It was the summer of 1998. I was thirteen years old and like every Colombian-American, I was spending my summer in the motherland surrounded by an overabundance of family, coffee farms, and starchy foods. Naturally, I found my one link to home: MTV Latino. The channel began re-airing the third season of The Real World that summer which originally began airing on June 30th, 1994. Four years later, I got to meet Pedro Zamora.
Up until that point, Hispanic men on television came to me in the form of telenovela actors or on-air personalities. Also, few of these were ever submerged in Anglo culture. Reality TV was a puppy and yet the notion of seeing “real” people on TV was very novel. But there was Pedro, outspoken, unabashed by his accent and the disease he had. Just by those two things, you could consider him irreverent. Yet, his propensity to dress in flannel, speak with intention, and disarm viewers like me with his strength was how I came to a figure that would fill me with warmth and inspire many years after I was introduced to him via my TV screen.
Being thirteen is incredibly awkward. Physically your body feels like a mess; growing and evolving as you mentally try to grow into it and the world around you. The world around me during that summer was immersed in reconnecting with family I hadn’t spoken to and spent time with in years. I was learning that the entire members of my family had their role already carved out. The other teenage boys in the family were athletic, charismatic conversationalists, comical storytellers, social drinkers or smokers. I was none of those things. I had no idea who I was. I hadn’t even told myself that I was gay. Watching Pedro on that season of the Real World filled me with incredible solace.
That summer, with the looming expression of my sexuality close by, I remember watching Pedro and Sean Masser’s commitment ceremony and feeling a security I hadn’t felt before. It was new and foreign to watch Pedro exchange vows with Sean but it wasn’t difficult for me to understand. I got it immediately. It made sense. It clicked. I couldn’t word it then, but as I now ride an age where friends getting married and having babies is the new normal, I now know. It wasn’t just that Pedro was gay. He had dark hair, almond colored eyes, bushy eyebrows and an olive skin tone. These were characteristics that resembled me. He was gay and Latino – I finally saw myself. It was then that the seed of visibility was planted and since then I believe with every fiber of my being that us LGBTQ folk don’t yet have the luxury of not coming out.
That summer I just wanted to blend in. The internal battle of declaring my sexuality, primarily to myself, was deep. I wanted to blend in with the boys back in New York City and I wanted to blend in with the boys in my family. I wanted to blend in really, really badly. But watching Pedro be considerably different from the rest of his roommates, including standing his ground when Puck was beginning to become an unmanageable force in the house, planted a seed in me: living and breathing earns you a right to be seen and heard. In the case of Pedro Zamora, his living was enough. His last days were spent in front of cameras and in the interim became indelible in the eyes of many people who weren’t even like him. Pedro was YOLOing all over TV during a period where having AIDS rendered you a ticking bomb.
When he found out about his status in 1989, he turned to educating his community about AIDS and HIV. He then subjected himself to the scrutiny of national television in an effort to educate the world at large about a disease that was feared and maligned by using the LGBTQ community as a scapegoat. Pedro knew he was going to die and he was fighting anyway.
Pedro fought until the end. Even in the Real World house, he fought even when he felt he had to remove himself from the reality show’s production due to Puck’s behavior. He stood up and he stood up to a white guy. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. The biggest lesson I still hold from having watched that ordeal is that there was a disagreement based on mentality. At no point did Puck ever commit an act that could have been considered homophobic but where Pedro and he disagreed on had less to do with politics and more to do with their respective way of life. It’s a lesson that I’ve realized still applies today especially after it was determined the 2016 president-elect was going to be Donald Trump.
On election night, as the results of the general election trickled in, a process of grieving began that moved me quickly through the stages of denial and acceptance. Interestingly enough, I never got to tap into anger. I was too despondent and heartbroken that Donald Trump had received so many votes based on a campaign that focused on “the others” role in the American people’s current lot in life.
What a Trump-Pence presidency holds for the LGBTQ community is becoming clearer with the passing days. Kenneth Blackwell, who is currently the head of Trump’s domestic policy, declared that homosexuality is “a transgression against God’s law, God’s will” during his 2006 run for Ohio’s governorship. In addition, it’s unclear whether “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” will be brought back into effect. Are there explicit plans to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges by placing a far-right judge to replace the seat left open by Anthony Scalia? Trump has already expressed his intention to overturn President Obama’s executive orders. Those include orders that protect trans students and ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination by federal contractors.
With all the unanswered questions, choosing Mike Pence as a running mate is a possible stance on all these issues that includes a GOP platform supporting parents of minors who want to send their gay and trans kids to conversion therapy. Nothing has happened but one thing we can double down on is that the LGBT community has to hunker down for a massive fight over the next four years.
It’s difficult not to take the election results as a personal slight. There was a comfort in knowing that some headway was being made for us LGBTQ folk. Now the realization that we have to continue to fight, even harder, seems daunting. Yet, I can’t stop thinking about Pedro, who died on November 11th, 1994, and his commitment to educating and reaching out during a time where it must have felt impossible for any progress to be made or to even be able to see the progress that could be made.
It’s impossible not to acknowledge how light years away we are from the world Pedro lived in. It’s better but never before has the magnitude of the battle been so laid out in front of us and never before have we been more prepared. We’ve now entered the culmination of the ebbs and flows of the past 47 years since Stonewall.
Pedro’s life is an important lesson we have to come back to. It shows us how to live and battle. The odds were stacked against him – he fought anyway. His time with us was limited and he opted to become more visible. He knew he would probably never see the progress he was advocating for and he stood in front of the world and spoke to all of us anyway. The world listened and for the next four we’ll be just as loud because we are so much stronger.
Photo credit: aidsmemorial.org