My generation might best be defined as those who remember watching Pedro Zamora die of AIDS in our living rooms.
If you’re not familiar with Pedro, he was an openly gay, HIV-positive castmember in the third season of MTV’s the Real World which aired in 1994. Those who watched Pedro’s life play out on the tiny 4:3 screens of the time were presented with a high definition portrait of kind young man who didn’t fit any of the caricatures of homosexuality that one might see in the movies or hear about from the pulpit.
He was warm, funny, and extremely thoughtful, always facing his illness and his antagonistic, homophobic roommate “Puck” with a kind of conflicted dignity that captivated viewers.
But just as the Real World: San Francisco started airing that summer, Pedro’s health began deteriorating rapidly, and he was soon diagnosed with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy. Although MTV offered to pay for his medical expenses, Pedro’s health continued to worsen and, hours after the season finale aired, Pedro died, surrounded by his friends and the family members Bill Clinton had flown in from Cuba.
Not surprising, the gay community mourned the untimely loss of this bright, energetic educator and activist. But what was surprising was that many people who wouldn’t think of themselves as “pro gay” at the time were also deeply affected.
Anyone could see that Pedro was a good person who cared about others, and just about anyone would choose him as a friend over some of his heterosexual castmates. No matter what one thought about homosexuality, his death was clearly a great injustice.
The Enfleshing of the Other
Before The Real World began airing that summer, one could afford to conceive of homosexuality an abstract concept, an idea about those people over there whom football players made fun of and preachers condemned. But by the time school was under way in the fall, one began to sense that something more than the colors of the leaves was changing. Macho guys couldn’t fire off a “That’s so gay” attack without feeling at least a tiny twinge of guilt, and church youth group kids (who weren’t supposed to be watching MTV anyway) began to wonder if things were as black and white as they used to be.
Now, make careful note: I’m not referring to people who heard or read about Pedro’s death after the fact (like we’re doing now). In the 1980s and 1990s, there were plenty of stories about people dying of AIDS. And here in 2010s, “reality TV” is just a cheap way to get famous, and gay characters are common on every channel in every genre (Modern Family, Mad Men, Caprica, etc.).
But in the early 1990s, The Real World was just an experiment. It was new and novel, the evolution of a network that no longer played music videos, but still shaped how young people viewed themselves and the world. Watching the The Real World back then actually created sense of getting to know a genuine “real” person.
The result was that long before many of our friends or family members had come out of the closet, Pedro stepped in our living rooms and inoculated us against seeing homosexuality as wholly “other.” It was no longer possible to think about homosexuality without picturing at least one homosexual. We might not want to fully “embrace the other” in a Volfian sense, but we couldn’t easily exclude them either.
Pedro’s Influence Today
Last February, Pedro would have turned 40.
And it turns out that 40 is just about the age where one can see a clear ideological fault line on opinions about gay marriage. A poll by Christianity Today shows those 35 and under tend to support same-sex marriage, while those over 35 tend not to, and this division is present among both those that call themselves “born again” and those who don’t.
Normally, one might be able to chalk this up to the old saying, “If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart; and if you’re not conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.” After all, a recent Lifeway poll showed that young people are also more likely to see same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue than their older counterparts. But other data suggest something more complex is going on than youthful naivety or elderly curmudgeony. Another poll by Lifeway Research says that among “born agains” of all ages, over 80% believe that “homosexual behavior is a sin,” but at the same time, those same young people seem to be supportive of gay marriage (or don’t think it should be fought against).
So why do the young at times to agree with the old on the morality of sexual activity, but differ with them when it comes to same-sex marriage? I think the answer is that stories like Pedro’s – so innovative and provocative at such a key time – humanized homosexuality, pulling it out of the abstract and concretizing it in a way that almost forces people who experienced it to separate their ideas about homosexuality from how they feel about homosexuals. After all, it’s much easier to condemn a thing than it is to condemn a person.
This seems to explain the angst many young Christians feel about “the issue” – i.e. they don’t want “it” to be an “issue” at all, because for them homosexuality is just one important aspect of the complex, multi-faceted people they know (or at least watched on TV). They know what the Bible says about sexual activity, and many seem to believe it, but their souls are torn because they can’t easily resolve the tension between what they believe in their minds about an idea and what they feel in their hearts toward their friends. It’s easy to tell a faceless crowd what to do, but it’s much more challenging to look into the eyes of an enfleshed being and do the same.
Where We Go From Here
As one with degrees in genetics and theology and an abounding interest in culture, it might seem natural for me to connect all this to the recent Supreme Court decisions (e.g. Bill Clinton passed the recently struck down DOMA just two years after he helped Pedro’s family get to the US) and the “culture wars” more generally. But instead I’ll keep my “media critic” hat on and direct you back to my central point which is that a single human story, particularly one told via new media, has the power to bend the trajectory of public opinion and throw the feelings and beliefs of a generation into conflict.
The enduring significance of Pedro’s story was that it normalized a way of life that at the time was easy to caricature. Back then, most TV shows portrayed gays as cultural deviants with strange hair and high voices, but Pedro broke every stereotype and served as the archetype of what 12-18 year olds in the 90s thought of men and women who would later be called LGBTQ.
Now, two decades later, following Jesus has in many ways become the new “way of life that is easy to caricature.” The popular media representation of a Christian is often as a cultural outsider with big hair and a loud mouth. Sound familiar?
So I’d like to suggest that Christians today might learn from Pedro’s life and even emulate it in a certain sense. I want to be cautious about misusing the life of a man who died so tragically, but perhaps we too through character and conviction can consciously use the story of our lives (that we are constantly telling and retelling on social media) toward making certain religious stereotypes impossible to believe.
Could you, like Pedro, hold counter-cultural beliefs, and yet be so kind and so courageous that people had trouble dismissing you and your God? When you look back 20 years from now, what will your media footprint say about your God?