Sean Sasser, AIDS activist extraordinaire, has died at age 44.

Sasser entered the American consciousness as Pedro Zamora’s boyfriend on MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco, back in the early 1990s. Zamora passed away not long after the show ended, due to complications of the disease — some say the stress of the filming process led to his deterioration in health at a time when HIV medications were much less effective than they are today. Sasser lived on, working for numerous political and social organizations and becoming a well-known AIDS activist in his own right.

According to his life partner, Michael Kaplan, Sasser died of mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lungs. No other information was released immediately about his medical condition, but mesothelioma has been linked to a weakened immune system in some people with AIDS.

Sasser may not be familiar to people who did not see his episodes of The Real World, and he did not live his life in the limelight after the show. But his one brief turn in front of the cameras was enough to make a major impact. Long before Ellen or Will & Grace showcased gay people on TV living mainstream lives, and before the magic of protease inhibitor “cocktails” turned HIV into a manageable disease, Sasser gave a brave face to both issues and brought those taboo topics to educate millions of young Americans.

And perhaps his early death is a stark reminder that for many, HIV is still a disease, a lesson he undoubtedly would not want anyone to forget and be proud survives him.


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