(The Root) — Now that we live in an age in which the president of the United States has referenced gay Americans in his inaugural address and publicly supports same-sex marriage, it’s hard to remember a time when coming out as gay was career-ending. And at a time when Magic Johnson is thought of first and foremost as a media mogul, it’s hard to remember when he announced his HIV-positive status and those living with the virus faced a measure of stigmatization bordering on ostracism.
But the time when discrimination based on sexual orientation and HIV status was the national norm was not so long ago: Such bias was alive and well 19 years ago, when the third season of MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco introduced a gay couple, both of whom were HIV positive.
One half of that couple was Sean Sasser, who became engaged to Pedro Zamora, a Real World cast member, during the show’s run. Sasser, who was black, and Zamora, who was Hispanic, became one of the first high-profile gay and HIV-positive couples — and one of the first gay power couples of color — represented in mainstream media. Their presence on the show sparked powerful discussions and debate on HIV awareness and education, same-sex marriage and a host of other issues that are regular parts of the national discourse today but were not in 1994.
When I was growing up in a conservative part of Texas, Sasser and Zamora represented my first exposure to seeing a gay couple living their lives just like everybody else. I know I’m not the only one. Watching them strive to build a life together is one of my earliest memories of beginning to contemplate the idea that same-sex couples would want the same things that most couples do.
Sadly, Sasser and Zamora did not get to experience a lifetime of togetherness and happiness. Zamora succumbed to AIDS shortly after the show’s conclusion in November 1994. He missed getting the chance to see how far our country has evolved on tolerance and acceptance of gay and lesbian Americans. But Sasser got to see our country become a place in which Ellen DeGeneres is now one of its most trusted residents and HIV awareness is no longer something we whisper about.
Sasser died this week at the age of 44 of mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer. But his legacy as a media trailblazer lives on.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.