Today in Gay History: MTV Comes Out

8.1.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

The network's move away from music sets the stage for Pedro Zamora.

When MTV debuted on August 1, 1981, it was just a music channel. That has of course changed. But as much as fans of the channel's original format may gripe over MTV's decline into a reality show hell populated by Teen Moms, let's not overlook the network's tremendous impact on LGBT equality. We've recently seen much gay action on Teen Wolf. The True Life series consistently explores LGBT realities. One episode, from 2003, was about a gay teacher in Texas. A 2004 episode featured same-sex couples tying the knot. And MTV just cast one called "I'm a Gay Athlete." (There was a low point when the show featured ex-gays, but that was an anomaly.)

MTV has also always been involved in HIV/AIDS activism, including airing Versace's AIDS benefit on the 90s-era fashion show House of Style. And the network's personalities have been known to work with pro-gay organizations. Current star Jenni 'JWOWW' Farley marched in GLAAD pride pod this year. And a 2010 GLAAD study ranked MTV #1 for "most excellent" representation of LGBT people on cable. As more proof of the cable channel's gay love, last year MTV co-produced Dan Savage's It Gets Better special; America's Best Dance Crew regularly features gay competitors; and canceled comedy Death Valley starred a lesbian cop.

Then there's that other franchise, the one that's twisted itself from legitimate, socially relevant reality into drunken pandemonium: The Real World, which has given us a buffet of gays. There was Danny the Army Captain; Ruthie the troubled drunk; sweetheart Willie Hernandez; struggling Stephen who hated himself and later came out; model Dan Renzi, and many others. The first of course was Norman, from the original 1992 cast. Though he was one of the first openly gay people to be himself on television, the most influential gay person in MTV history, then and probably since, was Pedro Zamora.

Even thinking about it now makes me tear up: in 1994, when the world still misunderstood and feared HIV, Zamora revealed his positive status while living with six strangers and MTV's cameras. He was one of the first gay men in pop culture to do so, and certainly the first to explore the dating scene and gay love in such an affirmative, healthy way. Zamora's story was so powerful and novel that it caught even President Bill Clinton's eye.

"Pedro was particularly instrumental in reaching out to his own generation, where AIDS is striking hard," then-President Clinton said when Zamora died on November 11, 1994. "Through his work with MTV, he taught young people that 'the real world' includes AIDS and that each of us has the responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones." Clinton also introduced MTV's 2009 biopic, Pedro. Zamora "changed everything, at least for younger people," said Clinton.

It was and remains a heartbreaking moment. Zamora was only 22 years old. And none of us would have known his story, or so many other LGBT tales, had it not been for a music network that realized it could help people like Zamora change the world.

In honor of Zamora's bravery, and MTV's, too, here's video from The Real World: San Francisco featuring Pedro and eventual husband Sean Sasser during their early courtship. (The autograph on that picture, btw, says "Always keep safe." Words to live by. Truly.)

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