When The Real World: San Francisco, a reality show that saw seven strangers live together, premiered on MTV in June 1994, AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25 to 44. Just years before the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapies, which greatly improved the health outcomes for people living with HIV, dominant perceptions of the virus were informed by homophobic stereotypes and scientifically unfounded HIV criminalization laws.
Pedro Zamora changed all of that.
When he disclosed his HIV status to the strangers living with him on The Real World: San Francisco, Zamora became the face of HIV for people watching from their living rooms across the United States. A 21-year-old Cuban immigrant, Zamora had dedicated his life to educating youth about HIV/AIDS. The show provides us glimpses of Zamora speaking about HIV at schools, where he answers questions about how he contracted HIV, his future plans and his sexuality. Beyond students, Zamora also teaches his housemates about HIV. Specifically, Zamora has difficult conversations with Rachel, his conservative roommate, about what living with HIV means for both his health and his identity. These conversations demonstrate that HIV education was not only Zamora’s lived experience but also his life’s work.
The Real World: San Francisco flipped the script on the narrative around HIV in the United States. In sharing the realities of being a person living with HIV with a national audience, Zamora rejected the notion that an HIV/AIDS diagnosis meant an instant death sentence and instead posited it as part of the human experience. His relationship with Sean Sasser, which brought us the first same-sex commitment ceremony on television, and with the rest of his roommates, proved that those living with HIV, and the LGBTQ+ community at large, can love and be loved.
On National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we are reminded about the work that Zamora did to educate youth about HIV. While The Real World: San Francisco shows us how much has changed for LGBTQ+ people in the past 27 years, it also makes clear how much has remained the same.
Schools continue to lack a comprehensive and inclusive sexual education regarding HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. And our youth are being adversely impacted. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, about a quarter of all new HIV cases in the United States occur among youth ages 13 to 24 years old. About 87% of young males acquired HIV from unprotected male-to-male sex, just like Pedro did.
As a Cuban-American HIV advocate myself, I am grateful for Pedro Zamora for challenging perceptions about what it means to be both LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive. Pedro Zamora blazed a path for those seeking equality for people living with HIV, it is our job to follow it.
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