There’s an article about Pedro Zamora in reference to today being what would have been his 45th birthday and it got me to thinking about Pedro and how much of an influence he was on my life. May he forever rest in peace.
“This is the true story (true story) of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”
It’s 1994 and those immortal words kick off the third season of MTV’s The Real World. It’s summertime. I’m a recent high school graduate. Usually I wouldn’t be able to watch because my family doesn’t have cable but we’re spending the summer in Virginia while my dad decides if we’re moving to Virginia since I’ve now graduated high school or if we’re staying in Michigan so my brother, Jason, can graduate in a few years. A few things stick out from that summer. The utter boredom of Haysi. Hanging out with Danielle driving from one end of town to the other. How absolutely gorgeous brothers, Matt and Benji, are. And how much I hate Puck and love Pedro on The Real World: San Francisco.
Looking back, the San Francisco season was a game changer. When the producers cast Pedro I’m not sure they were aware how much he would touch the heart of viewers. Where the 80’s showed AIDS people as walking skeletons and had everyone fearful of the disease, Pedro came along and shattered the stereotypes we had, I had about people living with AIDS.
Pedro was the first person I knew living with AIDS. Every week he’d be fighting the good fight. Pedro taught me more about sex education than I ever learned in high school. It was refreshing to have a gay man, on television, talking about sexual health.
Then there was Sean. Sean Sasser was a guy that Pedro started to date while living in San Francisco. Dating led to an engagement and an exchanging of vows. MTV normalized same sex affection and showed their ceremony. This was 1994. A year before Roseanne would have a fictional gay wedding. Years before civil unions were introduced in Vermont and marriage equality was won in Massachusetts.
These days there are discussions about representation and how representation matters. In 1994 there weren’t many LGBT portrayals on television, either network or cable. The most I’d seen was a longer story arc on One Life To Live featuring a gay teen named Billy Douglas played by the gorgeous Ryan Phillippe. Mainly I’d have to settle for a one off “very special episode” of a TV series. In the summer of 1994, I had little representation to show a deeply closeted Bradley what gay life was about. Months before My So-Called Life and years before Ellen‘s “The Puppy Episode” and Will & Grace and Queer As Folk and Queer Eye and Brothers & Sisters and Modern Family, MTV was showing me, week in and week out, a gay HIV positive Cuban living in San Francisco and enjoying life. It was groundbreaking.
It was groundbreaking and then it ended. In a cruel twist of fate, the final episode of the San Francisco season aired the same night that Pedro Zamora passed away from AIDS related complications. America had been riveted by Pedro and his willingness to share his story. President Clinton went as far as to release a statement about the death of Pedro.
Statement on the Death of Pedro Zamora
November 11, 1994
“Hillary and I are deeply saddened by the news of the death of Pedro Zamora.
In his short life, Pedro educated and enlightened our Nation. He taught all of us that AIDS is a disease with a human face and one that affects every American, indeed every citizen, of the world. And he taught people living with AIDS how to fight for their rights and live with dignity.
Pedro was particularly instrumental in reaching out to his own generation, where AIDS is striking hard. Through his work with MTV, he taught young people that “The Real World” includes AIDS and that each of us has the responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
Today, one in four new HIV infections is among people under the age of 20. For Pedro, and for all Americans infected and affected by HIV, we must intensify our efforts to reduce the rate of HIV infection, provide treatment to those living with AIDS, and ultimately find a cure for AIDS.
Our hearts are with Pedro’s family in this difficult time. In the months ahead, let us rededicate ourselves to continuing Pedro’s brave fight.”
I hate to see a life cut so short, especially a life like Pedro’s, so filled with promise. I wonder, had he’d lived, what influence he would have. I wonder what he would think about the backlash against condom usage and the popularity of bareback sex and the debate over PrEP. Then I start to think about how quickly time passes by and how much society changes during that time. Pedro was 22 when he died, barely starting out. He would be 45 today. He’s been gone almost 23 years. I’m glad to see that he’s still remembered, that he’s still being talked about and written about because Pedro Zamora was a game changer. I’ll never forget him. So happy birthday, Pedro. Cheers and thanks for all you did to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. You helped a young, deeply closested gay kid spending the summer in rural Virginia understand that it was okay to be gay and that gay people, gay guys, could find love, get married and led productive lives. I’ll forever be grateful.