Recently, Pedro Zamora has been heavy on my mind.
Anyone who was under 40 in 1994 might recognize his name — he was one of seven roommates on MTV’s “The Real World: San Francisco.” A young gay man born in Cuba and mostly raised in Miami, Pedro was the series’ first HIV-positive cast member. After he was diagnosed at 17, he spent the rest of his life as an AIDS educator talking to young people about the perils of unprotected sex and how to keep themselves safe.
And this is why I’m thinking about Pedro. Many of those poignant conversations happened in Florida high schools where he’d been invited to speak. But in the horror that is Florida under the boot of Governor Ron DeSantis, no LGBTQ person would ever be allowed in a classroom to impart lessons that could save lives.
Pedro brought those lessons to “The Real World.” He was an out gay man in front of millions each week whose HIV had progressed to full-blown AIDS by the time he joined the show. On a series that touted showing “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real,” Pedro’s story was as real as television gets.
I recently rewatched that season of “The Real World” for the first time in 20 years, and its episodes feel like cracking open a time capsule. In an era before cellphones, the roommates argued with the obnoxious bike messenger who monopolized the only house phone, a landline. When that same roommate wanted to research how to build a soapbox for a street race, he went to the library — there was no Google.
At the time, San Francisco was still a funky cocktail of burgeoning tech innovation, a lesbian bathhouse in the Mission, and late-night poetry slams. It was also an epicenter of the AIDS pandemic, then in its second decade. By the time the roommates moved into a townhouse on the city’s famously twisty Lombard Street, AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans between ages 25 and 44.
It was an extraordinarily painful time to be young and queer. In my 30s, I was attending more funerals than weddings. It felt as if many of us had become our grandparents as we scanned newspaper obits for familiar names and measured time by friends lost.
Zamora was 22. His castmates knew someone would be HIV-positive, but they didn’t find out who until everyone arrived at the house. Rachel, a political conservative and a Mexican-American, was openly reluctant to live with a person with AIDS, but she eventually warmed to Pedro through their shared Latino heritage and his gregarious personality.
(That would be Rachel Campos-Duffy, now a “Fox & Friends Weekend” cohost who spends her days posting rightwing conspiracy theories and calling President Biden mean names.)
Rachel represented viewers misguided by misinformation who probably did not know anyone who was gay or had AIDS. Pedro’s likability helped pierce that wall. By appearing on “The Real World,” his advocacy to educate young people found a new, much wider audience.
And what that audience witnessed could be heartbreaking. Pedro refused to sugarcoat what it meant to live with AIDS. Those ever-present cameras captured nearly everything — including Pedro’s medical appointment when a nurse practitioner told him his immune system had been nearly irreparably compromised by the virus.
But Pedro also displayed gay joy in a way then uncommon on television. He fell in love with Sean Sasser, a young queer Black man who was also HIV-positive. And in an emotional episode that made TV history, Pedro and Sean married in a commitment ceremony, a decade before Massachusetts became the first state nationwide to legalize same-sex marriage.
By then, Pedro’s health was increasingly fragile. About five months after the show finished taping — and hours after the season finale aired — Pedro died from AIDS complications on Nov. 11, 1994. His death made national headlines.
In a videotaped message played during Pedro’s memorial service, President Bill Clinton said that because of Pedro, “no one in America can say they’ve never known someone who’s living with AIDS.” On what would have been Pedro’s 23rd birthday, a street in front of McMillan Middle School in Miami was renamed “Pedro Zamora Way” at a ceremony attended by teachers and 2,000 students.
That was 1995. Now in a hostile climate created by DeSantis’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws, teachers in that same school could be fired for talking about Pedro and the advocacy he hoped would save lives. But let there be no doubt — if he were alive today, Pedro would be fighting against Florida’s despot as vigorously and publicly as he once battled ignorance about AIDS and about his beloved LGBTQ community.