Early in the AM on November 11, 1994, Pedro Zamora, the first openly gay man living with HIV to ever be featured on a mainstream television show, died at the age of 22 from AIDS.
Just hours earlier, on the evening of the 10th, MTV aired the final episode of the show that brought Zamora into our lives, The Real World: San Francisco. Zamora died at 4:40 AM at Mercy Hospital in Miami. He was surrounded by his family, boyfriend Sean Sasser, and best friends and Real World cast mates, Judd Winick, and Pamela Ling.
President William Jefferson Clinton, who hours earlier had personally called Zamora on his death bed (although it’s unclear whether Zamora, who had dementia due to toxoplasmosis, knew who he was speaking to), went on the air in an address to the American public from the White House, saying “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.”
Clinton continued, “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 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.”
I’ve often wondered what Zamora would make of the world we live in now. How he would have responded to President Trump’s backwards and draconian policies towards LGBT and folks living with HIV. Back in 2017, HIV Plus looked back on Zamora’s legacy. “Pedro caught my attention for two reasons,” remembers Danny Roberts, the super hot gay cast member on The Real World: New Orleans, Season 9. “One, he was an incredibly likable guy who spoke with passion and reason, which brought a human face to an issue that had otherwise been an abstract distant concept to most of us at that time, including me. Second, he showed this small town boy from rural Georgia that HIV wasn’t some evil curse cast on the undeserving, which is pretty much all my environment at the time taught me. He brought out so much empathy; I remember feeling crushed when he died. It was the first time HIV seemingly personally touched my life.”
“To be honest,” Winick says, “I can’t think of anything that I could possibly add to the conversation that isn’t being said by thousands, if not millions of people around the country. Maybe that is my point. And [it’s] a hopeful one: Trump has been in office for just over a week and there’s been two, count ’em two, major national protests. People are pushing back. People are fighting back. People are demanding to be heard. That said, and stating the obvious, this is a country that was built on immigrants. And I felt the need to express that in my personal experience, in my life, I know of one immigrant who literally changed millions of lives. If Pedro Zamora has not been allowed to come to the United States, so many people would’ve been deprived. So many people would not be living the lives they are living now. I know it might sound like hyperbole, but for 22 years I have heard from people who have said just that, “Pedro Zamora changed my life.'”
Reality Blurred has done the work of highlighting Zamora’s greatest moments. It’s worth taking a look at them on this Veteran’s Day, for a casualty of a war not oft recognized:
Entertainment Tonight’s interview with Pedro in 1994, during filming of the show.
Hal Rubenstein’s Q&A with Pedro in POZ magazine, in which Pedro says, “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 Learned10 years ago, a graphic memoir about their friendship.
A segment about Pedro from The Real World San Francisco’s reunion, which aired on MTV after Pedro died.
Judd comments 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 writes about how, “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 includes Pedro as one of the first 50 honorees.
Sleep in peace, sweet prince.