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.
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.
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.
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.
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.