Pedro Zamora, Half A Lifetime Ago
November 11, 2014
Today marks 20 years since Pedro Zamora passed. That’s half my lifetime ago, but the loss still resonates with me because of Pedro’s influence on my life and my work as an educator. His relationship with Sean Sasser on MTV’s Real World showed me that a loving, healthy relationship with HIV was possible. Pedro’s roommates reactions to his status were mixed in the beginning, but the solid friendships that grew (particularly with Judd Winick) made me realize how cool my friends would probably be if I ever spoke about HIV.
See, half my lifetime ago, when I “met” Pedro through his appearance on my television, I was a year and a half away from talking about my HIV status. At that time, in 1994, I’d spent pretty close to half my lifetime living with HIV… yet I’d never openly discussed my status, only when backed into a corner by my parents or at a doctor’s appointment. Or when someone ratted me out to a girlfriend.
Pedro showed me that you can disclose on your terms. That HIV can just be an extension of who you are. If someone has a problem with your status, it’s not your fault it’s their ignorance that is the reason for the uneasiness.
His educational style was more straightforward and less laid back than the one that I would adopt after I spoke out; but in the pre-protease era, that’s how you needed to reach people. I loved watching him educate on The Real World, then simply live his private life in public as he fell in love with Sean Sasser and shared laughs with Judd and his other roommates over silly, mundane things.
As I was watching from my parent’s house where I was living at the time, my now-partner, Gwenn, was also tuning in. Her thoughts on Pedro:
“I remember watching the San Francisco season of the Real World between
my freshman and sophomore year of college at my friend’s house each
week. When I went back to school that fall I also remember the day that
Pedro Zamora passed. It was very soon after that I heard a young woman
speak at my school who was HIV positive and that is where my journey to
becoming an activist began. It’s been 20 years today since Pedro’s death
and although I didn’t know it at the time it was the precursor to my
When Pedro passed in the fall of 1994- the same day that the last episode of his season of the Real World aired, I was devastated. All of my fears of my own mortality, which I’d mistakenly thought I’d come to terms with, bubbled up. Throughout Pedro’s journey, I was making baby steps towards a future I didn’t think was for me: being open about my HIV status. But after he died I just wanted to go back to never thinking about HIV again, and I hated it for taking my new hero so abruptly.
Ironically, Pedro was a hero I couldn’t even say was my hero: half my lifetime ago I was still so quiet about my HIV status.
A year after his passing, there was a Real World Reunion. Judd, Puck, Pam, Sean and the rest of the cast were there. Everyone except Pedro. Judd teared up and asked viewers to “do something” about HIV, anything. It was a desperate plea not only for himself, still grief-stricken, but also a call to arms that his friend, Pedro, would have given had he been there. I was in a lingering depression, one that would last a couple more months- 1994 had been tough, I lost pop culture heroes in Pedro and Kurt Cobain and was also blindsided by a hepatitis C diagnosis.
At the beginning of 1996, I was ready to answer Judd’s call. I posted a website, outing my status once and for all. I began to hone my craft as a writer and develop an educational style that, like Pedro’s, was just an extension of who I was.
And now it’s a half a lifetime later. Pedro’s not here in the physical sense, but his influence has stayed with me over the years. I have the love and the life I dreamed of when I was watching him and learning about his life; a journey he unselfishly shared.
I’ll never forget the doors he helped to open up for me in my own journey.
Ethan Zohn: Cancer and World Cup Survivor
July 10, 2014
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. But in the United States it’s a polarizing topic of discussion, not unlike the issue of abortion, Michael Bay reboots and fanny packs at theme parks. (They’re practical, y’all.) This summer, I’ve come down with Soccer Fever. Not since the World Cup in 1994 have I been so into the sport.
I wanted to talk about the World Cup, so I went to the only former soccer pro I know: Ethan Zohn. A co-founder of Grassroot Soccer, canzer crusher and Survivor Africa winner shares his thoughts on HIV, this year’s World Cup tournament and what it means to truly survive life. (NOTE: Ethan’s answers submitted before the Semi-Final matches between Brazil/Germany and The Netherlands/Argentina. He knows his shit.)
So, I gotta know, Ethan: do you have any favorites in the World Cup?
Of course I do, I live for World Cup. I have been to every World Cup since 1994. Before the cup, I felt Brazil would crush everyone. But now, I’m leaning towards an Argentina / Germany final with Argentina winning. Plus I love yelling out the name Schweinsteiger at random moments throughout the day.
What’s up with that dude who bit the other dude?
That dude is Suarez, probably one of the best players in the world. To be honest I think he in love with Giorgio Chiellini. That was a love bite, not a foul. Plus Uraguay, where Suarez is from is the first country to regulate legal production, sale and consumption of marijuana. What do you expect?
I’d expect a more chill Suarez, but I’ve known people who freak out on the pot… a friend of mine… someone I know quite personally. He becomes a panicky mess… anyway…
After winning Survivor, you used the prize money to found Grassroot Soccer and help utilize the world’s love of soccer in the fight against HIV. Several years later, you were diagnosed with cancer. I know you didn’t found Grassroot to gain cosmic favor, but… you getting cancer after going to bat, er, going to kick ball for the HIV community, was one of the lamest fouls I’ve ever seen in the sport of life. How are you feeling these days?
Ha! True, I need to have a word with the referee of this game of my life…who is that? God? David Hasselhoff?
I’m feeling great and excited I’m alive and strong enough to drink beer and watch soccer all month. In the years leading up to my cancer diagnosis I have been working hard through Grassroot Soccer, to help prevent young kids in Africa from contracting this life threatening disease. I do not know what it is like to have HIV, nor do I have HIV. But, I do know what it’s like to walk into an office and get handed a very scary life ending diagnosis. Getting cancer gave me some street cred. Now I just want to do everything in my power to make sure others do not have to go through the same crap we went through. Can I get a “hell yeah”….
Hell yeah! Lastly, any big goals for Grassroot Soccer during this World Cup season, or any of your other charitable efforts?
Where do I begin! We always have cool events and fundraising campaigns. Right now, WHEATIES (the iconic cereal that always has amazing athletes on their boxes) is running a contest #WheatiesNext – 5 up-and-coming athletes in a voting contest for who gets on the next box. Each picks a charity to benefit.
Our newest Pro Ambassador, Christen Press, is in the contest and we are her charity – this is a big contest and we are one of the 5 chosen charities – woo-hoo! Check it out here:
Thanks, Ethan! Enjoy the rest of the World Cup. And the beer, you’ve earned it!
Interview w/ Merce’s Charles Sanchez
June 30, 2014
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Merce- a humorous web series that is centered around an HIV positive character living in NYC. I recently sat down with co-creator, Charles Sanchez… meaning, I sat at my laptop and fired him some questions and he sat at his and answered them. Enjoy!
Donate to the project here!
(anyone who donates $25 or more can get a signed copy of My Pet Virus… I have 5 available, so just leave a Comment on this blog entry to let me know you donated and I’ll make contact to get a mailing address! -SD)
Hey Charles! Love the concept for Merce- how long have you had the idea and what inspired it?
Hey, Shawn! Let me just say how happy I am to have met you and how much I enjoyed your book. I’m totally a fan.
I brought in my pal Tyne Firmin, who’s an amazing director and actor, but had zero filming or editing experience. We shot what ended up being a whole web series, called Manhattan Man-Travels, truly ghetto-style, mostly for the joy of creating. Absolutely no budget. Very Judy and Mickey “Let’s-put-the-show-on-right-
Merce spoke directly to the camera and we followed him through many crazy romantic situations, from dating and trolling the internet for sex to him being in an actual relationship. We feel like we have something really special in this character, and want to up the production values and see if we can reach a wider audience. We’ve added characters for him to interact with and focused the musical fantasy elements (every episode will have a short musical number). We decided to put Merce’s HIV status more to the forefront, since there’s no character in mainstream American media that’s HIV positive.
And an HIV comedy? Well, that’s crazy, right? We didn’t set out to, but we lucked into doing something that no one else is doing.
Do you have a favorite HIV positive character from a movie?
But I haven’t answered the question. Buzz from the play and movie of Love! Valour! Compassion! He deals with his status with humor, sometimes acidic humor, but he’s authentic and courageous and funny, and doesn’t let his HIV change who he is.
If you could give any character from a mainstream movie HIV (to make them more interesting) who would it be?
Oh, gosh! I don’t know! Maybe Bridget Jones. With all her pouty angst and weight issues, and yet those dreamy men still seem to fall for her. What would happen if she also had to worry about whether her panties were still white, because maybe her Kaletra was causing some poops-a-daisy problems?
That would make for some good comedy. Or someone ridiculous maybe, like Wolverine or Harry Potter. Of course, if Harry Potter had HIV, he could just zap it right out of himself. He’d just take his wand and say, “Heenis-a-penis-a, no HIV-ness-a!”
I like that idea! How is fundraising for Merce going? Deadline? And what’s the plan if you make your goal, and what’s the plan if you don’t?
Tyne and I are determined. We’re going to make Merce happen no matter what. It’s inevitable.
(Check the link for other incentives to donate… and don’t forget, anyone who donates $25 or more can get a signed copy of My Pet Virus… (while supplies last!) I have 5 available, so just leave a Comment on this blog entry to let me know you donated and I’ll make contact to get a mailing address! Let’s make Merce happen! -SD)
National Nurses Week
May 7, 2014
Every day is Day, every week is a Week, and every month is a Month of one type of recognition or another. It’s not a bad thing- there are lots of causes that need more attention than they can get. Especially in this great age of great distractions.
I miss a lot of it. But when I noticed that we were halfway through National Nurses Week, I felt the call to pull out the ol’ laptop and punch out a blog post of love and gratitude for my lifelong friend and ally: the nurse.
As a kid with a bleeding disorder, I found myself visiting the hospital a lot more than the rest of my friends. It could be a scary place. Initially, I hated having my blood drawn. That was until I noticed a pattern: Nurse Gail never missed a vein. And I enjoyed talking to her. Having a needle in my arm went from, well, having a needle in my arm to having a friend by my side. I’d always request Gail, and since she worked a lot, she was usually there for a quick catch-up session over vials of plasma.
In the bigger picture with regards to the HIV epidemic, it was often nurses who cared for the first generation of people who succumbed to the onslaught of HIV. When friends and family were too scared to show up, it was the nurse who provided comfort, which surely meant a lot when doctors were providing no answers or solutions to what was happening back then. The strength of the nurse was and will always be a simple, if elusive and rare, trait: tireless compassion.
It’s not an easy job to turn a hospital into a home away from home, but somehow nurses pull it off. I know I’m forever grateful for all of the nurses who have shown me kindness and care when I needed it most.
Ripley’s You Better Believe It
April 28, 2014
Vaughn Ripley is a man on a mission. With over 30 years of living with HIV under his bike shorts, the avid cyclist, dad and author of Survivor: One Man’s Battle With HIV, Hemophilia and Hepatitis C is ready to tackle his next goal: be the first openly HIV positive man to grace the cover of Men’s Health Magazine.
The cool part about all of this? We can help make it happen. Go here to vote for Vaughn. He got a retweet on Twitter from William Shatner, but if he’s going to get beamed up to the cover he’s going to need your help, too!
Labtest Contest X: Win Body Counts By Sean Strub
February 21, 2014
The Labtest Contest is back! And the grand prize has never been better- guess closest to my t-cell count and win a signed copy of Sean Strub’s incredible new book, Body Counts! The rules are posted below… be sure to follow them and good luck!
Shawn’s Guess: 422
Shawn’s Doctor’s Guess: 670
March-July 2010: Charles Oliff (guess: 567 actual count: 565)
July-December 2010: Aimee Lee (guess: 516 actual: 511)
December 2010- March 2011: “Satan” (guess: 666 actual: 662)
March-July 2011: Sharon Paul (guess:
520 actual: 508)
August-January 2012: Justin Starkenburg (guess: 570 actual count: 579)
February- June: Bob Geise (guess: 595 actual count: 590)
July-September: Sahara Frog (guess: 515 actual count: 512)
September-January 2014: Scott Anderson (guess: 620 actual count: 620)
February-October: Mary (guess: actual count:585 actual count: 583)
NOVEMBER RESULTS: 538 (No Contest)
1. You have to post your guess (between 400 and 700 t-cells) on my Poz blog Comments section
2. Relatives are allowed to guess! Bribes accepted!
3. Closest guess wins- if it’s a tie, the closest guess that DID NOT go over the actual count wins.
4. One vote/guess per person. Must have a valid email address.
5. Deadline is Friday, February 28, 2014 12:01 am EST
Body Counts by Sean Strub
January 14, 2014
Sean Strub’s memoir, Body Counts, hit stores yesterday, and Gwenn and I were fortunate enough to get to our local bookstore just in time to nab the last three copies: one for us, one for my mom (who is a huge fan) and one for a future Labtest Contest prize.
But, don’t wait around for me to get labwork done in March for a chance to win this book, if you have any interest in the history of the gay community, the politics of sex and the realities of living with HIV- you’ve gotta get this book. Click on Sean’s face to read an excerpt of Body Counts in the latest issue of Poz.
Sean has been one of the most influential people in my life as a positoid. Without him, I really have no idea what I’d be doing right now. In 1996, after nearly a decade of living with HIV, I decided to speak out about being positive for the first time; I was 20, still living with my parents in Waynesboro, Virginia, and had just put up a website chronicling my thoughts on living with HIV. My doctor fed me a few issues of Poz Magazine and I was stunned that a magazine solely about HIV existed. I poured through its pages and loved what I read. I sent a fan letter to the editor-in-chief, Sean, and shared where I was at in my own journey with HIV.
A month or so later, I was watching wrestling and the phone rang. “Shawn, telephone!” My dad/secretary called out through my bedroom door. My beloved Ric Flair had just lost his World Title; I was bummed but took the call anyway. It was Sean. He invited me to NYC to be interviewed for the magazine and shortly thereafter I started writing my Positoid column.
When I learned that my original godparents had broken ties with my family in the 1980s after my diagnosis because their church said AIDS was God’s punishment against gay people, I asked Sean and Steve Schalchlin (another beloved mentor) to be my surrogate Godparents. They both readily accepted.
All of that personal history and admiration aside, it was hard to tear myself from Body Counts to post this blog- it really is an incredible book and an honest, forthcoming account from someone who has a truly unique set of experiences to draw from.
Operation AIDS Elves
December 19, 2013
And that’s how Operation AIDS Elves was born.
It’s a simple, fun way to spread some HIV/AIDS awareness during the craziness that is the holiday season… so, if you have a few extra red ribbons lying around, put them to good use! Here’s my friend and all-around good positoid, Rob Quinn, working his AIDS elf magic during a visit to NYC. And that’s me sneaking a ribbon onto a tree at the coffee shop and one onto the tree on the downtown mall.