Aug. 8, 2013 at 4:08 PM ET
Sean Sasser, who helped educate Americans about AIDS as the husband of "The Real World: San Francisco" cast member Pedro Zamora, has died, former cast member Judd Winick announced on Twitter Wednesday night.
Sasser, who was 44, died of a rare cancer of the lungs called mesothelioma. Although no other details of his medical condition have been released, Sasser was HIV-positive, and that form of cancer has been linked to weakened immune systems in people with AIDS.
Sasser and Zamora fell in love as "The Real World" cameras rolled on the show's third season in 1994. The two men first met at the 1993 March on Washington for equal rights for gay, lesbians and bisexuals. Zamora lived in Miami; Sasser in San Francisco. Nine months later, Zamora called Sasser to let him know he was going to San Francisco to film "The Real World."
In a 1996 interview, Sasser said his initial intention was to be a friend to Zamora, who was already ill when production on the show began. But things quickly turned romantic, and their love story broke much ground. Zamora allowed viewers inside his battle with AIDS, and Sasser consented to "The Real World" filming their relationship.
"It feels good to me, because (in) my own childhood, (it) was not a fun thing to deal with being gay," Sasser said in the 1996 interview. "Now, I've been able to be a part of something that is really directly impacting that perception, giving young people (the) opportunity to live better existences as young people."
Through it all, Sasser supported Zamora and eventually married him in a sweet commitment ceremony in front of the cameras, at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal and unfamiliar to most Americans. Zamora died at the age of 22 of in 1994, shortly after his season of the show concluded.
"It had a very large effect on me. I never lost someone so close to me," Sasser said two years later. "And it also had a very large impact on how I feel about my life. It made me realize I really hadn't dealt with mortality or death and dying. And because the bond we had was such a unique wonderful experience, I was at a loss for how to deal with losing him so soon."
Although Sasser wasn't a full-time "Real World" cast member himself, his relationship with Zamora put gay issues front and center for many viewers, sometimes for the first time.
"His one brief turn in front of the cameras was enough to make a major impact," wrote former "Real World" cast member Dan Renzi, an openly gay man who appeared on the 1996 Miami season. "Long before 'Ellen' or 'Will & Grace' showcased gay people on TV living mainstream lives, and before the magic of protease inhibitor 'cocktails' turned HIV into a manageable disease, Sasser gave a brave face to both issues and brought those taboo topics to educate millions of young Americans."
Indeed, their relationship educated and inspired many, as evidenced by comments posted on Twitter on Thursday.
Sasser did not continue to live a public life after Zamora died, but he did remain active on behalf of many social causes. He served as the spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign and lectured on college campuses across America about AIDS prevention. At the time of his death, Sasser was married to AIDS United president and longtime activist Michael Kaplan and was a pastry chef at RIS in Washington, D.C.
"In any of the activism people do, whether it's civil rights activism, choice activism or AIDS activism... it's hopefully in the memory of people who didn't have the benefit of a lot of the things we're advocating for," Sasser said in 1996. "So, yeah, the things that I do keep the memory of what Pedro thought was important, and what he did, as well as other people who passed away... alive."