You probably have never heard of Sean Sasser. He was not a famous athlete, actor, or musician. He was never involved in politics. He never wrote a book. He never killed anyone or made a sex tape. He never had any children. He never set out to change the world.
And yet, that is exactly what he did.
In 1994, Sasser and his then partner Pedro Zamora were involved in the first ever gay commitment ceremony broadcast in the United States on MTV’s “The Real World: San Francisco”. Not only did Americans first see two gay individuals involved in the ceremony, they saw two minority gay men involved in the ceremony, something that was unheard of at the time. For many Americans, myself included, seeing Sasser and Zamora was the first real time seeing a real gay couple on national television. Seeing them together gave a whole generation a new perception on what it meant to be gay in the mid-1990s.
Say what you want to say about MTV today, but in its heyday the channel was revolutionary in what it did. One of the ways it did this was the concept of “The Real World”. For millennials such as myself, the show provided a window to different segments of society that we may not have encountered in our everyday lives. The show’s patented tagline of having the lives of seven strangers taped to find out “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real” made it a must-watch afternoon show.
In 1994, the show was filmed in San Francisco. Making the cast that year was Pedro Zamora, a Cuban immigrant living with HIV. Zamora was an AIDS activist who auditioned for the show in hopes that he would be able to reach a wide-ranging audience and educate them about safe sex. Zamora had no idea that his time on the show would create a national dialogue and would make him the face of a generation.
Zamora was that season’s star. He educated his fellow housemates about HIV and AIDS. Viewers at home saw a living, breathing person with the disease. One that had hopes, dreams, and aspirations. One that, despite the fact that he was gay, didn’t seem that much different from us. Viewers saw Zamora dating and falling in love with Sasser. Viewers saw Zamora’s battles with his weakening immune system and they cursed housemate David “Puck” Rainey who relentlessly mocked Zamora. Finally, viewers cheered when housemates finally had enough of “Puck” and voted him out of the house, to allow Zamora some peace to deal with his health issues.
Thanks to his exposure on the Real World, Zamora garnered quite a following. He received special recognition from President Bill Clinton. He did national television interviews. He told his story to all those that would listen. He eventually passed away mere days after “The Real World” finale aired. MTV helped pay Zamora’s hospital bills as his family didn’t have health insurance. Several charities were set up in Zamora’s name for AIDS research. A street was named after him in his hometown of Miami. And, Sasser himself continued Zamora’s work by becoming an AIDS activist and educator.
What Zamora and Sasser did was remarkable in how ahead of the time they were. In 1994, homosexuality was still seen as a major taboo in the United States. There was no Modern Family or Will and Grace. The movie Brokeback Mountain was still twelve years away. Neil Patrick Harris was still Doogie Howser. It was a time and place where homosexuality was still grossly misunderstood. Zamora and Sasser became some of the first real human faces to being gay in the United States.
Even as a ten-year old child, I vividly remember my father telling me he’d disown me if I ever “turned gay”. By watching Zamora and Sasser, I began to consider why being gay was such an insult. If these two people represented what it meant to be “gay” then why was it a universal insult on the playground at school? Now, I’ll admit that my ten-year old brain couldn’t fully wrap my head around this realization at the time. The notion of equality was something that I could not express for another ten years or so. The social implications and struggles of being gay were simply lost on me at the time.
What I do remember is thinking that these two gay men didn’t seem that “weird” to me. They just wanted to live their lives and be happy. They had jobs and commitments and responsibilities. But what they wanted to simply be happy, and they found that happiness in each other. As a ten-year old child, that realization was the one that planted the seed for myself going forward as a progressive individual. When we take away a person’s rights, we take away their chance to fulfill a lifetime of happiness. For helping me see that, I owe thanks to both Pedro and Sean for sharing their story.
Rest in peace, Sean. You will be missed.