The Real World just got a little too real. Sean Sasser — who appeared in the show's third, San Francisco-based season in 1994 — has passed away at the age of 44.
Judd Winick, a co-star that season, broke the news on Twitter last night (August 7). "Our friend Sean Sasser has died," Judd wrote. "Our love goes out to his family and husband Michael. We will miss you so much."
Queerty followed up with that Michael — Sean's life partner and the CEO of AIDS United, Michael Kaplan — who told the site that Sean died from mesothelioma.
Sean grew up in Detroit, where he was closeted but always wished he had the courage to come out. He tested positive for HIV at 19 years old. In an interview with Oasis Magazine in 1996, he explained that his diagnosis was the impetus for his AIDS activism.
“I lived in San Francisco around the time I was told I had five years to live, when I was 19,” he said in the interview. “It was a couple years before that time that I decided to pack up and move on to a place where I could possibly do work on myself and try to come to terms with a lot of the issues I had been dealing with. The fact that I was not getting sick, or indicate things were going downhill, I figured I should really start doing something about it.”
Though not technically a Real World cast member, Sean appeared on the series after starting to date cast member Pedro Zamora and even becoming engaged and having a commitment ceremony on the show. (You can watch that groundbreaking episode online.) Pedro, an AIDS patient himself, died in November 1994. He was subsequently the subject of a 2008 film, Pedro, about his time on the show.
Sean first met Pedro at the 1993 March on Washington for equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Pedro’s sudden passing impacted Sean and his activism and left an impact well after the show ended.
“In any of the activism people do, whether it’s civil rights activism, choice activism or AIDS activism… it’s hopefully in the memory of people who didn’t have the benefit of a lot of the things we’re advocating for, or the people who were out on the front lines doing the work we’re trying to do,” Sean told Oasis. “So, yeah, the things that I do keeps the memory of what Pedro thought was important, and what he did — as well as other people who passed away — alive.”
In addition to his work as an AIDS activist, Sean was also a pastry chef in Washington, D.C., as recently as May, as People reports. Sean spoke with The Washington Blade earlier this year about his work as a pastry chef:
“I want to serve desserts and pastries that people recognize and love to eat, but sometimes with an unexpected twist of surprise.”
My So-Called Life star and GLAAD National Spokesperson Wilson Cruz also spoke out about Sean’s passing.
“My heart breaks,” Cruz wrote on GLAAD's blog. “Another beacon of light in our community is darkened tonight with the passing of AIDS activist Sean Sasser […] I had the pleasure of befriending Sean in [the years he spent around the time of The Real World] and all I can say is, I’ll never forget your kindness, your smile, the joy you brought into every room you stepped into. In your name, Sean, we fight on, and we recommit ourselves to the struggle to end this epidemic, and will never forget. Rest now, my friend.”
Our hearts go out to Michael and the rest of Sean's family and friends.