Thursday, August 8, 2013

Requiem for an Activist

It is ironic that given all the major events in my life in the last 4 months, it was something that, sadly, is not getting much press-coverage which has inspired me to write again. I should be writing about the end of my second year of MDiv studies. I should be writing about how wonderfully at-home I am at Grace North Church and how the congregation voted unanimously to endorse me for ordination. I should be writing, perhaps most importantly, about my surgery and how I have -- as of today -- lost 102 pounds and how I feel better in my body than I have felt in YEARS. Oh but no. The Holy Spirit pushed me back into writing because of one of those generational things. Please share this as widely as you can -- particularly if you know queerfolk and allies who are Millennials. In many ways this post is addressed to them.


For those of you too young to remember the early seasons of MTV's The Real World, I would like to tell you about its 3rd season which was filmed in San Francisco. Given what the show has become, it might be easy to dismiss it as mindless fodder. And perhaps it is. But here is an often-forgotten fact: in its earliest seasons The Real World broke new ground for queerfolk in television. For example, in its first season, when most of middle-America was still just starting to understand the basic concept of gayness, a man named Norman came out as an unapologetic bisexual. In its second season, the presence of a gay woman in the house caused another woman who worked as an AIDS-ward nurse to examine her own unconscious homophobia.

And then there was Season 3. The Real World: San Francisco. Real World SF stands beside a number of milestones in queer history that we need to remember. Real World SF had a profound impact on many of us who are now a generation older; one specific impact is in the area of college-based HIV education programs. So many of those programs that we take for granted 19 years later, in fact, exist because of the powerful work of community organizers who came before us. One of those organizers was a Cuban refugee named Pedro Zamora. A cast member of Real World SF. An HIV-positive gay man.

Pedro took advantage of his time on Real World SF to tear down barriers between queerfolk and the rest of America. He convinced the producers of the show to record him as he spoke to college dormitories in the Bay Area during the filming of Real World SF. I was a college-aged young man at the time; I was exactly the demographic whose lives Pedro cared so much for. Pedro was a sweet and loving man and he taught me so much of what I know about how to stay HIV-negative, but he also taught me that compassion must be the first duty of anyone who claims to be an activist. My belief in Pedro's lessons has only grown stronger now that Jesus has called me toward ministry.

And now, with all of that background, I reach today's news: Sean Sasser has died.

Who was Sean Sasser? Sean was Pedro Zamora's husband. They were married "live" on Real World SF. It was the first nationally televised same-sex wedding, and the emotional impact of their ceremony was multiplied a million-fold by the timing of their wedding episode: it was the penultimate episode of the season; one week later, on the day the final episode of the season aired, Pedro died.

Looking back at it, nearly 19 years later, it seems melodramatic, but let's keep in mind the impact it had on an entire generation of American activists. I was one of them: this was PERSONAL to my generation of activists. We were just a bit too young to be one of the hardcore "Silence Equals Death" ACT-UP types but we are also too old to be part of the newer wave of activists who have risen to the challenges of the 21st century. We are, in many ways, a lost generation of Americans. But we did have our time in the sun, and we were led by people like Sean Sasser and Pedro Zamora. In fact, the day Pedro died it was revealed that President Bill Clinton had called him just a few days before his death to thank him for his brave leadership. In response to the outpouring of emotion over Pedro's death, MTV took the at-the-time-unprecedented step of quickly putting together a one-hour special focused on Pedro but more importantly focusing on Pedro's work: educating youth adults of the 1990s that WE COULD STOP THE SPREAD OF HIV. When the MTV special aired, President Clinton spoke to the country live, imploring us to remember Pedro and to follow his lead.

But back to Sean Sasser.

Here we are, almost 19 years later, and Sean has left us. The medical advances which came too late to save Pedro had managed to extend Sean's life for nearly two decades. During those years Sean took up the banner and continued to educate folks on how to stay HIV-negative. Sean never forgot Pedro, and honored Pedro's memory with every life he touched and saved. Let us not forget that literally THOUSANDS of queerfolk in America are still HIV-negative because of the lessons we learned from leaders like Sean who never gave up on us.

And for my younger readers, I implore you: please please PLEASE do not forget those who have come before you. For those of you in the currently rising generation of religious and social leaders, please learn about your history. Let us teach you. Please talk to us about how things were back in the day and please do not forget those who have preceded you in activism, in life, and in death. We would love to teach you just how far things have come -- not as a list of facts in a book but as a real lived experience which can speak to you as you take your rightful place as leaders.

Rest well my brother in Christ, Sean Sasser.
I'm sure Pedro is happy that you have come home to him.

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