A quarter century ago last night, The Real World San Francisco aired its finale. Early the next day, 25 years ago today, Pedro Zamora died. He was 22, and had been the first person openly living with HIV and AIDS to be on television.
“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. The challenge to each of us is to do something about it and to continue Pedro’s fight,” then-president Bill Clinton said in an address from The White House.
Clinton also said, “At a time when people are saying that young people don’t care, Pedro has proved them very wrong. Through is work in classrooms and other public forums, Pedro has given a voice to a disease that is still too often treated with silence. And he’s taught millions of Americans all across our country the importance of education, communication and prevention. This young man has shown that AIDS truly does not discriminate. It can strike any of us. It’s a disease that concerns us all.”
In the five years of his life from when he learned he was HIV positive until his death, Pedro became an activist, and arrived on The Real World’s third season with a mission.
In 2014, the show’s creator, Jon Murray, told BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur:
“Before he showed up on our show, he had already appeared before a congressional committee. He had protested in front of the White House. He had clearly shown the ability to cross bridges and talk to schoolchildren and others about AIDS education.
Yet, at the same time, he was a young man who desperately wanted to fall in love and live as much life as he could in what he thought would be a short life. So he wanted to go to San Francisco. That was the city on the hill — the place he dreamed of being. I’m just so happy he got to do this.”
Pedro did fall in love: with Sean Sasser, who he married—more than two decades before gay marriage became legal in the United States—in the first televised commitment ceremony of a real-life same-sex couple. (Sasser died at age 44 six years ago.)
Pedro, who was born in Cuba, came to the United States at eight years old, as part of the Mariel Boat Lift.
Today, he’s buried in Miami at Vista Memorial Gardens, but his footprint extends far beyond his grave.
Pedro Zamora’s life and legacy
There has been so much written—and broadcast—about Pedro over the years that the best way to celebrate his life is to point you to some of that writing (and a few videos):
Entertainment Tonight interviewed Pedro in 1994, during filming of the show.
In Hal Rubenstein’s Q&A with Pedro in POZ magazine, Pedro said, “My life is being threatened every day. I’m dealing with AIDS, so I know I can deal with anything.”
Pedro’s fellow cast member Judd Winick published Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned, a graphic memoir about their friendship.
This segment about Pedro from The Real World San Francisco’s reunion aired on MTV after Pedro died.
Judd commented on Real World co-creator Mary-Ellis Bunim’s response to another moment from that reunion—and a lot more—in Jezebel’s interview with Judd and Pam.
José Esteban Muñoz has a chapter in his book titled “Pedro Zamora’s Real World of Counterpublicity: Performing an Ethics of the Self,” which breaks down and analyzes the season. He notes that the show aired at a time when “broadcast network television [was] unable and unwilling to represent queers who are sexual yet not pathological, interracial relationships, and stories about AIDS that portray the fullness and vibrancy of such a life narrative.”
Tyler Curry-McGrath wrote about how he connected with Pedro through his television: “As I fell in love with the dashing Cuban-American man from Miami, my heart broke as I watched him bravely battle HIV in an age just before medicine would turn the virus from a death sentence to a manageable condition.”
In 2009, U.S. Representative Alcee L. Hastings offered remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives “Commemorating the Life and Legacy of Pedro Zamora, World Renowned HIV/AIDS Educator and Activist.”
The Advocate recently interviewed Jon Murray, Judd Winick, and Cory Murphy about Pedro (PDF via AidsMemorial.org).
Watch the unveiling of the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall Inn, which included Pedro as one of the first 50 honorees.