Sean Sasser couldn’t take it anymore. “I needed to be with the people who loved me,” he says. So on November 13, 1994 -- the day of his life-partner Pedro Zamora’s memorial service in Miami -- Sean boarded a plane and headed home to San Francisco, where he and Pedro were supposed to have spent the rest of their lives together. Sean was tired of trying to get Pedro’s family to accept him. He didn’t want to be consoled anymore. He didn’t want any more hugs. He didn’t want his hands held by strangers who thought they knew him through his appearance on The Real World 3, the most explosive season of MTV’s popular cinéma vérité series. Pedro was a “cast member”; Sean, his real-world love interest. Their evolving relationship was beamed weekly to a potential audience of 68 million viewers. Sometimes Sean couldn’t breathe. For three months, he watched the first person he had ever been really close to fade away. And by all accounts, it was excruciating. “This wasn’t a romantic death,” says Pedro’s fellow Real World -- alum Judd Winick, the cartoonist. “It wasn’t a heroic death. It was horrible and Sean couldn’t do anything except watch it happen.”
MTV’s cameras documenting the third season of The Real World stopped rolling in mid-June, 1994. Pedro and Sean, whose commitment ceremony aired on the show, began looking for a place to begin their lives outside the fishbowl. But while on a speaking tour, Pedro began to complain about headaches that wouldn’t go away. In August, he was hospitalized while in New York City, where doctors diagnosed progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a degenerative disease of the nervous system almost exclusively among people with AIDS. The only time he left a hospital after that was to be transferred to Miami, his hometown.
During the second week of November, Pedro’s family turned off his life support, and on the eve of the final air-date of the series he and Sean helped redefine, Pedro died. Devastated, frustrated and alone, the only thing Sean wanted to do was escape.
I’m running late and I’m hoping I can still beat Sean Sasser to the restaurant. But I find him waiting for me on the enclosed porch of Harvest, one of many Atlanta eateries housed in reconditioned old manses. Although there are a handful of tables for dining, the porch is dark and empty on this busy Thursday night. Sean sits alone, in the shadows, at a table far away from the bustle inside. I can barely make out his hint of a goatee, his tan racing-striped sweater or his oval Armani specs. When he stands, he looks comfortable in a pair of jeans and chunky demiboots, more Urban Outfitters than Gap. He’s healthy: “My grandmother says I have good genes.” His cough is just a remnant of a recent battle with bronchitis. In October, he’ll turn 29 and will have lived with HIV for 10 years.
This is probably the way Sean prefers to live these days -- quiet, still, anonymous. After all, he only recently got his last name back, after being on a first-name-only basis with millions of viewers every week (MTV reruns the show consistently). He is no longer defined simply as “Pedro’s boyfriend,” and he has come to Atlanta to finally carve out his own life.
Sean had hoped his move to Atlanta almost two years ago would serve such a purpose. “So far,” he says, as he settles, at my request, into a chair inside, “Atlanta has turned out to be a pretty interesting town. It’s not as bad as I expected. It has had a tranquilizing effect on my life.” He considered other cities -- “I needed someplace warmer than San Francisco, and I didn’t want to live in Florida or Texas” -- but followed a new boyfriend here with dreams of opening a café.
The boyfriend was his second in the year after Pedro’s death. Although that relationship ended a few months after the move, he’s still trying to build a restaurant, looking for investors and capital. “Opening my own little café is always at the top of my list of priorities,” Sean says, ending each sentence with an involuntary, yet charming, smile. “But I never seem to move forward on it.”
He associates his terminal procrastination with a fear of failure and a sense of low self-esteem he can’t seem to shake. Such self-doubt is hard to believe, because as a board member of Washington, DC’s AIDS Policy Center, Sean makes his living speaking to and on behalf of adolescents and minorities -- often in rural areas -- about provocative subjects like AIDS and unprotected sex. He appears so self-actualized. He’s relaxed as he talks but guards every word. He doesn’t waste energy on hand gestures or nervous tics and he hardly ever loses eye contact. Still, Sean concedes, “Low self-esteem has been a constant in my life.”
Pedro and Sean actually met before MTV’s cameras began to roll. Already on the national speaking circuit, Pedro spoke at a conference Sean attended in Washington, DC. Like everyone else, he was blown away by Pedro’s presence and conviction. “I was kind of like, ’Wow.’” Sean remembers. “I had never run across someone who was as good at it as he was.” Sean introduced himself, but it wasn’t love at first sight.
For a moment, Sean’s eyes glaze over. “It would have been great if we could have been a lot more aggressive about learning about each other after we met in DC,” he says, “but, you know, things happen for a reason.” Sean did encourage Pedro to call if he ever made it to San Francisco. Soon after, Sean learned that producers of The Real World were looking for an HIV positive cast member -- a reminder that nothing is all that real on The Real World. In fact, Sean sent a letter to the production office with advice on housing an HIV positive person. He enclosed a photo, but didn’t find the time to fill out the application that arrived in his post box. “The whole thing seemed so exploitative, but then I heard that Pedro was coming, and I was like, ’Great. If there’s anyone who can handle it and do it well and be very open and honest for the American public to see and learn from, he’s the perfect person,’” Sean says.
Pedro did call when he moved into that big MTV-requisitioned house on Lombard Street in early 1994. Their courtship was documented on the show, but the second date happened away from the cameras. Near that date’s end, Sean says, “I sort of looked over at him and just asked -- kind of point blank because it just occurred to me -- ’Are we dating?’ And he gave me this stare and said, ’Yes.’”
“It was a lot of fun watching them together,” Judd says from the home he shares in San Francisco with former Real World roommate and current live-in girlfriend Pam Ling (the medical student). “I used to joke with Pedro that he and Sean would become the mayors of Castro Street. Soon after, the show became less and less about San Francisco and more about Pedro and Sean.”
“They were super together,” adds Pam, who, along with Sean and Judd, was in Miami at Pedro’s bedside until the end. “Sean can be very private, and Pedro brought out a lot of openness. Sean wanted to keep everything he owned protected. He had all of his stuff set up so he could pack up and go. But with Pedro, they were getting a dog and looking for a place to put down roots and creating a home. This was different from Sean’s previous M.O.”
Within the six months that the series taped in San Francisco, Sean and Pedro rapidly moved toward a commitment ceremony. “Everything happened so quickly. And you know,” Sean says, “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.”
Suddenly what was planned as a private celebration became an emotional blow-out party at Pedro’s house with tons of guests. “It was a great day,” Sean says. “It’s still a blur.” No worry-MTV gave him four hours of tape from two different cameras, and he’s seen it on the tube as well.
I ask a question about the importance of legalized marriage for same-sex couples and Sean stops me cold. “I wish we’d had a marriage, because --”
He stops himself. His eyes begin to glisten as he looks away. “It’s troublesome,” he says. “If there had been some sort of support behind our commitment ceremony... I had a hard time dealing with his family. With Pedro’s death and being allowed in the hospital... ” Sean’s struggling to find the right words. “I don’t know. Maybe it could have helped the family deal with my presence, you know?”
Sean’s parents divorced when he was six. He grew up in Detroit with his mother and a younger sister. “I was taking care of my little sister and trying to take care of the house,” he says. (A dancer, she still lives in Detroit with her husband and Sean’s new niece.) He says his experience was probably not typical of most African-American young people in urban Detroit. He attended private school, then went on to Cass Tech, a select college-preparatory magnet school.
His father was a sergeant in the Army. That’s pretty much where that conversation stops. “I have nothing to say,” Sean says, pointedly losing eye contact as he does whenever he wants to end a subject of conversation. Then, “I mean, he called me once when I was in Minneapolis.” He looks up. “I mean, like, years ago. And of course, my boyfriend at the time answered the phone because I was at work, and he was like, ’Your father called.’ And I went, ’What? Well, did he leave a number?’ Nope. So I guess he’ll call back when he wants to.” After his parents divorced, Sean’s father sent a watch for nearly every birthday. “Casios,” Sean remembers. These days he never wears a watch but still wears his wedding ring.
After high school, Sean made his first escape. He went to the University of Chicago to study Near Eastern civilizations and become an archeologist. “I wanted to be one of the first major black archeologists to call the bluff on all this Egyptian stuff that was stolen by other cultures,” he says, laughing at his ambitions because he barely made it through freshman year. “I was so bored... I was so bored... I was so bored that I was depressed. So depressed.”
He took a year off, came out to his mother -- who had over time become almost fanatically religious (his grandmother’s a minister) -- then signed up for military service in a serious effort to “cure” his homosexuality. “I didn’t want to be gay anymore,” Sean says. “I thought it would work. You know, the discipline, all that stuff.” His mother thought the service was a great idea. “If the military doesn’t work it out it of me,” he thought, “at least I’ll be disciplined enough to control it.” But before he could ship out, a mandatory blood test came back HIV positive. Sean didn’t even really know what that meant other than realizing that he was going to die. He also convinced himself that he was “the only 19-year-old African American in the world who is HIV positive.” He decided not to waste his time on any more Near Eastern civilizations and went directly to culinary school. “Cooking is something that I’ve always been fond of doing,” Sean says, admitting that food is one of the few thing he spends too much money on. “And I always wanted to open my own restaurant.”
His friends say there’s no one they’d rather go to a farmer’s market with. After school he found jobs cooking in local Chicago restaurants, but mostly he felt himself waiting to die. “I needed to figure out how to keep living,” he says. He needed to get away. So, in 1991, he moved to the City by the Bay.
“It was very easy for me to live in San Francisco,” Sean says, explaining his big move. “I mean, a lot of the things I had difficulty with, namely sexual orientation and HIV status, and to some degree, race, were easier to negotiate in San Francisco because I could see other people just like me living their lives peacefully, happily and without regret.” In Chicago, he found himself in support groups with men twice his age; in San Francisco, there were young men and women of all races and ethnicities dealing with their HIV status. The city had also been on the forefront of research and activism.
Sean quickly became wrapped up in a youth HIV positive movement to demand attention for adolescents with the disease. It was initially an overwhelming experience for Sean, but he began speaking to groups about his own experience with HIV, then started facilitating a support group called Bay Area Positives, for young people of color. His work led to a role in a number of videos, including “Not Me,” which aired on PBS. He appeared in a national AIDS awareness campaign photographed by Annie Leibovitz and attended the 1993 Lesbian and Gay March on Washington -- where he met Pedro.
Sadly, Sean did not have an opportunity to meet Pedro’s family until after Pedro got sick, so sick that he could no longer communicate to them the importance of Sean in his life. On TV, it always appeared that Pedro’s parents were in complete support of their son’s lifestyle and choices. “That wasn’t my experience,” Sean says flatly. “I shouldn’t have had to deal with a lot of the stuff that I dealt with in Miami. If Pedro and I were legally married, his family would have understood and respected my right to be there. And, of course, that was an abomination. It was just very hypocritical and unnecessary and I didn’t understand it. It caused even more turmoil around an already desperate and hurtful situation.” He raises his voice. “I was told Pedro did not need to have a lover anymore. And it was very obvious from the start, when he could communicate, that he wanted me there. I have a lot of resentment toward dealing with his family’s homophobia, as well as dealing with him dying.”
It never got any better. After the first couple of confrontations, Sean’s first instinct was to go back to San Francisco. “But whenever I’d go back, I’d go, ’What am I doing here? I have to go back.’” Sean fought the urge to escape-as the media coverage intensified, he couldn’t walk in Miami without being accosted by bereaved fans -- until Pedro’s final day. “Actually, he passed away very early in the morning... he was already gone, you know, the Pedro that I knew,” he says quietly. “Once again, I felt overwhelmed by his family trying to, like, take everything so... oh boy,” he sighs loudly. “And I was allowed to make my way to the bed... to give him a kiss. And I left. That was it.”
“I think by that time Sean had been pushed to his limit and beyond,” Pam says. “I think he showed a tremendous amount of steadfastness and was pretty amazing during that time. People grieve in different ways, and Sean leaving Miami when he did was a reflection of his own grief and pain. It was a valid thing to do -- he needed to get out.”
Sean’s loft apartment is in a several-storied building in midtown Atlanta right on the city’s main drag, Peachtree Road. It’s smack dab in the heart of hustler row, although a police crackdown has meant fewer cars circling like sharks at night. It’s his third apartment since relocating. “I need furniture, need to put stuff on the walls,” he mumbles, greeting me at the door of his spacious loft that is, like its resident, settling in. Empty boxes fill one wall. Cartons full of paperwork hide under a table. “I need bookshelves... ” A closed laptop computer sits by his comfy-looking but unmade bed. (What’s on his Powerbook? “Nothing. E-mail”). Other boxes hold Pedro’s stuff: Mostly carved primitive-art pieces and masks from Africa and Cuba. “One of these days I’ll get unpacked, and then I’ll move.” That’s usually how Sean’s life goes.
Six months after Pedro died, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing with requests for speaking engagements at colleges and elsewhere. Pam and Judd had filled in for the couple but there was still pressure for Sean to get back in the saddle. He resisted and then agreed to a couple of appearances. “It was such a release to be able to once again stand up in front of people and sort of let it out,” Sean says. “I never imagined that I would do it. After Pedro passed, I decided that I wasn’t giving any more. The rest is mine.” He was also juggling a job with Health Initiatives for Youth, trying to create leaders among at-risk and HIV positive young people. Finally, he had to leave San Francisco for almost the same reasons he moved there almost 10 years ago. “I never thought I would leave, but when Pedro passed away, I started re-evaluating what I was doing and what I wanted to be doing,” Sean says from his canvas-covered couch. A bottle of Evian sits within reach. “Some of it had to do with getting away from the whole AIDS factory. Being surrounded by the AIDS culture was getting to me. I needed to really start over and try to get my footing again.”
Sean hasn’t opened his café yet, but he’s making progress. Part of that progress includes quitting his speaking tours “because I don’t have a life.”
Judd Winick, for one, doesn’t believe he’ll quit. “He’s completely full of it,” Judd says, “because he won’t stop completely. On the one day when the café is closed, he’ll have kids in there or he’ll loan out the space or he’ll be teaching.” Sean plans to continue his work with the AIDS Policy Center, which recently named a fund for him (“The Sean Sasser Fund,” he says, laughing. “I said, ’As long as it doesn’t have Memorial in the title’”). “I am at the end of my rope,” he says wearily, and not just because his bronchitis hasn’t gone away. “Part of me believes that, subconsciously, moving to Atlanta has just been another escape. I’m good at escaping. Very, very good at escaping.”
He also plans to stay single for as long as possible-at four months and counting, he’s achieved his own personal best. “I have always had a boyfriend,” he admits with a trace of embarrassment. “Codependents of America unite. I always want to have someone there to keep me from getting bored, lonely. One relationship shifts to the next-always afraid of being by myself. I didn’t even go to a movie by myself.” His success in this area seems questionable. Later, he’ll admit to “dating” someone in Minneapolis.
I thought you said you weren’t dating anyone?
“Well, like, I don’t call it dating.”
You just called it dating.
“It’s long distance.”
But you’re still dating.
“We’re seeing each other.”
That’s what dating is.
“I’m not. I’m single,” he says finally. “He’s not moving and I’m not moving.”
For now, Sean has no plans to escape further. “I’m really trying to find a job here, you know, settle in, calm down a bit. There’s nowhere else to go.”