The First Openly Gay Character in an American Drama Series

cruz_wilson_my_so_called_life_43689l (Stade Side Stiles)
Credit: statesidestills

In the mid-1990s, the TV drama series My So-Called Life lasted one season. During the shows run, it was critically acclaimed and praised for its social commentary. It not only launched the careers of Claire Danes (Romeo + Juliet and Homeland) and Jared Leto (The Joker in Suicide Squad and the lead singer of the band 30 Second to Mars), the series featured a quiet, out of place individual named Enrique Vasquez. Enrique, or Rickie as he is preferred to be called, was played by Wilson Cruz and was the first openly gay character on an American network program.

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Angela (Danes) and Catalano (Leto) Credit: Scroll In

My-So Called Life was created by Winnie Holzman. She is best known as a writer and producer for Thirtysomething (1987–1991), Once and Again (1999–2002) and Roadies (2016). Holzman also wrote the book that inspired the hit Broadway musical Wicked. She was nominated for a Tony Award in 2004 for the novel. She wanted My So-Called Life to standout from other teenage dramas of the time. She was not afraid to have real and flawed characters in situations the audience could relate to. When pitching Rickie to ABC Productions, she was surprised they had no issues with him being gay but questioned his feminine traits. Rickie shied away from violence and was happier hanging out with his close friends Angela Chase (Danes) and Rayanne Graff (A. J. Langer). The network worried about the amount of makeup the character applied and his fashion sense. Rickie’s look was inspired by Prince, Michael Jackson and Lenny Kravitz. Cruz related to the character so much that he auditioned with colourful hair, a rainbow-striped shirt and red jeans on. Holzman stood her ground and the network reluctantly allowed Rickie to remain the way he was envisioned.

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Holzman and Danes Credit: Dig Boston

Wilson Cruz was born on December 27, 1973, in Brooklyn, New York. He had been acting since plays in school, but My So-Called Life was the first pilot he auditioned for. Like Rickie, Cruz is also gay and he was naturally drawn to the character. In his audition, he said to casting director Mary Goldman that the character was very important and wished he had such a role model on television when he grew up in the 1980s. Cruz’s performance made an impression. In his second and third auditions, Cruz’s audience grew to include Holzman, producers and network executives. He felt the pressure. Cruz made a pack with himself that he would come out to his family if he got the part. He was cast and told his mother first. She quickly warmed up to the notion of her son being gay, but his father was another story. Cruz was kicked out of the house and the two stopped talking. He slept on friend’s couches until filming began. After My So-Called Life, Cruz has been a strong activist for LGBT rights and equality. He has worked extensively with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

Rayanne and Rickie (Pinterest)
Rayanne (Langer) and Rickie (Cruz) Credit: Pinterest

The episode ‘So-Called Angels’ opens with Rickie crying, coughing up blood with a bruised face in a dark, cold and ominous street. It’s close to Christmas and Rickie stumbles along with nowhere to go. The next day at school he meets with friends Angela and Rayanne, pretends nothing is wrong and heads to class. The two talk—subconsciously knowing Rickie is a victim of domestic violence—Rayanne prefers to leave the issue alone but Angela wants to help. Rayanne has witnessed this happen to Rickie before and knows he doesn’t want to acknowledge the problem. Later that night, Rickie shows up at Angela’s house desperate. He is hungrily eating left over food when Angela’s parents arrive home. They talk to her in private about Rickie and he slips out into the night. He doesn’t want to be a burden. Rickie eventually finds himself in an abandoned warehouse with other runaway youths. It takes Angela along time to find him. In later episodes, he briefly lives with Angela and her family before staying with close friend, mentor and teacher Mr. Katimski (Jeff Perry). Katimski too is gay and knows how hard it can be growing up.

Jeff Perry (IMDb)
Mr. Katimski (Perry) Credit: IMDb

The storyline paralleled Cruz’s own life. Like Rickie, when he told his father that he was gay, he was thrown out of the house and had nowhere to go. The two stopped talking and this affected Cruz greatly. Little did he know, when My So-Called Life started airing, Cruz’s father secretly watched the show. Within an hour of the ‘So-Called Angels’ broadcast, he had called his son and they were having a deep heart-to-heart conversation. Cruz thanks the show for strengthening their relationship. Cruz and Holzman are not sure how Rickie’s storyline came about. She doesn’t remember where the inspiration came from and he doesn’t remember talking about his private life at the time.

Behind the Scenes (Pinterest)
Behind the scenes: Danes, Cruz and Langer
Credit: Pinterest

Cruz is also especially fond of the fan feedback he has experienced over the years. Many have told him how much Rickie helped them to tell family and friends they were gay. In one special case, Cruz received a letter from a fan who lived in the Midwest of America. He considered hurting himself but seeing Rickie on television showed him that he was not alone. The handwritten letter was tear–stained and Cruz still has it today.

My So-Called Life was cancelled after nineteen episodes, three further episodes never being made. Rumours were that Claire Danes had to leave the show because of her budding film career. Cruz continued to act and has had parts in Ally McBeal, Party of Five, The West Wing, NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy. He recently gained a recurring role on Star Trek: Discovery as Dr. Hugh Culber. His character is in a relationship with Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and they are the first gay couple in the franchise’s history.

Culber and Stamets (Out Magazine)
Culber (Cruz) and Stamets (Rapp) Credit: Out Magazine

Sources:

Actor and Activist Wilson Cruz Joins GLAAD Staff (https://www.glaad.org/blog/actor-and-activist-wilson-cruz-joins-glaad-staff)

Claire Danes – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000132/?ref_=nv_sr_3)

Finding My So-Called Queer Identity in My So-Called Life

(http://time.com/3160995/my-so-called-life-20th-anniversary/)

How Wilson Cruz’s Coming Out Story Mirrored His My So-Called Life Character’s — and His Advice for Gay Youth (http://people.com/tv/wilson-cruz-national-coming-out-day/)

Jared Leto – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001467/?ref_=nv_sr_1)

‘My So-Called Life’ Creator Winnie Holzman on Boys Wearing Eyeliner (http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/my-so-called-life-creator-winnie-holzman-rickie-vasquez-1201570756/)

My So-Called Life – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108872/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1)

My So-Called Life’s Wilson Cruz on Rickie Fans, LBGT Awareness, and ’90s Fashion (http://www.vulture.com/2014/09/wilson-cruz-my-so-called-life-1994-1995.html)

My So-Called Life Wiki (http://mysocalledlife.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page)

Wilson Cruz – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0190497/?ref_=tt_cl_t2)

Winnie Holzman – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0392848/?ref_=tt_ov_wr)

My So-Called Life (1994-1995): ‘So-Called Angels’ (Episode)