Sean Sasser, a 44-year-old activist living with HIV whose romance with Pedro Zamora in MTV's 1994 The Real World was among the first real-life gay relationships on television, died last week. Sasser and Zamora were among the first openly gay men to be portrayed in popular media, and they were both living with HIV. As Eric Marcus, a historian and author of Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights, noted: "For a whole generation they made AIDS and they made same-sex relationships very real."
Although Sasser's loss has been covered extensively over the last week, most commentators have overlooked the fact that as an HIV positive same-sex couple, the first national face of gay relationships that Sasser and Zamora created was a face with HIV.
It's been reported that at 19, Sasser had tried to enlist in the Navy, but was rejected when a medical test showed he had HIV. What many don't realize, however, is that in the more than two decades since then, not much has changed. Sasser would still be prohibited from entering military service today, not because he was gay, but because he had HIV. Active duty service members who test positive while on active duty are subject to assignment limitations, and receive formal "safe sex" orders. Failure to obey these orders may result in criminal prosecution, discharge from the armed services, and loss of all related service benefits.
Today, as marriage dominates the national gay agenda, HIV has lost a foothold with the national LGBT campaigns for equality. Sasser and Zamora are powerful reminders of why homophobia and HIV stigma remain intrinsically connected. Let's really honor Sasser's activism and contributions to the movement and recommit to dismantling the government-enforced system of HIV-phobic discrimination that he and many like him experienced and still do to this day.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the Legal Director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy