Sean Sasser Endowment Fund

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Sean Sasser in the great outdoors. Photos courtesy Michael Kaplan/AIDS United
Sean Sasser in the great outdoors. Photos courtesy Michael Kaplan/AIDS United

The new season of MTV’s The Real World is returning to San Francisco, the city that was the setting for the third season of the seven-strangers-live-in-a-house reality series airing back in 1994. That’s when the viewing public met Miamian Pedro Zamora, who was openly positive on the show, as well as Pedro’s boyfriend, Sean Sasser, positive as well. The two had met at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in 1993 and were reunited via the show in San Francisco, where Sean was trying to break into the restaurant business.

It was perhaps the first time that television viewers got to know a young gay male couple in the age of AIDS. Through the documentation of their relationship, including one of the first-ever televised proposals and commitment ceremonies, the show countered the image of HIV-positive gay men as isolated from love and support and meekly resigned to a quiet existence rather than trying to forge a future together. Like Sean, Pedro was vocal about destigmatizing HIV/AIDS and promoting LGBT rights. Both Pedro and Sean had contracted HIV in their teens.

Appointed by President Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Sasser served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
Appointed by President Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Sasser served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Pedro died from AIDS-related complications in 1994 at age twenty-two. Sean was by his side till the end. In the real real world, Sean continued his LGBT and AIDS activism and educational efforts, working with organizations such as HIFY (Health Initiatives for Youth), GLAAD, Human Rights Campaign, and the AIDS Alliance for Children Youth & Families, among others. He became a celebrated pastry chef, winning raves most recently for his stint at RIS restaurant in Washington, D.C., where he moved from Portland, Oregon, with his husband, Michael Kaplan, who last year started a tenure as president and CEO of D.C.-based AIDS United.

On August 7, Sean Sasser, forty-four, died after briefly battling mesothelioma. He had been living with HIV for twenty-five years. He is survived by his husband, mother, and sister. An endowment fund has been set up at AIDS United to honor Sean’s life and legacy. The fund will seek to mobilize philanthropic and community support for programs improving health outcomes for gay men of color.

Says Kaplan in a recent press release: “Gay men, and other men who have sex with men, represent the only group in the United States currently seeing a rise in new infections,” said Kaplan. “Recent research suggests that a black gay man in many urban areas of the United States has a one in four chance of becoming infected with HIV by the age of 25. By the age of 40, he has a 60 percent of becoming HIV positive. For us to turn the tide on this epidemic in this particularly vulnerable community, it is imperative that we mobilize and direct resources to programs that reach it. The Sean Sasser Endowment Fund honors Sean’s memory and his work by helping AIDS United do this.”

Sean with his husband, Michael Kaplan, in a poster for AIDS Walk Portland, where they used to live
Sean with his husband, Michael Kaplan, in a poster for AIDS Walk Portland, where they used to live

On September 21, 2013, at a public memorial for Sean at the National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C, AIDS United will officially announce news of the endowment fund with the help of speakers Judd Winick and Dr. Pam Ling, Zamora’s cast and housemates on the Real World San Francisco, who became close with Sasser and Zamora both on and after the show; Phill Wilson, CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, who was both a professional and personal friend of Sasser; and Douglas M. Brooks, Chair of AIDS United’s Board of Trustees and member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, who will read a comment from the President about the administration’s commitment to addressing HIV-related disparities among gay men of color.

Donations to the Sean Sasser Endowment Fund can be made by visiting http://seansasserfund.aidsunited.org/.