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Wilson Cruz Recalls His Groundbreaking Gay Role on ‘My So-Called Life’: ‘It Was Life-Altering’

At Wednesday night’s Paley Honors, which paid tribute to LGBTQ achievements in television, attendees never lost sight of those who first paved the way — both on screen and off. CNN’s Don Lemon opened the ceremony by thanking legendary transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, who helped lead the charge at Stonewall 50 years ago. After recounting the story of the riots, he gestured around the Ziegfeld Ballroom. “Because she was there, we’re here tonight in this room, and at this point in history.”

On the eve of that landmark anniversary, stars ranging from Laverne Cox to Billy Crystal reflected on the progress that’s been made in the decades since — and how far things still have to go.

Our Lady J, a writer on “Transparent” and “Pose,” first learned about Stonewall as a teenager in New York. She immediately wanted to know more, so she turned to someone with firsthand knowledge of LGBTQ life in the city in 1969: Mother Flawless Sabrina, a pioneering drag pageant organizer and activist. The two met for coffee in Sabrina’s apartment, and the conversation that followed has stayed with J for decades. “That was 30 years after Stonewall, and it seemed like we had come so far, yet it was still so close,” she told Variety. “It made me realize how much change can happen in such a short period of time.”

Not all of the gala’s attendees had such ready access to their history — and for many, that crucial first glimpse of the LGBTQ community came through television. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who stars in “Modern Family,” said he “would love for kids to see a future for themselves in characters like Cam and Mitch.” As he tearfully explained (prompting a hug from Debra Messing), “I had that in ‘Will & Grace.’ That show for me was a lighthouse when I was struggling with my sexuality.”

Messing herself had no way of predicting the impact “Will & Grace” would have on the culture. “We started right after ‘Ellen’ was canceled after she came out, so we knew when we did the pilot that it was provocative, and we didn’t know if we would be accepted,” she told Variety. Even so, she had only one condition when taking on the role: “I was adamant that it had to put all stereotypes aside and show all four of us as equals. Once I found out that was their intent, I had absolutely no hesitation.”

Still, the cast didn’t fully grasp the significance of what they were doing until the show’s second season, when “remarkable, personal, profound fan letters” started arriving on set — including one from a teenage boy that she’s never forgotten. “He said, ‘My best friend won’t speak to me, my mother cries all the time, but I’ve been watching your show and seeing myself reflected gives me strength. I’ve made my mother watch with me, and slowly we’re healing together.’ That’s when we realized we were representing a community that had never been celebrated.”

For Crystal, the feedback for his historic role on “Soap” was more immediate — when he first said “I love you” to another man in 1977, he did so in front of a live studio audience. “They would giggle and laugh because they’d never seen this before. There were many times when I wanted to break character and just scream, ‘What is your problem?’” he said. “But here’s the truth: they may have had a problem because of the era, or the way that they were raised, or simple ignorance and fear — but they were watching. They weren’t turning the channel. They were hearing two men sharing their feelings for each other.”

A young Wilson Cruz was watching, too. But aside from “Soap” and made-for-TV dramas like “An Early Frost,” he recalls “very few moments” in which he felt seen. He was still in college when he accepted the role of Rickie on “My So-Called Life” — and became the first openly gay man to play an openly gay character on primetime TV. “Embodying Rickie Vasquez was transformative for me as a 19-year-old boy figuring out his life,” he told Variety. “It was life-altering.”

He’s continued to break new ground ever since — most recently on “Star Trek: Discovery,” where he and Anthony Rapp star as the first canonically gay couple in the franchise’s 52-year history.

“Anthony and I are gearing up for Season 3, and we’re really excited because last season was very tumultuous. Angsty, if you will,” Cruz said, laughing. “But I think we’re going to see them perhaps be happier and really rediscovering each other — no pun intended! There are so many possibilities when you’re going years into the future. What does the universe look like? What does love look like?”

Our Lady J is similarly excited by what the future holds. Growing up, she never imagined that a show like “Pose” could not only exist, but thrive. “I hadn’t seen myself represented on screen, and that was one of my passions behind writing ‘Transparent,’” she told Variety. “When I suggested that we make Davina and Shea HIV-positive so we could tell the story of what it’s like to be a trans person living with HIV, that was the first time that I saw the glimmer of myself being represented — writing myself onto the show.”

“I don’t want to sound like an asshole,” J added, laughing. “I just think that’s important for all artists to know: if you don’t see it, make it happen.”

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