When I think about the LGBTQ people who have shaped and influenced the man I have become, my thoughts go to the first person I connected with as a young boy. Pedro Zamora is still my biggest hero and will forever be remembered as a true icon of HIV activism. In many ways, I have tried to follow in his footsteps. But my admiration and awe for Pedro as an HIV-positive man today started out as a simple, albeit confusing, TV crush.
Even at a young age, I was enthralled by the drama and emotion of The Real World. I would picture my 10-year-old self gossiping with Rachel, complaining about Puck, and becoming best friends with Pam in the charmed world of San Francisco. I also imagined falling in love with Pedro and pictured our budding romance playing out in front of the world. Who didn’t?
I watched as his real romance with Sean Sasser unfolded. It was a world I didn’t understand but knew I was destined to be a part of. As I fell in love with the dashing Cuban-American man from Miami, my heart broke as I watched him bravely battle HIV in an age just before medicine would turn the virus from a death sentence to a manageable condition.
My TV boyfriend was dying. In the process, he brought HIV and AIDS to the forefront of pop culture. Through his testimony, he made it nearly impossible for anyone under the age of 30 to say they didn’t know someone living with HIV. He was one of those people, the kind that you can’t help but fall in love with.
Watching Pedro’s story unfold on the show was the first time I was forced to confront my identity as a young gay boy. It was also the first time I felt the panic of what seemed like an inevitable HIV diagnosis.
It wasn’t long before I had to mourn — along with the rest of the world — over the loss of our beloved Pedro. He died hours after the final episode aired. It seemed like the immoral affection I had for men was an omen of certain doom. But even as my heart broke for Pedro, it would take years before I finally received his message.
As I entered high school, my fear of HIV was still strong. Yet, with every real-life boyfriend I collected, that fear began to fade. In my 20s, I would insist on condoms when my clothes were on, but my will would weaken when my clothes were off. With each negative HIV test, I began to forget why I needed to practice preventive measures in the first place.
By the time I turned 26, my life was filled with the ghosts of ex-boyfriends, hazy career aspirations, and arguments over marriage equality. Fears of HIV were replaced by worries about finding a husband. I still knew safer sex was best, but a few missteps every now and then turned into a general belief that the danger of HIV was over. My absentminded approach to sex and dating reflected the sentiment. That is, until one seemingly ordinary day when my world changed forever.
It turns out that even when the memory of someone seems to be gone, it is never truly forgotten. As I grappled with what it now means to be living with HIV, my mind kept returning to Pedro. He was so brave, so inspirational, and so resolute in living without shame or remorse. He lived this way when HIV was almost always fatal — so in the age of undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U) and PrEP, we have no excuse.
Pedro gave us inspiration and hope. He was a positive force who used education over fear, and he believed in living life to the fullest. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality or HIV status may be—his teachings, and the teachings of the many others whose spirits have lived on long after their bodies perished, remain strong.