Wilson Cruz played a gay teen getting kicked out of his house on TV. It helped his real-life family.

A new, powerful documentary, "Playing Gay," hopes to shed light on how gay television characters helped Americans come to embrace marriage equality for all.

Wilson Cruz was kicked out of his parents' house when he told them he was gay.

At the age of 18, a year earlier, he got the audition that would change his life.

At the end of that audition, for the critically acclaimed series "My So Called Life," Wilson paused at the door.


Assuming he would never see the casting crew again, he teared up and told them how important it would have been for him as a gay teenager to see a gay teenage character on his TV screen.

He got the part. A year later he came out to his parents at Christmas. They kicked him out.

And he spent four months being homeless and couch surfing with friends, until he earned enough to get his own place.

One year later, around Christmas, the episode in which his character gets kicked out by his parents was aired.

When his dad watched the episode about his character being kicked out by his parents, it helped them reconcile.

"My mother and brother were working on him at home too," said Wilson when I spoke with him, "but I think the episode was the clincher."

Wilson went on to become an outspoken activist, championing the rights of gay teens of color.

Television is more than just entertainment — it's more powerful than we think. It has the power to change us

As more LGBTQ characters started to appear on television, people's attitudes about gay people also adapted. People in their homes, seeing relatable characters on TV, started to understand that gay people were just people, like anyone else.

Image via "Exposure to the Lives of Lesbians and Gays and the Origin of Young People's Greater Support for Gay Rights," Journalist's Resource.

TV didn't always do great things for gay people.

Back in the golden age of television in the '50s and '60s, gay characters were somewhat of an anomaly. They usually appeared as murderers and crazy people.

In 1959, actress Sheila Kuehl played teenage genius Zelda Gilroy on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." She became so popular that they decided to give her a TV pilot. But when the president of CBS saw the pilot, he was not amused.

Things stayed that way for a while for most gay characters.

In the '70s, things started to change. And it was one TV episode in particular that was instrumental in changing how gay characters were played.

"All In the Family" was the first to truly break stereotypes.

In its fifth episode, grumpy, racist, homophobic patriarch Archie Bunker teases his son-in-law's friend because he's effeminate. But Archie has his mind broadened when his son-in-law reveals that it's actually Archie's friend, Steve, an ex-football player, who's gay. And his effeminate friend is the one who's straight. Over a manly beer-drinking and arm-wrestling challenge, he tells Steve what his son-in-law said, thinking he'll laugh. And then this happened.

Archie learns that gay people aren't walking stereotypes. GIF from "All in the Family."

That episode was so powerful that in real life, President Nixon had a weirdly panicked homophobic conversation about it in the White House that he actually recorded.

Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television in front of 42 million people in 1997, and the conversation changed again.

GIF from "Ellen."

And as she came out, people across the country started to become more accepting of gay people.

There are more stories just like that, all over television.

And throughout the last decade, as more people got to know gay characters on TV, more people supported gay marriage.

Image via GLAAD.

So what makes TV so much more powerful than other mediums to change people's minds?

When you watch a TV show, you get to see characters develop over weeks and months.

You relate and connect to them in a way that a single two-hour movie just doesn't allow.

The story of how TV helped influence our country's attitudes toward our gay friends is an important one.

And they're making a movie about it.

Producer Wilson Cruz and the film's director, David Bender (who happens to be a former mentor of mine), would love for you to hear their stories. A donor has offered to match every dollar donated, up to $10,000.

Learn more at their Kickstarter page and judge for yourself if this is a story worth telling. (I'm totally biased, but I think it is.) And since TV has the power to change lives, mind help changing theirs and sharing this?

UPDATE Aug. 17, 2015: With 24 hours to go, they're almost to their goal and have been given $15,000 in matching funds. For every dollar you donate, they'll get an extra dollar. Check out the campaign here.

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Whenever someone's words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word "racist" as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren't racist.

Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it's clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It's a big old red flag, every time.

I'm not an expert on race relations, but I've spent many years learning from people who are. And I've learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can't include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since "racism" is such a loaded term for many people, let's look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let's take "anxiety." According to Merriam-Webster, "anxiety" is defined as "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn't explain that some people's anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn't say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn't say that you often won't see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn't offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn't experiencing anxiety because they're not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to "prove" that something or someone isn't racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump's "go back to" statements to four Congresswomen of color weren't technically racist.


The first Merriam-Webster entry for "racism" reads "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Merriam-Webster

First of all, I'm not sure how this definition actually makes Trump's statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to "go back to" their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President's head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people's inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn't truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume's tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word "racism," which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, "I think I'm superior to people who don't share my skin color." Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement "racism." We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of "Racism=hating people of a different race."

I've seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that's a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

I've also seen people complain that "everything is racist these days," but no, it's really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it's easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone's understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That's not imagining racism where it doesn't exist or "calling everything racist these days"; that's simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we're not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let's stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word "racism" is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

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