Sean Sasser, part of one of TV’s first gay romances, dies at 44

August 13, 2013

Sean F. Sasser, whose relationship with AIDS activist Pedro Zamora on the MTV show “The Real World” in the early 1990s was one of the first real-life, televised gay romances, died Aug. 7 at his home in Washington. He was 44.

The cause was mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, said his husband, Michael Kaplan, president and chief executive of the nonprofit group AIDS United.

Mr. Sasser met Zamora at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. At the time, Mr. Sasser was attempting to open a restaurant in San Francisco and Zamora, a nationally recognized AIDS activist, lived in Miami. Nine months later, the pair was reunited in San Francisco after Zamora was cast on the MTV show.

The relationship blossomed in the program’s third season. Several months into their romance, Mr. Sasser proposed on camera.

“The show became less and less about San Francisco and more and more about Pedro and Sean,” Zamora’s former “Real World” castmate Pam Ling told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1997.


Sean F. Sasser died Aug. 7 at his home in Washington. He was 44. (Courtesy of Family )

Their relationship brought national attention to the daily life of those with HIV/AIDS. Both men had contracted HIV as teenagers, and although Mr. Sasser wasn’t a full-time “Real World” cast member, their story illuminated topics such as homophobia and the stigma surrounding the disease.

For many of the show’s followers, the young faces of Zamora and Mr. Sasser humanized and personalized gay relationships and the issue of HIV/AIDS.

Millions of viewers tuned in to see the season’s penultimate episode, during which the pair held a commitment ceremony at the “Real World” house.

“It’s a lot easier for me to face my fears and face the uncertainty of my own life knowing that he’s there,” Zamora said of Mr. Sasser. A day after the final episode aired and months after exchanging vows, Zamora died at 22 of complications from AIDS in a Miami hospital. Mr. Sasser was by his side.

“Everything happened so quickly. And you know,” Mr. Sasser told POZ magazine, a magazine for people with HIV/AIDS, “as I look back on it, I’m glad. Because if it hadn’t, Pedro would have gotten sick and neither of us would have had the opportunity to express as fully as possible how we felt about each other.”

Stephen Tropiano, the author of “The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV,” said in an interview, “It was a whole new concept, even in 1994. For so long, the image we had of HIV individuals was that they weren’t going to have a life.”

“This was very affirming and hopeful to people who were HIV-positive, or knew people who were,” Tropiano added.

After Zamora’s death, Mr. Sasser remained an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and an HIV educator. In 1995, he spoke at the inaugural White House AIDS conference. President Bill Clinton appointed him to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Sean Franklin Sasser was born in Detroit on Oct. 25, 1968. When he was 6, his parents divorced, and his father, an Army sergeant, was mostly absent from his life.

Mr. Sasser dropped out of college and attempted to enlist in the Navy at 19. “I didn’t want to be gay anymore,” Mr. Sasser told POZ in 1997. “I thought it would work. You know, the discipline, all that stuff.”

He was rejected when a blood test showed he had contracted HIV.

He was a pastry chef at Ritz-Carlton hotel properties and head pastry chef at a luxury hotel in Portland before settling in Washington and joining Ris, a District restaurant, as a pastry chef last year.

He legally wed Kaplan in June. Other survivors include his mother, Patricia Sasser of Detroit, and a sister.

Mr. Sasser was a board member of the Washington-based AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families. He was active in youth and mentoring organizations, and he and his husband served as foster parents to a 4-year-old girl.

“I do not want another person to die feeling as [though] we as a community and a country have not done everything within our power to find a cure for the AIDS epidemic,” he said at the 1995 White House conference on AIDS. “I want to be here for the cure.”