MTV ’90s Flashback: How the “Real World” Has Changed

As the Supreme Court considers DOMA, a look back at The Real World San Francisco's Pedro Zamora.

Last weekend, to promote the 28th season of the The Real World, MTV aired three seasons of the genre-groundbreaking series marathon-style. Watching “Retro MTV” felt something like a time machine, back to a time when people wore too much plaid and reality television felt less like an act of Schadenfreude.

The initial success of The Real World could be attributed to its ability to capture the early rumblings of the country’s current culture wars at a personal level. In the early seasons, before reality TV gave way to formulaic scripted reality, seven strangers agreed to “stop being polite” in favor of being real on issues like race, religion, gender and sexuality.

Season three, The Real World: San Francisco, originally premiered in 1994, and was one of three seasons the network chose to re-air, giving original viewers a chance to reacquaint themselves with Pedro Zamora’s legacy with grown-up eyes. Zamora was an HIV-positive gay man who, at age 22, died the day after the season finale of the San Francisco season aired. An HIV/AIDS educator, his presence on the show personalized the reality of the AIDS crisis.

One of the more poignant moments of San Francisco is Pedro’s commitment ceremony to his boyfriend Sean Sasser. During a block of television that mostly felt like some kind of a time capsule, the legal limitations imposed on two gay men felt eerily contemporary, an unfortunate relic of the past that has yet to be shaken.

As the Supreme Court hears arguments over the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriages as a union between man and woman and impacts a couple’s right to receive federal benefits, nine states currently allow same-sex unions. Same-sex couples are not eligible to receive federal benefits under the law. A DOMA reversal will not mandate same-sex marriage in other states.

The Obama Administration, under Attorney General Eric Holder, has concluded that DOMA is unconstitutional. Former President Bill Clinton, who once called Zamora to thank him for his contribution in the fight against AIDS, has also decried the act, which he signed into law in 1996.

More than 15 years after Zamora’s death, the bigotry against same-sex marriage continues to corrupt into national policy, and equality remains a debatable issue.

But the tide is shifting.

Last Tuesday, according to Facebook, 2.7 million of its users changed their profile pictures following the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) social media promotion of its pink-on-red equal sign logo in support of same-sex marriage.

More than 15 years after Zamora’s death, the law has not changed, but if social media is any indication, the times certainly have.

Maya K. Francis is a writer and media/marketing consultant from Philadelphia. Her biting and insightful commentary on pop culture, race, politics, gender and sexuality has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and digital publications including Ebony, xoJane, and The Root, a division of the Washington Post. For more, visit, or follow her on Twitter.