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The Real World's Sean Sasser is Dead at 44, Fans Publicly Mourn

The Real World's Sean Sasser is Dead at 44, Fans Publicly Mourn


Sasser was one of the first gay people on reality TV and he became an activist that inspired a generation.

One of the most beloved figures in both reality TV and HIV activism has died. According to reports in Buzzfeed, Sean Sasser died Wednesday night of mesothelioma, a very rare form of lung cancer that has been linked to a weakened immune system found in some AIDS patients. There's no report yet on whether Sasser's cancer was related to HIV, though.

The death of Sasser has created a giant outpouring of love and grief, not just for his work, but for the man behind it. Beloved partner, friend, chef, reality star, and activist, Sasser had become a advocate for many people in his adopted Portland, Ore. community and the wider worlds of LGBT and HIV/AIDS activism. Though he may be gone, his torch still burns just as bright, say his friends.

Sasser entered the spotlight in 1994, during the first season of the Real World: San Francisco. MTV viewers knew him as the boyfriend of Paul Zamora, one of the roommates in the house. It was the first time in reality television we saw a gay couple living and dealing with HIV. Together, not only did they inspire a younger generation, but they became a springboard to further acceptance of queer culture and HIV-positive people in the mainstream media. Reality TV pioneer was a title that Sasser never felt comfortable with, according to PQ Magazine scribe Byron Beck, who was Sasser's close friend.

"He didn't want to be a reality guy or a hero," Beck told HIV Plus. "He was such a private person, very few people even knew he was sick. He lived and died on his own terms. He was known for his work as a pastry chef and he made efforts to not be a part of [television] culture anymore. He was an angel, and I'm very lucky to have been his friend."

Zamora died shortly after the The Real World wrapped in 1994 but Sasser went on to be highly visible in LGBT activism with HRC and HIV activism with a number of groups.

Sasser later became a pastry chef. He loved to cook, he told Washington Blade and his love of cooking seemed to a reflection of his love for people, having said that he wanted to serve desserts that people "recognize and love to eat, but sometimes with an unexpected surprise."

Less than a year ago, Sasser moved from Portland to D.C. with his partner, Michael Kaplan of AIDS UnitedThe news of his death came as a shock early Thursday morning, especially to the people in Portland. Beck says that people across the city from many walks alike are very sad and incredibly affected, especially those who knew him and have worked with him.

Candace Gingrich-Jones, Associate Director of the Youth and Campus Outreach Program at HRC, knew just as well as anyone the power he had on the cause.

"Sean brought the reality of living with HIV/AIDS to living rooms across the country," Gingrich-Jones said in a statement. "I had the honor and pleasure of working with Sean in our You've Got the Power: Vote campaign in 1996... I remember him as down to earth, very passionate about his cause and always with a grin that easily turned into a smile. We could use more Seans — to bring the visibility to the reality that HIV/AIDS is still a fact of life for many, especially young black men."

Hrc_1996_groupAbove: Sasser (third from left) joins Amanda Bearse, Chaz Bono, Greg Louganis, Gingrich, Mitchell Anderson, and Dan Butler in HRC's You've Got the Power: Vote PSA

Though Sasser seemed to be larger than life in the public eye, according to many of his friends, he was anything but. Since his rise to fame on the Real World, many fans placed him on a pedestool that he never seemed to want to be. He didn't want to be an advocate or a high-profile figure, instead, he wanted to live his life as honestly as he could. But that doesn't mean he was unaware of how important he was to the cause.

“I was just being who I was at the time,” Sasser told HIVPlusMag last year about his time on MTV. “Those of us afforded the opportunity to be on television see that it’s easier to just be honest with everything that we are, and HIV is just one of many different things you reveal about yourself when you’re in a reality TV situation.”

Beck recalls an incident he had with Sasser after Dustin Lance Black wrote a movie called Pedro. The film was about Zemora's life, which also examined the impact both he and Sasser had during their time on the Real World. According to Beck, even then, Sasser was still making an effort not to be included in the hype.

"Sean didn't want anything to do with it," Beck says. "It was a different part of his life. He never looked backwards. He loved Pedro and their life together so much that he never wanted to take away from the beauty of their relationship at the time. I had a copy of [Pedro] and when I showed it to him, he was quiet, didn't say anything."

Sasser's life was more than an activist and pastry chef. He put a face to the disease, one that had much more of an effect than any film or script could translate. Taking pride in his work, he was the face for the 2012 AIDS Walk Portland, appearing in promotional ads with Kaplan, who was the executive director of Cascade AIDS Project at the time.

To celebrate his life, a memorial is planned for tonight at the Terry Schrunk Plaza, a park located in downtown Portland. Participants have been asked to wear the color red and to bring illumination. The gathering is expected to be quite large, something that seems poignant for such a life so honorably lived.

No word on where his body will be buried, though Beck thinks it will be in the South where he is originally from.

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