‘Real World’ Star and AIDS Activist Sean Sasser Dies at 44

Sean Sasser (left) with former Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Sasser's partner Michael Kaplan at the 2012 AIDS Walk. Photo by Byron Beck.
Sean Sasser (left) with former Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Sasser’s partner Michael Kaplan at the 2012 AIDS Walk. Photo by Byron Beck.

By Byron Beck, PQ Monthly

Sean Sasser never wanted to be famous. Or a television star. Or a hero. But he was all those things and so much more.

Sean Sasser, 44, died Aug. 7 of mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lungs linked to AIDS-related immunosuppression and asbestos exposure. He died in Washington D.C. where he lived with his husband, Michael Kaplan, the former Executive Director of Cascade AIDS Project and current President and CEO of AIDS United in D.C.

In Portland, Sean was known for his work as a pastry chef at The Nines Hotel, a diligent AIDS activist and CAP supporter, a foster parent, the dad of Hugo the dog, and Michael’s steadfast if seemingly shy life-mate.

Not many in Portland knew that Sean was also one of the first openly gay people to grace our television screens via MTV’s “The Real World: San Francisco.”

In 1994 Sean “married” his boyfriend Pedro Zamora and brought national and international attention to LGBT and HIV issues as one of the first openly gay couples with AIDS to be portrayed on television. Pedro died not long after the show, and Sean lived on, working on both the east and west coasts before moving to Portland with Michael and eventually D.C.

Sean wasn’t one to talk about the past, or his days on “The Real World.” He was much happier making dinner (it always included a fabulous dessert) and talking to friends about their lives, not his. But Sean was a living, breathing angel. He would be embarrassed to hear anyone say that, but he truly was. He beamed with a light from within. He was incredibly patient and kind.

Above all, he lived the life he wanted. He was an out, proud gay man living with HIV. It was evident from his days on that reality show he never liked to talk about. It was evident by those of us who were lucky enough to call him a friend. It was evident by the love he shared with everyone who crossed his path.

Sean Sasser was love. And he will be missed.

A celebration of life will be held today at 8:30 p.m. in Portland at Terry Schrunk Plaza, across from City Hall. Attendees are asked to wear red and bring illumination. Visit the Facebook event page for current details.