The 'My So-Called Life' star writes for PEOPLE about the Showtime series' lesson for the LGBTQ+ community to "share who we are, who we love and our humanity" in order to "inspire others to do the same"
Ever since he starred in My So-Called Life, Wilson Cruz has been a force for change. Cruz, who was the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character in an American TV show, has spent almost three decades championing LGBTQ+ rights, previously serving as a national spokesperson and director of entertainment industry partnerships for GLAAD and now as Chair of GLSEN's board.
In the Apple TV+ documentary series Visible: Out on Television, which Cruz served as an executive producer on, the actor, 49, explored the LGBTQ+ movement in America and the influence of TV.
Now in an exclusive guest essay for PEOPLE, Cruz, who currently stars on Star Trek: Discovery, discusses the importance of the Showtime series Fellow Travelers, how the sweeping gay romantic drama hearkens back to the darker periods of LGBTQ+ history and how lessons from the past can be powerful tools to educate today's young people.
“It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I'd been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the Earth as though I had a right to be here.” — James Baldwin
As I watched Showtime’s captivating new limited series Fellow Travelers, based on the historical novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, I was reminded of these words from James Baldwin. The effort to reject the shame we are taught about ourselves as Queer people and as Queer people of color, especially, is the work of every individual person born with the knowledge that they are different. To be fully seen and respected as human beings has been the overarching theme of the movement for LGBTQ+ rights.
Throughout the series Fellow Travelers, we follow the lives of multiple diverse LGBTQ+ characters. Starting in the ‘50s with the Lavender Scare during the Army/McCarthy hearings through the ‘80s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, one character after another finds themselves fighting an internal battle between the shame they’d been taught to feel about themselves and the pride and love they inherently know and feel as Queer people. No one is born into this world feeling hate for themselves. That kind of debilitating self-hate is carefully taught in order to suppress and control a segment of society that has historically been maligned and oppressed for merely being who they are or for who they love. They are lessons based in ignorance and fear and they are lessons taught for the sole purpose of control. To quote Bell Hooks: “Shaming is one of the deepest tools of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, because shame produces trauma and trauma often produces paralysis.”
In Fellow Travelers, we are witnesses to the ever-present shame that our heroes confront, whether in school and home as children and/or in culture, church or work life, as adults, we see how that shame manifests in the internal, the external and the interpersonal as it seeps into even the most tender and intimate moments. The shaming is and was the point.
From the 1950’s, when it was common practice to literally shame people who didn’t conform to socially acceptable gender roles by literally beating them into compliance, or by “raiding” any place in which we gathered, inviting the press to cover it and printing the names and addresses of those arrested for the sole purpose of shaming those individuals and anyone else who thought of gathering in the future... to the ‘80s and ‘90s when, as AIDS was decimating our community, we were either ignored, or worse, blamed and shamed for our own deaths, because if you can shame a community and make them believe they deserve to be ashamed, you can control them.
So, it’s no wonder that when the modern LGBTQ rights movement began, our elders latched on to the word PRIDE to begin the deprogramming of all the lies and fears instilled in us. It’s ironic and yet, historically accurate that in Fellow Travelers, it’s Noah J. Ricketts’ character, Frankie, a Black, gender non-conforming drag queen who, despite being the most marginalized of the core characters, completely embodies this spirit of rebellion, determination and Queer joy.
Frankie stands tall and firm in their humanity and rejects any attempts to shame them. Frankie and the generation of Queer elders who took to the streets during and after the Stonewall Riots understood that the first step to true liberation had to begin with ourselves. The rejection of that indoctrination has been at the center of our struggle and it’s an effort that continues, even today... perhaps especially today.
It would be so easy to watch Fellow Travelers today and think about how terrible life was for LGBTQ+ folks back then, but know this: when Christian Nationalists like Speaker of the House [Mike] Johnson, Governor [Ron] DeSantis and the most recent former President — and the leading contender for the Republican Party’s nomination for President of the United States — talk about making America great again, this is what they’re talking about. They are actively working to turn the clock back to a time when our shame kept us in closets, when a series like this wasn’t even allowed on our screens, a time when our relationships and our humanity were dismissed, a time when people, young and old, found it easier to take their own lives rather than imagine a life in which they could be who they are, love who they love and live up to their potential.
The fact is that they know what we know: when we are brave and proud and share who we are, who we love and our humanity, we inspire others to do the same. It has been through this education of society and of ourselves that we’ve effected the immense change we’ve seen in the last 50 years and rejected the shame that had been used to control us.
Fellow Travelers, though fictional, is a historical drama that illuminates a very real, fraught and harrowing time in our history that is seldom spoken of and of which very few people are aware. Christian Nationalists also know the power in learning this history and this is why we see such a concerted effort to erase us from the history that is taught, to burn our books and to censure our teachers, despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefit to all students, but especially LGBTQ+ students and young people. Even the attempt of erasure and censure sends a message to LGBTQ+ students and their heterosexual cisgender counterparts that these subjects are taboo and should only be discussed in whispers.
Through our world-renowned research over three decades we, at GLSEN, have consistently found that LGBTQ+ youth with access to instruction on LGBTQ+ people, history, or topics report improved wellbeing and education outcomes, including a greater sense of school belonging and a decreased likelihood of missing school because they felt unsafe. An inclusive curriculum that allows our young people to know who they are, see themselves reflected back in their history, and learn the lessons from our past allows us to raise generations of young people who are never paralyzed by shame and who are able to walk the Earth with PRIDE.
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Fellow Travelers airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.
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