Seldom mentioned is Pedro Zamora (1972–94), a Cuban–American AIDS activist who used the platform of MTV’s Real World to educate audiences about the epidemic that had already claimed him. From the start, it became almost impossible not to sympathize with him. He was intelligent, well spoken, almost painfully handsome — and he was dying. Viewers watched him cope with his disease while coping simultaneously with a houseful of strangers in San Francisco, a continent away from his Miami home. The stress of constant clashes with the notorious Puck (ranked in some surveys among the top TV villains of all time) made him fear for his health and nearly led him to leave the show. The roommates banished Puck instead.
Today Zamora occupies an uneasy ground between secular sainthood (his canonization began while he lived) and oblivious obscurity. He’s most often remembered for putting a recognizable face on AIDS for millions of young viewers — for sending the message that, if this could happen to him, it could happen to you, too. But Pedro Zamora did something else pioneering: he exchanged vows with his partner, Sean Sasser, on national television in 1994.
This was a commitment ceremony, not recognized as marriage by any state in the Union, and it would take another seven years before the Netherlands became the first national government to grant same-sex marriages. But no one who watched Pedro and Sean doubted the significance or sincerity of the words they spoke or the feelings they shared. These were people who wanted to stand together before the world, for the rest of their lives — the way anyone else wants to be married.
Who could object to that? Some people, certainly, could and still can. But the process of chipping away at prejudice and false perception had begun.
A new season of Real World starts this week, and in the proliferation of housemates and conflicts over the intervening years, Pedro Zamora’s story has receded into the background of our collective memory. However, the show’s producers prepared a tribute program, shortly after his death, and in 2008, MTV aired a feature film, in which actors played out the scenes of Zamora’s life, including those that the Real World cameras never saw.* A number of charitable organizations grew up in Zamora’s name, including the Pedro Zamora Foundation, launched by three of his Real World roommates. One of these, Judd Winick, has carried Zamora’s memory and spread his educational messages into several comic books, including one acclaimed graphic novel that tells Zamora’s story. Another rooommate, Pam Ling, became a doctor engaged in AIDS research.
All these tributes have focused primarily on AIDS, a disease that continues to claim too many young lives, despite the efforts of Zamora and his friends. I don’t dispute the emphasis. But Zamora’s role as a pioneer in the fight for marriage equality was as real as anything that ever happened on reality TV, and the kids who watched in 1994 are voters now.
Whether you remember the wedding, whether it’s lodged in the back of your consciousness or whether it was just floating out there in the pop culture ether, it helped to make a difference, one that we see today. And it’s one more way that Pedro Zamora left the real world a better place than he found it.
*NOTE: My friends Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer were among the producers of the Pedro movie, and Richard has a cameo role in it. The film also played at the Toronto Film Festival. Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gus Van Sant’s Milk, co-wrote Pedro, but for all the strengths of both films, I don’t find anything in them to be as compelling as the documentary footage from The Times of Harvey Milk and Real World: San Francisco.