Wilson Cruz

Written by | Entertainment

Beyond Space: Taking Star Trek Discovery into the LGTBQ Frontier

The Star Trek franchise turned 54 years old this year and the original series has spawned several television shows, feature films, animated series, and a fandom that has evolved into its own culture.  Created by Gene Roddenberry, the original television series (greenlit by none other than Lucille Ball and Desilu productions) pushed the envelope by featuring women in command and a variety of minority actors, and made television history by featuring a network’s first interracial kiss.  Civil rights issues of the ’60s were addressed under the guise of extraterrestrial conflict.  Even as progressive as the Star Trek Universe was, it was not until the debut of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017 that we would see the first-ever featured gay characters.  And who better to be a part of that history than Wilson Cruz, who has been a trailblazing activist and openly gay actor since his role as Rickie in My So Called Life in 1994, making him the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character in a leading role on American television.

Wilson’s career has paved the way for members of the LGBTQ community and his fight for representation in the media through his political and social activism has given voice to a new generation of storytellers.  His characters have reflected the struggle and successes of the LGBTQ community with roles in the musical RENT, Johns, Party of Five, Noah’s Arc, Party Monster, 13 Reasons Why, and his current role as Discovery’s Dr. Hugh Culber.

Wilson has also been an advocate for gay youth, sharing his own experience of being kicked out of the house because of his coming out.  He was homeless just before filming My So-Called Life and could not even share the success of the show’s premiere with his family.

In my heart of hearts, I knew my father loved me. What I did not know was if he loved me enough to overcome the indoctrination we are all submitted to, culturally, about sexual orientation and gender expression. But when he reached out to me after watching Rickie Vasquez’s parallel journey, I knew that we had a chance. He reached for me and I reached for him and we agreed to have a very honest and vulnerable and authentic conversation. Out of that came the relationship I have with him today, which is to say, I finally have a real relationship with him. That did not exist before. We did not see each other. We do now. Like any meaningful relationship, you must choose each other. 

And while Star Trek’s message is that of equality in the future, there were still fans resistant to seeing a gay relationship on a starship.  Social media comments ran the gambit, declaring that sci-fi was no place to promote sexuality.  Um, cut to Captain Kirk’s aggressive womanizing, to any alien with a big chest and even bigger hair for the entirety of the original series.

It’s a big Star Trek universe and everyone has an opinion. I’m focusing on all of the overwhelmingly positive excitement the fandom has shown for us, especially from LGBTQ people and allies, young and old, some who’ve waited decades to see themselves and people like them as part of the Trek universe. I’m here for that. 

The Star Trek universe was very familiar to Wilson.

My introduction was Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was the right age for it and that led me to the original series and its iconic history. It was a personal goal to someday be on Star Trek. 

He took matters into his own hands to make that goal a reality.

I actually read about the development of the new series in one of the trades and saw that Bryan Fuller was involved, so I reached out to him because I loved working for him when I guest-starred in the series finale of Pushing Daisies. He replied that he would “love to see me in a Starfleet uniform” and we left it at that. I continued to monitor its progress and, at least nine months later, I become aware of the casting for the series and the change of producers to Aaron Harberts and Gretchen Berg, who wrote that series finale for Pushing Daisies. Two great people I had remained friends with through the years. My reps reached out and the next thing I heard they cast Anthony Rapp, so I figured that was the end of it. Sent a note to Gretchen, Aaron and one to Anthony about how much they were going to love each other, and I added it to a list of actor life disappointments. Next thing you know, I get a call with an offer for Star Trek Discovery, because the gays are coming to the Star Trek TV universe in a pair. I had one last little obstacle to get network approval and here we are. Tada! 

Wilson’s character came with a lot of pressure, from both the Trekkie and LGBTQ community.  Discovery takes place about ten years before the Captain Kirk stories, so we see some familiar characters, experience some of the same sound effects, and even get a glimpse of the Enterprise.  And while the show’s mission was to remain loyal to the original canon, it still had to reflect advances in special effects, acting style, and sci-fi trends to make it appeal to new audiences.  Wilson’s Dr. Culber is the ship’s doctor, taking the position of a Dr. McCoy or Dr. Crusher.  He is also the partner of fellow crew member, Lieutenant Paul Stamens, played by fellow RENT alum Anthony Rapp. The inclusion of a gay relationship had to be presented as a matter of fact, a norm in what we can expect a diverse crew to look like in the future.  The relationship is presented beautifully and imperfectly, a reflection of what any gay, or straight couple, has to go through with the ups and downs of living together while dealing with work and career issues; albeit this relationship also has to deal with the extraordinary elements of the universe.  Star Trek has always been focused on the relationships of the characters over special effects and multiple action sequences.  This relationship needed to be handled with craft and represent our community effectively.

Like anything in TV and filmmaking, it’s a collaborative process. I think I have a healthy give and take with the writers and producers. I feel very comfortable sharing thoughts and inspiration and I love hearing where their imaginations are taking him. It’s fun. In many ways, Hugh is the most personal character I have played since Rickie. I feel very protective of him and playing him has expanded me in ways that are hard to describe. I don’t know if I will ever be able to. I cherish him. He is my patron saint of second chances. I don’t know anyone who has not needed one of those at some point. 

It is fitting that his counterpart is played by Anthony Rapp, who has been titled as one of the first openly gay Broadway actors.  He worked with playwright Larry Kramer in his youth and was inspired to become an activist and live an open life.  His accusations towards actor Kevin Spacey also brought light to the sexual predatory behaviors that can exist for young, gay actors.  Anthony and Wilson have become the poster couple to represent us in the future, and even today.

We’re just ridiculously proud to bring this epic love story to life, to be a part of a historic franchise, like Star Trek, that stands for everything that Anthony and I believe in and stand for and, most of all, that we have a longtime friend to go on that journey with. We know how fortunate we are to have this experience and this friendship.

This next year, the two actors will celebrate the 25th anniversary of RENT, a milestone in Broadway history for the LGBTQ community.

The entire RENT experience from auditioning for it and being rejected to picking myself up and trying again to finding myself fulfilling a lifelong dream of performing on a Broadway stage, taught me to be BOLD. I was in my mid-20s, I had no fear and you could not tell me I wasn’t the perfect person for that role and when I got it, I found the joy and the agony of life and I was freed by it, because I had nothing and everything to lose…and I’ve lived my life that way ever since. That is what Angel gave me. FREEDOM. 

“The Red Angel” — Ep#210 — Pictured (l-r): Wilson Cruz as Culber; Anthony Rapp as Stamets of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS ©2018 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Day one on the set for Discovery was a memory for the scrapbooks for Wilson.

My first day, to this day, is still a bit surreal and like most of the biggest days of my life, a bit of a blur! [Laughs] I was so overwhelmed and it didn’t help that my first scene was not only the most sci-fi jargon wordy scene I had in the episode, but it took place on the bridge, the grandest and imposing set we have. I just wanted to walk through the turbo lift doors without tripping and say the words in the right order. I will say, standing in that white medical officer uniform as my Starfleet badge was placed on me for the first time, I was filled with a great sense of pride and responsibility.   

The cast of Discovery could not be more different and yet cohesive at the same time.  Perhaps a glimpse into a positive future where all types are welcome and can work together for a common good, there is unique chemistry to this cast that resembles that of the original series that inspired the franchise.

I do not know how they managed it, but through the various casting decisions, they have managed to gather some incredibly generous, open-hearted, professional, and proficient artists to work on the show.  There is a mutual respect that is real and authentic. And I have to say that in terms of the cast and how we’ve bonded, that the example and the tone of how this was going to work was set at the top, by Sonequa (Martin-Green). If you know anything about working on our set, it is that your art will be appreciated, and you are safe to be all of you are with us. The rest is magic. 

Another set of costars, as any Trek fan knows, are the props themselves.  The blinking gadgets, the laser guns, the shiny handhelds, all have a proper use and a certain way of using them that die-hard fans will, and have, called actors out on for incorrect placement or usage.

Well, I don’t know if it’s true, but I feel like I used EVERY Star Trek medical device we have in my final scene of Season Two alone! Props are important and looking and feeling like they are everyday tools is tricky, at first, but you get the hang of it… I’ve become quite proficient in the Tricorder, let’s just say… but, as you know, we travel far into the future for Season Three, so you’ll have to wait to see what we’re dealing with there. 

“If Memory Serves” — Ep#208 — Pictured (l-r): Wilson Cruz as Culber; Anthony Rapp as Stamets of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS ©2018 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The debut of Season Three of Discovery propels the cast into the future, who knows what lies ahead in this uncharted future.  And what about the future of the LGBTQ community in media?

I just think, at this point, we need to get to work telling our stories and knowing that our stories are worthy of telling and in need of being told. We should be uplifting LGBTQ content creators, hiring LGBTQ cast and crew, especially trans and people of color. We need to be confident in our abilities to move, excite, and inform people with our stories and be willing to reveal ourselves with our work and invite as many people, from as many experiences into that conversation. 

The future seems bright for both the Trek franchise and our LGBTQ community, especially given that this past political and social season seems to have set our movement back by decades.

My advice to my fellow citizens is to be sure to be active in this election. Be counted and be heard. This is not the election you want to sit out. This election will decide who we are, as a nation, for the next 30 years, in my opinion. It is all on the line. As to the recent racial upheaval and the movement that has sprung from it, I say to the LGBTQ community: do not look away and do not separate yourself from this movement, in action or responsibility. As members of a marginalized community, we understand the pain of discrimination, but that does not make us immune to our own biases or excuse our own actions based on them. We need to do the work… but we, too, can and should assert our humanity as well, in this movement. Black LGBTQ+ lives matter just as much and no less. So, there is work to be done everywhere, but if we come from a place of love and respect, we could see our way to a new way of living in solidarity with each other and claiming the power that comes from united Black, indigenous, immigrant, POC and LGBTQ+ communities. 

Our social climate has made us look at our own community and hold ourselves and those around us accountable.  We discovered that many of us are hurting from the actions of our own group.

The LGBTQ community does not exist in a vacuum. We are part of and live in a society that continues, as it has throughout its existence, to struggle with racism. It permeates every facet of this society. The LGBTQ community is not immune to systemic racism. We can look back at our own civil rights movement and see racism in the practice of “respectability politics”, early on and see that.  I wouldn’t say that I have experienced more or less racism in the LGBTQ community, just about the same amount, which is already too much. I will say that I am heartened by the recent conversations and education around this issue in our community. I am proud of the seriousness with which our community confronts this issue. 


Writer’s Note:  Being a part of this interview has been such a special opportunity for me, as a gay man and as a Trekkie.  A lot of people raise their eyebrows at the fanaticism that Trekkies can have.  I was the uniform wearing, model building, convention-going, and comic book reading kid growing up.  My single Mom raised me on Star Trek and would take me out of school whenever a new film premiered, that was our bonding time over characters she had grown up with.  The Star Trek family was my family, the characters were my friends and a future where friendships were as important as family relationships rang true to me as my Mom and I were ostracized from our own family for being unconventional.  As the chubby, gay, Latin, lower-income kid in an all-white private school, I did not fit in.  I was even cast as the Alien in the school’s Christmas play to the snickers of my classmates.  Where I did fit in was the Star Trek Universe, no one batted an eye at what you looked like, what you were wearing, or where you came from.  It was more than a sci-fi universe; it was a safe space where I could be myself and discover who I was.  Being a fan of Wilson’s work and his courage to be out was an inspiration to me, even before I came out of the closet.  I could not help but shed a tear the moment Wilson hit the screen in his Starfleet uniform.  It felt like I had come home.  Phasers on stunning, we are the future.

You can watch Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access, with the first three episodes playing on the CBS network.

Follow Wilson on Instagram @WCruz73

Last modified: October 16, 2020