Sean Sasser memorial service
Saturday at 11 a.m.
National City Christian Church
5 Thomas Circle, N.W.
Michael Kaplan and his late partner Sean Sasser had a circuitous romantic life.
The two met in 1991 and worked together waiting tables at the same bar in Minneapolis. But both were dating other people at the time and several months later, Sasser moved to San Francisco, a move that would prove life altering. While there, he met, dated and eventually married Pedro Zamora, a romance memorably captured on MTV’s “Real World: San Francisco” during its third season in 1994.
Kaplan and Sasser met again in 1996 at a conference and dated for about two years, some of which was long distance. They were apart for several years but reconnected in 2006 and spent the last six years living together.
Sasser, a long-time AIDS activist and pastry chef, spent his final years in Washington with Kaplan. He died Aug. 7 of HIV-exacerbated mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer Kaplan says Sasser was likely exposed to while working with asbestos fixing up old houses in his native Detroit decades ago. Sasser, born Oct. 25, 1968, was 45.
A public memorial service is planned for Saturday at 11 a.m. at National City Christian Church at Thomas Circle in Washington. “Real World” cast members Judd Winick and Pam Ling will speak along with Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, and Douglas Brooks, chair of AIDS United’s Board of Trustees and a member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
Kaplan is the president and CEO of AIDS United. He spoke with the Blade at length this week about his relationship with Sasser.
After many years of working various jobs and each being in different cities at different times, Kaplan and Sasser moved to Washington last fall. Alarmed by a health scare in May, the two got married in June. Kaplan says it was a “long-term, committed serious relationship” in which “we both talked about and planned our futures together.” At one point in Oregon, the two were foster parents of a child named Alice who lived with them from the time she was 4 to 6.
Sasser had lived with HIV for 25 years; Kaplan for 20. Kaplan says Sasser “went quickly.”
“He probably lost 60 pounds in the last nine weeks of his life,” Kaplan says. “He was a real solid guy. On June 17, they confirmed that this thing in his lung was cancerous. By July, it was confirmed as stage four mesothelioma. He had one round of chemo, but it was just too aggressive. Doctors said he wasn’t strong enough for another round. And by Aug. 7 he was gone.”
Kaplan says he has “a strong network of friends” and is doing as well as can be expected.
“It’s a lot of change right now,” he says.
Sasser is survived by his mother, Pat Robinson Sasser, and a sister, Staci White. Both are expected to attend the service this weekend. Sasser’s father died a few years ago.
After Zamora’s death in November 1994 — just hours after the last episode of his season of “Real World” aired — Sasser, who’d been rejected by the Navy for an HIV-positive test, traveled widely speaking at colleges about HIV. He worked with Health Initiatives for Youth, GLAAD, Human Rights Campaign and the AIDS Alliance for Children Youth & Families. He was appointed by President Clinton to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
Kaplan says after about four years of AIDS advocacy work, Sasser was ready to return to his first love — cooking.
He says Sasser never mentioned to people he met that he’d been on “Real World,” but would confirm it if people recognized him and brought it up themselves. He had a few boxes of “Real World” mementos and a couple photos with President Clinton packed away. He took them with him each time he moved, but never unpacked them.
“He didn’t hide it, but he’d moved on,” Kaplan says. “In Portland especially, he’d really built up quite a place for himself as a pastry chef at a hotel there, The Nines. They had two restaurants and he oversaw a lot of banquets and that type of thing there. … He loved the precision of baking and training others how to do it.”
The topic of Zamora wasn’t taboo among them, Kaplan says, and Zamora’s name would come up occasionally. Kaplan recalls watching the 2008 biopic “Pedro” with Sasser and remembers him saying how “hard it is to see someone else portray you” (DaJuan Johnson played Sasser in the film).
Although Kaplan says Sasser would have been shocked that so many media outlets reported his death, he says Sasser “was quite aware of the visibility” his “Real World” appearances had afforded him.
“He definitely knew that it was a real landmark for this young, gay couple, two men of color with HIV, to be shown getting married,” Kaplan says. “For so many people, it was some of the first public faces of HIV they’d seen. They were the first face of many things as young, queer men of color. Sean totally understood the magnitude of that and never shunned it. He didn’t seek attention, but he knew that if having his face out there would make a difference, he was happy to do so.”
Kaplan says one thing that might surprise people about Sasser was his love of children. He mentored several kids affected by HIV in both Portland and Atlanta.
“If Sean had had his way, we would have had three kids and a house,” Kaplan says. “He loved music, he loved baking, he loved traveling and he loved children. He was an incredibly humble person and he was just all about living his life.”
Donations to the Sean Sasser Endowment Fund can be made at seansasserfund.aidsunited.org.