Looking Back At "The Real World: San Francisco," The Show That Changed The World

    With the upcoming 20th anniversary of MTV's groundbreaking season of The Real World — which featured late AIDS activist Pedro Zamora — and the show returning to San Francisco Wednesday, I talked to former cast member Rachel Campos-Duffy about Pedro, her memories of being on the show, and her thoughts on same-sex marriage.

    If you subscribe to the Celluloid Closet theory of LGBT representation — that straight homophobia and internalized homophobia alike were perpetuated by pop culture's total erasure (or, if anything, horrific representation) of gay people pre-'90s — then you probably think that The Real World's 1992 premiere on MTV should mark the moment when the world started to change. The show was born during the tail end of George H.W. Bush's presidency, but it was more of a product of ACT UP's Silence Equals Death aesthetic: From the first season on, The Real World asserted the then-radical idea that diversity, which included a gay cast member as a rule, was its DNA.

    "If we were going to put seven people in a house together, we knew that how we would get our story would be through conflict," said Jonathan Murray, who created the show with the late Mary-Ellis Bunim. "And that conflict would only come if the people living together wouldn't normally live together. They would make mistakes, or they would be uncomfortable, or they'd have to figure out how to get along. They'd say things that weren't appropriate. They would be struggling to figure out how to co-exist with someone who they're normally not used to co-existing with."

    It sounds simple, but for young gay people and people of color (and gay people of color!) who were not used to seeing themselves on television — especially erudite, good-looking, cool versions of themselves — The Real World was life-altering. The LGBT community has Callie and Arizona on Grey's Anatomy and Orange Is the New Black and will also soon have HBO's Looking. And though it's still not enough, it's a million times better than the creeps, killers, and nothingness that came before.

    The Real World's third season, which premiered in June 1994, was set in San Francisco, and among its cast members was Pedro Zamora, a Cuban-American AIDS activist and AIDS sufferer who was 22 when he joined the show. And he was 22 when he died on Nov. 11, 1994, one night after the previously taped season finale aired. On The Real World, and from all reports, in life, Zamora was the rarest of people in that his ambitious commitment to politics (to stomp out homophobia and promote safe-sex education) existed in equal measure to his personal charm. Having been diagnosed with HIV at 17, he decided to devote the rest of his life to stopping it from spreading.

    "Before he showed up on our show, he had already appeared before a congressional committee," Murray said. "He had protested in front of the White House. He had clearly shown the ability to cross bridges and talk to schoolchildren and others about AIDS education. Yet, at the same time, he was a young man who desperately wanted to fall in love and live as much life as he could in what he thought would be a short life. So he wanted to go to San Francisco. That was the city on the hill — the place he dreamed of being. I'm just so happy he got to do this."

    Either by accident, because he was a visionary, or both, Zamora also decided to marry his boyfriend Sean Sasser in front of the Real World cameras. It was years before the marriage movement became the next frontier for LGBT rights, but Zamora and Sasser — so sharp in their white Oxfords during their commitment ceremony — still represent many people's first image of what a gay wedding would look like. (Sasser died this past summer of mesothelioma, a lung cancer.)

    There were a number of remarkable moments during The Real World: San Francisco. David "Puck" Rainey, the magnetic and half-crazed bike messenger, provided several of them, and his eventual ouster from the house (at Zamora's insistence) was riveting. But one heartening arc was Zamora's friendship with Rachel Campos (now Campos-Duffy), a conservative Latina who also knew how to command attention. The two started the show at odds, but ended up close. "I give Rachel a lot of credit for being open to Pedro. And I give Pedro a lot of credit for being open to Rachel and not just turning away from her," Murray said.

    MTV has brought The Real World back to San Francisco for its 28th season, and it premieres on Wednesday. It's a show of and for a different generation, and a drunker, more buff one; Murray and MTV have added a twist this season (the casts' exes will unexpectedly and unhappily join them in the house after a month) in order to try to revive the franchise. (One of the cast members is a lesbian.)

    On this occasion of the show's return to San Francisco, and its 20th anniversary this year, I talked to Campos-Duffy about her memories of being on the show and her relationship with Zamora. Campos-Duffy — a writer and spokeswoman for the Libre Initiative — is married to Sean Duffy, another former Real World-er (he was on the Boston-set sixth season); they met on The Real World/Road Rules Challenge and have six children (soon to be seven!). Duffy is a tea party congressman from Wisconsin.

    One thing: As you will see below, Campos-Duffy and I got into a more personal back-and-forth on same-sex marriage than I had planned. Because you're reading this article and not listening to our conversation, I want to be clear that we were speaking to each other reasonably, though perhaps uncomfortably, and even laughed throughout. I had the benefit of knowing the politics of the person I was interviewing, whereas Campos-Duffy may have felt surprised.

    But as Murray said, we're all just struggling to co-exist! Right?

    When you think about your Real World experience, what do you remember the most?

    Rachel Campos-Duffy: I always think how lucky I am. Because obviously I met my husband because of the show. I just don't see how it would have been possible for a Latina girl from Arizona to meet a lumberjack law student from Wisconsin.

    One of the notable things about the first episode of The Real World: San Francisco, which I recently rewatched, is that you were the only person who expressed worry about living with someone with AIDS. As the Catholic Republican in the house, you were sort of pitted against Pedro from the beginning.

    RCD: I think I might have been the only one in the hyper-PC world of 1993 San Francisco who dared express what I think we were all feeling. I think everybody felt some apprehension about it. But at that time, it was very un-PC to say so. I don't think in 1993 anybody who was putting a want ad for a roommate was looking for a roommate that was HIV positive. I think there was a lot of fear about it back then. I was 22. To be honest, I haven't seen that episode in 20 years! I can't exactly remember what I did. But I'm sure there are things I might have done differently at 42 than 22.

    Your relationship with Pedro obviously evolved. You invited him home with you — and he spoke in your mother's class, right?

    RCD: Yeah! And if you think I'm conservative, my mother is twice as conservative.

    I've read some things you've said over the years about how important you felt his part on the show was. Showing people the life of someone who was not only HIV positive, but had full-blown AIDS — and was, in fact, very close to death.

    RCD: Nowadays on TV, and in your personal life, everybody has a gay friend or someone they know or a relative. But back then, that wasn't quite as common ... Now no one could say that they didn't know someone who was gay. Because the show feels so personal, people felt like they knew us. People felt like they really knew Pedro or they really knew me or they really knew Puck. Because we weren't like celebrities — people just came right up to us like we were an old high school roommate or a friend. When people saw Pedro, they felt like they knew him. And that was something we'd never really seen on television before.

    I think that The Real World really affected what's happened to this country in the past 20 years in terms of the LGBT civil rights movement. The show had gay cast members from the start, but Pedro's impact went beyond the show itself.

    RCD: Yeah, I mean the first one was Norman in the New York cast, but I think bringing someone in that had AIDS on top of it really upped the ante. Maybe because he knew he was dying — again, this is all hindsight — I think he was a lot more media savvy than any of us. I think he was very well-aware of what he wanted to accomplish on the show. He also understood his power on the show in terms of how important this story was going to be, how groundbreaking it was. There were things that, to be quite frank, Pedro said, "I don't want you filming." Like places he went. I never felt like I had that kind of power on the show. Maybe I did? But I never exerted it. He knew that this was groundbreaking, and what he was showing would have an impact on all gay people. So there were things that he did, places he went, and even stories from his past that he shared off-camera, but never on camera.

    Like what?

    RCD: Now that he's gone, I don't feel like that's my place. He's passed, and I don't want to do that. But what I think is interesting is he was no older than me. He was 22. I think understanding mortality like that made him so much more mature, and so much better able to harness the circumstances he was in. And so much more capable of understanding the implications in 1994 and well beyond. I can certainly tell you I was extremely ignorant of what was happening.

    Jon Murray said something similar to me: that being on the show was part of Pedro's crusade.

    RCD: Right! And I don't say it in a critical way. If I thought this conversation was the last conversation anyone would ever record of me, I might be a little more conscious of what I was saying. I would say he understood what this would mean culturally.

    To that point, he and his boyfriend, Sean Sasser, married on camera.

    RCD: It was very controversial.

    At the time, the primary gay issue was AIDS activism, and same-sex marriage was barely a thought. The fact that they had a commitment ceremony on television, what did you think about that?

    RCD: I probably wondered what my parents would think about me being there. I felt like I was there to support him. I wasn't making a statement. I think some of my roommates were making a statement about how they felt about gay marriage. I think I truly was ignorant of the social, cultural, and political implications of what was going on. These people were my friends, or not my friends. And in the case of Pedro, he was my friend. So I was there.

    Where are you on the same-sex marriage question now?

    RCD: I believe that gay people should be able to have partnerships. And I think civil unions are good. That's where I'm at: I'm at civil unions. I still believe that the definition of marriage is between a woman and a man.


    RCD: That's largely because — let me see if I can word this right — in the context of children, I do think that, as a mom, I see the benefits of me being a woman and Sean being a man. I look at it in that regard. That's not to say that other arrangements aren't good, but I still think it's the ideal. I say that from a very practical situation — of my own situation. There are some things that I don't do well because I'm a woman with regards to raising my kids, and Sean is better suited to do. And there are some things I'm better suited at. I see the benefits of both genders. And that's where I'm at. That said, regardless of who they are and what their sexual orientation is, I believe that everybody should be treated with dignity and love and certainly should be afforded every civil and constitutional right everybody else is afforded. Again, because I'm religious, I do see marriage very much in the context of my faith, the Catholic Church. What people do civilly is fine. But my faith is my faith.

    OK. I —

    RCD: But even after The Real World, I've had gay roommates. It's never been an issue about my friendships. I'm Catholic. I'm Catholic!

    Maybe this is going to take us too far afield, but as someone who has the beliefs that you have, if I were to say to you that I'm a lesbian, and my partner and I have children, which by the way is true...

    RCD: OK!

    ...Then what are you thinking about that when I say that?

    RCD: I'm more concerned about it in terms of forcing churches to do things. I look at it from a religious liberty point of view. What are the implications for the church? But that said, I want to tell you this, and I'm going to be really frank with you.


    RCD: If you were to ask me what the No. 1 lesson I learned from being on The Real World, and I challenge you to go back to the episodes and you will see that I'm right: I learned the myth of liberal tolerance. I felt like I really went in there very wide-eyed, and very ignorant — to have a great time, and maybe have more dates later. That said, I really tried to learn everything I could about my roommates. I came from a very conservative background, but yet I went to the soapbox derby, I went to the hip-hop club spoken-word night, I went to the Gay Pride Parade with Pedro — I did all these things with them. And I asked them to do one thing with me, which was to go to a conservative Empower America conference with Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp. And they were not open-minded at all about where I came from. I thought that was a really important lesson for me to learn at 22. Because a lot of people really associate liberalism and Democrats with tolerance, and I found it to be quite the opposite. They're tolerant as long as you agree with them! I felt like not only was I tolerant, I was curious and open-minded. I would tell you — it's Kate, right?

    Yes, that's right.

    RCD: Kate, I would tell you that most conservatives feel like that. And that's what frustrates them so much about how they're portrayed in the media. Because if you look at the culture, especially as it's portrayed through media, it really is a liberal story. And we live in that world, and we don't complain about it. We still go to the movies and we still watch Matt Damon films. I feel like we really are tolerant.

    Matt Damon films! On the show, I certainly see that you were interested in other people's things in a way that they weren't interested in your things.

    RCD: I'll tell you this too: With regards to the executive producers of the show, my hats go off to them. A lot of people said, "I never saw a Republican or conservative on MTV before." There were a lot of firsts about that show. I got a following because people thought MTV wasn't for them. I consider Jon Murray a friend. To his credit, he has always accepted who Sean and I are, and has never put us in a box. He understands that there are some political differences that we have. And we've always been able to find common ground. I don't feel like I was unfairly portrayed.

    You came across as extremely likable to me.

    RCD: Even you like me!

    Hey, not "even."

    RCD: It wasn't just a story about Pedro. It was a story about all kinds of people with all kinds of different points of view. I really wish they would go back to that. I do think they underestimate the capacity of young people — the desire of young people do things other than see threesomes on MTV.

    I've seen the premiere of the new season, and found it to be a drunken mess. Do you watch the show these days?

    RCD: I've caught a couple of episodes here or there. I have six kids! I can't really keep that channel on. I will say the times I have watched it, I think it relies a lot on sex, and I think they underestimate young people.

    Would you ever run for public office?

    RCD: No. No. No. Not interested in that. I'm close enough to know that's not what I would be good at. But I'm extremely proud of what Sean's doing.

    Does Sean have ambitions for higher office?

    RCD: I don't know. I can tell you he absolutely loves what he does. It was like he was made for it. He feels really lucky that he gets to represent where he came from. It's like a dream job.

    I imagine that Pedro and Sean would disagree on the Affordable Care Act.

    RCD: Well, maybe Pedro would have come around! Hispanics' support for Obama, in large part because of the Affordable Care Act, has dropped by the biggest percentage of any other demographic in the country. They've dropped 25% over the last year. A lot of promises made to that community. Maybe Pedro might have been just as upset about the ACA and about all the promises on immigration that never happened either. Who knows, maybe he would have become a Republican! Doubt it, but —

    That I think we can say would not have happened!

    This interview has been edited and condensed. Also: In an effort to fact-check, I asked my colleague Adrian Carrasquillo, who covers immigration and Latino culture, about the 25% figure Campos-Duffy cited. He pointed me to this Gallup poll from Dec. 5, which says that between December 2012 and November 2013, President Obama's support among Hispanics has dropped by 23%. But he also pointed me to analysis by the nonpartisan polling group Latino Decisions, which puts the drop closer to 10%.