Coming Out: Wilson Cruz Tells His Story
In celebration of National Coming Out Day (October 11) Gay.net will be sharing stories throughout the month from several members of our community who not only kicked down the closet door, but continue to inspire, encourage, and give us hope for a brighter future.
You might know openly gay, Latino and African-American actor Wilson Cruz better as Rickie Vasquez, the gay 15-year-old from the short-run cult TV show My So-Called Life.
During the show's one-season run in 1994, Rickie was the only gay teen on non-cable TV. He wore eyeliner, flashy clothes and had two female besties that he regularly hung with in the girl's restroom. After school, Rickie had to endure his abusive uncle, a man who threw him out after Rickie came out as gay.
Though Rickie eventually got fostered by an openly gay English teacher, Rickie's coming out experience mirrored the real-life experience of the actor who played him.
Born in Brooklyn to Afro-Puerto Rican parents, Cruz felt afraid to talk about sex to his folks. At age 15, Cruz lost his gay uncle to AIDS. Cruz suspected that AIDS had something to do with sex, but he worried that if he asked his parents about it that they would start questioning his own sexuality:
"So I just avoided the whole situation altogether. I mean, you wanna ask your parents about AIDS and what it involves, but then you think if you ask, they're gonna think that you're gay because most ignorant people if they hear the word AIDS, are gonna think of homosexuals, first thing. So they don't want to raise their parents' eyebrows any more than they already have, without even mentioning AIDS or HIV. People are scared to talk about it..."
"It's something that I at least thought about every day. It affected my coming-out experience. It affects the way you perceive yourself at an early age. When I was 15 or 16 it was still taboo to talk about it."
In the video below, Cruz told LOGO about the first time he admitted his homosexuality to himself and how it changed the way he saw himself.
In an interview with OUT magazine, Cruz said that his family's Afro-Latino background made it especially difficult to come out:
"I'm not going to say that my struggle or the struggle of my African-American or Latino friends is harder than our white counterparts. It's just different."
"We have Catholic influences. We're less tolerant. So it takes a minute for us. There's probably less information within our communities that makes the process of coming out different, but I hesitate to say it is more or less difficult for anybody else. I think everybody has a difficult time."
When Cruz finally came out to his mom at age 19, she said, "I don't want to lose you."
Cruz responded, "Mom, I could be as straight as Arnold Schwarzenegger and I'd still be at risk. It has nothing to do with me being gay."
Though his mother at first felt hurt and shocked, she eventually accepted him. His father however wasn't ready to do the same.
After coming out to his dad, his dad kicked him out of the house. Afterwards, Cruz spent nights sleeping in his car and days living in the new York streets. Several sources say that Cruz stayed homeless for months, but in 1995, Cruz told POZ.com:
"My dad and I made up within two weeks, but there were still parts of it that I didn't deal with. There's abandonment issues. There's a feeling of lack of support, feeling like you're out on a limb alone. It's a lot to deal with when you're 19 years old.
Cruz then moved out to Hollywood where, at age 21, he landed the role of Rickie Vasquez, the only openly gay teenager on American television.
He tried not to think too much about his landmark role because he knew the pressure to be "so many things to so many people" would drive him insane.
So instead of trying to be a symbol to the gay or Latino communities, he decided "to create a character that people can relate to and maybe learn something from, just from watching him."
He added "There are people out in the Midwest or somewhere that have never sene or heard or an openly gay person, and until they see them they'll be stuck in that mindless ignorance. This is my chance to say, "Hey, my name is Rickie Vasquez, and I'm gay, and now you know me."
Since coming out, Cruz has gone on to act in many TV and movie roles as well as the stage version of Rent as Angel, a vivacious drag queen with AIDS.
He has also become a vibrant voice in the LGBT movement, advocating for homeless LGBT youth, the repeal of America's gay military ban and fundraising with Gays and Lesbians Allied Against Defamation.
Cruz advised other LGBT youth to come out with a "safety net" in case your parents disapprove and with patience and understanding if they do not accept you at first:
"Coming out is difficult for everybody and I guess something that can be very comforting is that you're not the first one to have to actually go through this... your fears are actually very real and I understand that."
"As far as coming out to your parents are concerned, I — what I recommend is that if you think it may or may not go well, you might wanna have a safety net in place. You might need someone that you know that you can go to in case things don't go as well as you would like."
"And my advice has always been, it's taken you a number of years to get to where you're comfortable with who you are and your own self-acceptance."
"I think it's important to be generous enough to the people that we're coming out to, to give them the same amount of time or a little bit more time than the immediate moment to embrace you. So keeping lines of communication open is important and having a safety net in place is important."
Though he also acknowledges that it can be tough for openly gay actors of color to get work — "[because] you're opportunities for quality work are ALREADY limited" — he is still proud of his work from his television debut and onward:
"To start my career as an openly gay man of color and to still be here after all these years, working and doing it on my own terms, is all I ever wanted. The fact that I'm still doing it is something I'm grateful and proud of. I do hope that it's made it easier for other people to do it.