HIV Heroes is a series in which we highlight individuals and organizations whose work has inspired people living with HIV. We begin with a salute to a TV groundbreaker.
Pedro Zamora was a cast member of The Real World: San Francisco, which aired in 1994. Through that experiment in living on camera, he would become — for a generation of young people — the first person living with AIDS with whom they were able to feel truly connected.
It helped that Zamora was a handsome young man, and his background as an AIDS educator prepared him to come out to his housemates about both his sexuality and his health in a thoughtful way. Though the rest of the cast was informed that someone in the house would be living with AIDS, they did not know who it was at first. Zamora decided to reveal his status by showing them his scrapbook, a window into his world. Most of the housemates accepted him right away though one took some time to get used to the idea, and another ultimately did not accept him at all.
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Zamora had gone on The Real World to show people what it was like to live with AIDS at a time when few people outside the gay community understood what that meant. It was, in many ways, very risky. Popular sentiment was still both largely anti-gay and panic-stricken about AIDS. This level of public exposure could have easily made Zamora a target for attack. In addition, considering that there were still few treatments for AIDS at the time — and those that existed were mostly toxic and ineffective — he risked ending up extremely sick on camera.
But the experience would hold rewards for Zamora, as well. He and his boyfriend Sean had a commitment ceremony on The Real World — the first such ceremony ever televised. It was beautiful and gave hope to many gay men who felt isolated — particularly those living with AIDS who worried they could not find love because of their status.
During that time, many people living with AIDS, including Zamora, could not get health insurance because of rules about preexisting conditions. When his health declined rapidly in late 1994, MTV set up a fund to pay his medical expenses. Nevertheless, Zamora died on November 11, just hours after The Real World: San Francisco’s season finale. But his legacy was, in many ways, only beginning to inspire.
Zamora showed that living with AIDS — even without effective treatments — can be done openly, proudly, with dignity, and with grace. For reminding us that even least ideal situations we can create hope, Pedro Zamora is a hero.
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Last modified: May 6, 2019