Pedro’s work enabled the possibility of queer and Latino counterpublics, spheres that stand in opposition to the racism and homophobia of the dominant public sphere.”
—José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
Pedro changed the face of HIV and AIDS in America forever.
—President Bill Clinton
MTV’s Pedro recalls a moment in reality TV when the genre had real political edge. Back in 1994, The Real World was relevant, however briefly. The series’ retreat from social and political critique was demonstrated during the premiere of Pedro on April 1, when teasers for the current Brooklyn season showed a drunken brawl by the housemates. Even if The Real World: Brooklyn features the long-running series’ first transgender cast member (Katelynn), mostly it’s one episode after another in which the roomies whine about their lives, drink to excess, and hook up.
The Real World: San Francisco had an entirely different agenda, driven by the HIV-positive, gay, 22-year-old Pedro Zamora. Here played by Alex Loynaz, Pedro set out to educate and enlighten, both his housemates and the public at large, about the realities of AIDS at a time in the U.S. when AIDS paranoia and panic were at their height. Along the way, through the estimable force of his character and charisma, his openness about his own life, sexuality, and AIDS status, and his righteous queer rage, Zamora directly challenged, as José Esteban Muñoz has asserted, the racism and homophobia of mainstream America.
Perhaps most famously this challenge took the shape of Zamora’s on-TV wedding to his boyfriend Sean Sasser, long before gay and lesbian marriage was widely recognized as a legitimate social and legal concern. In Pedro Sasser (DaJuan Johnson) seems a little bit disingenuous when he demurs, “It’s not like we planned to have a biracial, HIV-positive, same-sex marriage on national television,” because, well, clearly they did. The fact that they did was and remains a very good thing. Two queer men of color, deeply and obviously in love, exchanging vows and wedding rings, challenges so many things that America insistently “stands for.”
Pedro makes clear that such love was perceived as immoral, deviant, and possibly seditious by mainstream U.S. culture. As Zamora makes his way through a crowd in order to speak about AIDS and safe sex to a group of high-schoolers, haters chant all too familiar slogans and carry signs that read, “God Hates Fags” and “No Tears for Queers with AIDS.” Should you imagine these sentiments are a relic of the past, all you need do is recall the ongoing political fallout and struggles over California’s Proposition 8, or Sean Penn’s rejoinder, during his 2009 Oscar acceptance speech for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, to the homophobic protesters that he encountered on the way to the Academy Awards ceremony.
Pedro wisely complicates this phobia by acknowledging the cultural background of misinformation about AIDS in 1994. When the San Francisco housemates first arrive at their new digs on Lombard Street, we discover that the producers have informed them that one of the housemates is HIV-positive, but not who it is. Judd (Hale Appleman) worries to Pam (Jenn Liu) that it must be Puck (Matt Barr), because of the scabs he has on his face. Though the scabs are from a bike accident, Judd reads the wounds as Kaposi’s Sarcoma, the form of cancer that was the most visible sign of AIDS at the time.
Pam chides Judd. “You can’t tell if someone’s gay or has AIDS just by looking at them.” But her admonition is set against Pedro’s own experiences, which he incorporates into his AIDS education work and activism. He tells a high school group that he was not particularly safe in his sexual practices as a teenager, believing that AIDS could never happen to him, and that his partners didn’t look sick. Now, he wishes someone had told him the vital importance of how to protect himself at 17. It’s a message that bears repeating today, and especially to the young viewers of MTV, as HIV infection rates have spiked in the U.S. for the first time in years. USA Today reported in March of this year that rates in Washington DC are higher than in western Africa.
The exchange between Judd and Pam also demonstrates that, as much as Pedro is Pedro Zamora’s story, it is just as much the story of Judd Winick’s coming into a critical consciousness about the realities and politics of AIDS in the United States. With his middling good looks, respectable demeanor, and nice-guy-ness, Judd is set up as something of an everyman wit whom viewers might identify. We are encouraged throughout Pedro to learn along with him. At the same time, as Judd himself observes, he is a “bed-wetting liberal,” and so predetermined to be open to such transformation and sympathetic to Pedro. The real challenge for Pedro is to change Puck’s mind about AIDS.
Puck is largely remembered for his outsized personality, bratty antics, and poor grooming habits. And, as the film recalls, the memorable clashes of The Real World: San Francisco occurred between Pedro and Puck. In hindsight, they embody the conflict between progressive and conservative social visions. Unfortunately, Puck, like the Right for whom he became a proxy, remained intransigent throughout the series. This is the central tragedy revealed in Pedro, that despite Zamora’s best and most congenial efforts to change perspectives and presumptions, the Pucks of the world refuse to listen, preferring to sling epithets, to reduce Pedro to, as Puck calls him, an “AIDS boy.”