really directly impacting that perception, giving young people opportunity to live better existences as young people."
'I'm going to have to be who I am'
Sean grew up in Detroit, closeted and wishing he would have the courage to come out.
"I hated high school, dealing with this dual life thing," he said. "There were things that I knew about myself that I keep hidden, while envying the few gay and lesbian people who were out about who they were and couldn't give a shit what people thought about them. That's how I always wanted to be."
Sean mentioned he recently missed his ten-year reunion, which he had been looking forward to, because he could finally be himself around the people with whom he grew up. He shared this writer's desire to take a same-sex date to his class reunion whether or not we are actually dating someone at the time. "I was going to find anyone," he said, laughing but not kidding.
Sean tested positive when he was 19 years old, and was still closeted when he found out about his HIV status.
"It wasn't until after I tested positive that I really began to seriously start looking at my life and started to figure out that I really didn't have much of a choice," he said. "If I'm going to be happy, I'm going to have to be who I am."
He said learning to accept he was HIV-positive has some similarity to dealing with being gay.
"They're similar," he said. "When I do my lectures, I talk about three different pieces of my identity that I've had to go through something of a coming out process. The first of which was dealing with being African-American in America, and dealing with the potential for discrimination and race relations and being empowered about who I am, because there's nothing I can do about. I have to live my life and be happy and prosper.
"And being gay, although it can be hidden, is no less of an identity thing that really has a lot of potential harmful sides to it when other people get involved and you start dealing with other people's perceptions and attitudes," he said. "By that time, in dealing with HIV, I had become fairly well acquainted with the process. Although it's different, there is a similar connection in learning to be proud of who I am no matter who I am and learning to accept it and move on."
His AIDS activism began after he was diagnosed as being positive.
"I lived in San Francisco around the time I was told I had five years to live, when I was 19. It was a couple years before that time that I decided to pack up and move on to a place where I could possibly do work on myself and try to come to terms with a lot of the issues I had been dealing with," he said. "The fact that I was not getting sick, or indicate things were going downhill, I figured I should really start doing something about it."
He left his restaurant job to do more AIDS-specific work with a HIV-positive youth speakers bureau. He furthered his work with positive youth by helping them with leadership development and through public policy work and advocacy for young people living with HIV locally in the San Francisco Bay Area. He then began working on a national level with an organization called the AIDS Policy Center for Children, Youth and Families.
Sean, whose health has been fine, said he doesn't really have advice for queer youth, "only that it's not really as bad as it feels."
"There are tons of opportunities out there to meet people or express yourself. Most of it has to do with learning to accept who you are and be proud of it," he said. "I would also say don't come out unless you're ready to come out. You have to do it when it feels good to you and you feel safe. And there are tons of resources out there. It's just a matter of getting access to them."
'I was at a loss for how to deal with losing him so soon'
Sean first met Pedro at the 1993 March on Washington for equal rights for gay, lesbians and bisexuals. Nine months later, Pedro called Sean to say he was coming to town to do the show.
"I thought the show was probably not a good idea for someone with 33 T-cells," he said. "So, I just wanted to make sure he knew people and had support. That was the initial idea."
But things progressed beyond friends. Sean and Pedro got engaged on the show. And Sean wasn't prepared to deal with Pedro's death.
"It had a very large effect on me. I never lost someone so close to me," Sean said. "And it also had a very large impact on how I feel about my life. It made me realize I really hadn't dealt with mortality or death and dying. And because the bond we had was such a unique wonderful experience, I was at a loss for how to deal with losing him so soon."
Sean was able to avoid the media, who swarmed to Florida to cover Pedro's death. He also didn't attend a public memorial to Pedro which aired on MTV and featured a video testimonial about Pedro from President Bill Clinton.
And through his activism, Sean keeps Pedro's memory, mission and spirit alive.
"In any of the activism people do, whether it's civil rights activism, choice activism or AIDS activism... it's hopefully in the memory of people who didn't have the benefit of a lot of the things we're advocating for, or people who were out on the front lines doing the work we're trying to do," Sean said. "So, yeah, the things that I do keeps the memory of what Pedro thought was important, and what he did, as well as other people who passed away... alive."
And when Sean thinks of Pedro now, he is usually reflective of the love they had and how things would have been had they been given more time together.
"Most of the time I just miss him and I wonder... I sort of fantasize about what life would be like. What would be doing at this point, how things might be different.. and just looking at him, and his voice," he said. "I miss a lot of the intimacy that we shared. And it was a very unique experience. We both made a very solid connection to each other."
And if he's always known as "Pedro's boyfriend" from MTV, Sean doesn't seem to mind.
"I think it was a very honest portrayal of the times we spent during the show, for the most part," he said. "He was pretty happy with it, too, the stuff that he saw. He was very good about it."
Although, in retrospect, Sean doesn't think he would have wanted to be one of the featured cast on the show.
"It's a bit invasive, but fortunately, I wasn't one of the main characters, which would have been a totally different experience," he said. "It does feel weird to have people think they know who I am based on what they saw on television and have that familiar attitude or air about them. For one, it was two years ago.. and two, I don't know you! People come up to me and they're like, 'Sean!' And I'm like, 'Yeah? Who are you? Do I know you?' And they're like 'No, you don't know me, I know you, though.' I'm like, 'Okay... umm... I've got to be going now.' I'm a very private person who enjoys his anonymity. I just noticed they're airing the series again, so the cycle starts again."