Wilson Cruz has spent the past seven years working on a documentary series about gay people on television — and his career is one of the best examples of how far representation of the LGBTQ community has come.
Almost 26 years ago, he became the first out gay actor to play an out gay series regular on TV. And his “My So-Called Life” plotlines, about high schooler Rickie Vasquez struggling to remain in the closet and being thrown out of his house for being gay, were drawn from Cruz’s life.
Today, Cruz’s “Star Trek: Discovery” character, Dr. Hugh Culber, is in a relationship with Commander Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) — and their sexuality is incidental.
“When you look at those two characters, it’s really about love,” Cruz recently told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Never in my 27-year career have I had an opportunity to just be involved in a love story. It is progress, as far as I’m concerned.”
Cruz, 46, is one of the executive producers of “Visible: Out on Television,” a five-part documentary series that starts streaming Friday on Apple TV+. It chronicles how the LGBTQ community has been portrayed on TV and how that has influenced Americans’ attitudes.
“It was through the television that we got to tell the entire society and culture what our lives are really like,” Cruz said. “And because of that honesty and that authenticity, we were able to move the needle to acceptance.
“This documentary series is about the courageous people who took the risk of telling these stories that, at the time, were completely taboo. People were risking their careers in order to tell these stories.”
The engaging, in-depth documentary combines archival footage and interviews with new interviews. The enormous list of guests includes Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, Neil Patrick Harris, Anderson Cooper, Billy Porter, Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Oprah Winfrey, Adam Lambert, Raven-Symoné and George Takei — just to name a few — along with executive producers Wanda Sykes and Cruz.
For Cruz, it’s personal. And not just the way he grew up watching TV looking for someone with whom he could relate. When he was cast in “My So-Called Life,” he was a 19-year-old living at home. “And I came out to my parents because I knew the show was about to air,” he said.
It did not go well. Cruz’s father threw him out — on Christmas Eve. For the next four months, as he waited for “My So-Called Life” to begin production, “I had to find a way to survive. I lived with my friends and lived in my car, because my father did not take well to the news that his son was gay.”
In a “My So-Called Life” episode that aired almost exactly a year after Cruz’s father threw him out, Rickie was thrown out of his home for the same reason. “The credits rolled on that episode and 10 minutes later — after a year of not speaking to my father — my phone rings and it’s my dad,” Cruz said. “It was because of the series that my father and I were able to create a relationship because he watched the show, saw what my character went through and was able to empathize and understand.”
To this day, Cruz and series creator/executive producer/writer Winnie Holzman (“Wicked”) are unsure how, exactly, his real life and on-screen life converged.
“She and I have talked about this forever. We can’t remember if I told her before she wrote it or if I told her after,” Cruz said. “But I shared a lot of my experience with her, and she used it to inspire the series. I think in some way we just came together on that. We can’t quite decide how because it was so long ago.”
“Visible” is his first executive producer credit; he’s hoping it won’t be his last. “I want to create content that sheds a light on this community and our lives. Not just our sex lives, but what it means to be a member of this community in this era, at this time, and where we have to go.”
And he remains excited about “Discovery,” which wrapped production on Season 3 in December and will stream later this year on CBS All Access.
“Oh my God,” he said with a smile. “I literally wake up every morning before I go to set, jump out of bed and cannot wait to put on that white spandex uniform.”