By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Denny Denn, The Riker Brothers
Wilson Cruz doesn’t love thinking too much about his childhood in Michigan, but he won’t deny his years growing up in Holland either. The Tulip Time Parades. The Windmill Island Gardens. The report he wrote on then President Gerald Ford. “I think back at that and I’m like, ‘Wow, that was full-on indoctrination that they were doing,’” he says.
But it really does get better for some. It did for Cruz — the 49-year-old actor and activist became the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay high schooler on primetime TV while starring in “My So-Called Life” as Ricky Vasquez in 1994.
As for third and fourth grade in small-town Michigan? “It’s not something I like to remember,” Cruz says during a recent Zoom call. It was also during that time that the “Star Trek: Discovery” actor realized others were catching onto what he already felt — that “I wasn’t a sport-playing ‘normal’ boy,” he says. When his family moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles, he experienced much of the same as a young singer and dancer. “I was the antithesis of what they thought a boy my age should be,” he recalls.
“I remember there were some male teachers who tried to push me in another direction, fearful of my effeminate tendencies as they saw it,” Cruz adds. “And I think that leaves a scar for any child. Like, ‘Oh, am I not OK?’ Is there something wrong with me? And we’re seeing that now. The very people who are supposed to be protecting our students, who are supposed to be championing them and inspiring them to be their best, are the very people causing damage.”
Now chair of the board at GLSEN, a 33-year-old multi-racial, intergenerational organization that has worked to ensure that LGBTQ+ students are able to learn and grow in a school environment free from bullying and harassment, Cruz brings his own school experiences to his activism and fundraising for the youth advocacy group. As LGBTQ+ kids are currently up against a hostile climate for queer people, particularly in schools, GLSEN — and Wilson’s role within it — is especially vital.
Where does your mind go now on what kids are experiencing when you think about what you went through as a gay kid growing up in Holland?
Just look around the country, over 650 some anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans bills around the country. Look at North Carolina where the legislature has just overridden a governor’s veto and are now passing three major laws that hamper the school experience for LGBTQ students. And it’s infuriating to me that here we are in 2023, 40 years after the outcry and activism of those people in the ’80s who fought and died for our right to exist. And we’re still fighting very similar battles. And they lose these battles all the time, and they never learn the lesson. And that’s what’s really infuriating. North Carolina hasn’t learned its lesson. There was the bathroom bill in 2019 that was overturned in 2020, and here we are three years later dealing with something even worse. And there will be a backlash. They will suffer the consequences of this overriding of vetoes in the election. Parents vote. Kids grow up and vote. They will feel the heat from this. Make no mistake about it.
Hearing your history, it just seems like this role at GLSEN is a perfect match. How did your past as a gay kid inform why you stepped up?
My relationship with GLSEN, it has been a long one. It has always been something that I’ve always felt very passionate about. I always felt like it was a good fit for me just because of, let’s just say it straight out: I was the first gay teen on television. I think Ricky Vasquez was an education for an entire generation of young people and their parents. And so having been fortunate enough to be the person who played that role, I think [that] comes with some responsibility. I’ve always felt that. And working with GLSEN was a direct way to deal with the issues that I felt passionate about and that Ricky Vasquez himself had to deal with. I felt like I could connect those dots for a lot of people.
That being said, being on the board and being the board chair are two very different things. And I was hesitant to take on the role, to be honest with you, just because I am a working actor, obviously. And sometimes that work, when we’re not on strike, calls me to not be as available as I should be or I can be. And so that’s why I wanted a vice chair, a powerful voice to be able to fill in when I couldn’t. And Imara Jones is the perfect person for that, believe me.
So I took it on because this moment in our history requires GLSEN to be incredibly visible. And if there’s one thing that I can help with is that visibility. For better or worse, within our community and within the media, I can use my platform in that way to highlight the work that GLSEN does, but also to rally support. I think that’s my job: to support the work of the staff and our executive director and her staff, who I love so deeply. But also to sound the alarm, to use my voice to say that GLSEN is here and we have the resources and the capacity to make a difference in this fight in terms of the education of our queer youth.
What’s a day in your life as chair of the board at GLSEN?
This is a turning point for the organization. This is our 33rd year. There’s a new executive director. The first time that this organization has a leadership team that is all people of color and non-binary and trans [people]. We are covering the gamut, and we look like the people who need GLSEN the most. So it’s a turning point for the organization. We are revamping. And really recreating this organization for this specific moment.
The way that we look at it is if we make schools better and safer for a young Black trans girl, then everyone benefits from that. So that’s our vision. How do we make school a place that is the safest place for a young trans African-American girl or a person of color to excel to live up to their potential? Because if they can do it, then everyone else also benefits from those efforts. So my job is to help envision an organization that can support that goal. And I raise money. I’m fundraising. We need money in order to do that work.
What would be GLSEN’s role in making sure that a young trans person of color at a school feels protected, safe and comfortable?
We fight for comprehensive policies. Passing and implementing comprehensive policies that support LGBTQ youth to make sure that they’re safe in those schools. We work to make sure that there are supportive educators in every public school in this country. So that there’s at least one person from elementary school through high school that a queer student knows they can go to. We are kind of the central hub of GSAs. Those used to be called the Gay-Straight Alliances, but now they are Gender-Sexuality Alliances.
Can you tell me how the name evolved into Gender-Sexuality Alliances?
It came from the students. And also it happened because of the evolution of our movement. There was so much about our movement and our organizations that were gay and lesbian centric. You look at our history and we, for way too long, ignored our trans siblings. And so that’s why organizations like GLAAD changed their name just to the acronym. It’s why we will probably be doing the same thing very soon. But the GSAs, that came from students. We are sometimes led by our youth, thank god. And also we want to make sure that within the curriculum, that it is a comprehensive curriculum that includes our history. When young people see themselves in their history, how we got here, what we’ve been through, they feel seen. They learn those lessons.
Now, the problem with all of those things, even though we know that those are the things that work, those are literally the things that the opposition is working against. So our work is difficult and it is ongoing, but we have the ears of leaders in the federal government, at the state level, at the local level. So we have access to the change makers who can help us make that change.
Now, I’m not being pollyannaish and thinking that this is easy and that it’s just like us walking in and going, “Oh, this is what you have to do.” So much of our work is finding the local leaders and the students and educators who we can help in supporting [our] four pillars. So that’s how we help an African-American trans student. And when all of those things are in place, even the white kids benefit.
Who were the people who made you feel safe in school?
Well, what’s interesting is there were no teachers who were blatantly supportive of what they called “gay rights” then. But there were some teachers who signaled to me and to my friends, who I’ll get to, that they were a place that we could go. So yes, I’m thinking of a specific English teacher. But for the most part in high school, my support came from a group of friends of mine who all came out to each other in our junior year of high school.
Now, believe it or not, I was the last one. Because I was also dealing with my own machismo father and all of that at home. And it was rough. But having those four people, and they were all of different ethnicities, we were all in the same class. A couple of them were incredibly politically active. We have to remember that this was literally the height of the AIDS epidemic. So we were living in fear. Everything that we read and heard about being gay, as we were, pointed to our deaths. So it felt existential. It felt bleak. But with each other, we found a lot of hope and a lot of joy. And I remember toward our senior year, we all went to our first Pride festival together, where I met my first boyfriend, by the way. We got taunted on a daily basis.
Now, I will also say that all five of us together ran that school in the end, even though we got so much shit. But I was in every play at my high school. I was the star of the show choir. I was in the band, I was in the student council. So were a couple of other of us. We kind of were this Justice League. We were smart enough and gregarious enough as a group that we could take all that shit that people were saying about us, let it fly off of us, like water off a duck’s back. And as a big F you to them, we were also the most successful people at our school. And that’s just the way we survived. But those people literally saved my life. And I know that I, and along with other ones, saved other people. I’m not going to say we weren’t depressed. There was death happening all around us. In the middle of my high school experience, I lost my uncle to AIDS. It was an insane time. And I won’t lie — by the time we got out of high school, we were exhausted of our own resilience.
I’m curious to know what kind of advice you would offer a student who is struggling with being bullied like you were. What would you tell that kid?
First and foremost, I would say, and I hate to say this, but school is temporary. School is not the entire world. I would tell them to do everything they possibly could to get the best possible education they can where they are, but to keep their eye on the door. Because they’re going to get out one day and the thing that they’ll need most is that diploma and the ability to go to college and live up to their potential. And that there are places like GLSEN who have their back, who are fighting every day to make sure that their school experience is better.
I would say to them to find a teacher, a parent, a fellow student, a therapist, and say out loud all of the things that they’re experiencing that bothers them. Because having that outlet is incredibly important for a young person. But that this moment, as difficult as it is, is temporary. It’s what I told people during the height of the pandemic. I was like, “This is temporary. This moment will pass.”
And I say this to our movement as well. We have seen worse than this, and we have overcome worse than this. The success of our movement is not a straight line. The success of any movement is not a straight line. There is always going to be a backlash. Our job as members of this community is to not allow them to kill our spirits. To understand that we have nothing to be ashamed of, that we represent the best of what love can do. We are literally fighting for the right to love and to exist as who we actually are.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.