By Morgan Roberts
When “My So-Called Life” first premiered in 1994, it came across as a standard teen drama. However, the series, which introduced the world to the likes of Claire Danes and Jared Leto. And while the series was groundbreaking in many ways, the character of Rickie Vasquez played by Wilson Cruz.
Even being introduced to the show a decade after its original airdate, I had never really seen a character like Rickie. He was edgy, he wore eyeliner and put it on in the girls’ bathroom. He was authentic. He was loyal. He was queer. I grew up in a fairly liberal household, and even so, I was not surrounded by the LGBTQ+ community. I knew gay people, but I did not see them or interact with them regularly. And then, as “My So-Called Life” began re-airing on a weekly basis, I had a queer character in my home every week.
“When Rickie deals with his emotionally and physically abusive uncle, and is then kicked out of the house for his sexuality, those friends are right there for him. For 1994/1995, that was pretty radical.”
Rickie’s sexual orientation and gender expression were never the central focus of his character. Rickie was the most loyal and caring friend. When Angela (Danes) develops a major crush on Jordan Catalano (Leto), Rickie is right there to hear every lament, every moment of insecurity, and support Angela throughout it all. When Rayanne (A.J. Langer) deals with her absent father truly cutting her out of his life, Rickie is the first person to stick by Rayanne. He is a diehard, compassionate friend.
So, when Rickie deals with his emotionally and physically abusive uncle, and is then kicked out of the house for his sexuality, those friends are right there for him. For 1994/1995, that was pretty radical. LGBTQ+ homelessness and abuse was not uncommon. It was not uncommon for young people to be tossed out of their homes for being gay. It truly was radical that not only was Rickie queer, but there were people around him, from his peers to adults, like Angela’s mom Patty (Bess Armstrong), who loved him for just the way he was. They loved him publicly.
Rickie was the first gay character I was introduced to. And I know he was the first character on television for millions of other young people. To be a closeted teen and see someone not just going through the same struggles but surviving and finding support during those struggles must have simply been powerful. As a straight person, I knew the trials Rickie endured would not be something I could endure in the future. It sure made me more in tune to try to be an ally, even at 12 years old.
“Had it not been for Rickie Vasquez, the countless other LGBTQ+ characters we’ve come to know and love would be non-existent…
Would “Pose” exist? Would “Queer Eye” exist? Would “Queer as Folk,” “The L Word,” or “Glee” exist? Probably, but certainly not in the capacities or with the amount of representation they provided.”
Since “My So-Called Life,” Cruz has been a huge advocate for the LGBTQ+ community throughout his career. He has been the Grand Marshall at several pride parades. He has worked extensively with GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). And his advocacy started with his first role: Rickie Vasquez. Without this character, I do not know when we would have finally seen out, queer characters on television. He was one of the first I saw in 2004 which goes to show that while “Will & Grace” existed, it was still taboo to have LGBTQ+ characters on screen.
Had it not been for Rickie Vasquez, the countless other LGBTQ+ characters we’ve come to know and love would be non-existent. Who knows if Ellen DeGeneres would have come out on television in 1997. Who knows if Piper, Alex, Sophia, or Poussey would have been spotlight characters on “Orange is the New Black.”
Would “Pose” exist? Would “Queer Eye” exist? Would “Queer as Folk,” “The L Word,” or “Glee” exist? Probably, but certainly not in the capacities or with the amount of representation they provided. And it all boils down to this sweet kid, who was there for his friends, hung out in the girls’ bathroom, and existed as his true, authentic self. So, here is to Rickie Vasquez and the torch he carried.