Wilson Cruz becomes new GLSEN board chair

Wilson Cruz (C) and ‘Star Trek’ co-stars Anthony Rapp (R) and Blu del Barrio (L) on June 8. (Los Angeles Blade photo by Dawn Ennis)

These days, when actor, producer and activist Wilson Cruz isn’t walking a picket line with the Screen Actors Guild and supporting the striking members of the Writers Guild, he’s busy getting up to speed as the new chair of the board at GLSEN, the organization that is also known as the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.

“It’s really a turning point for the organization,” Cruz told the Los Angeles Blade in a recent phone interview. For the first time in GLSEN’s 33-year history, its board chairs and executive director represent BIPOC, nonbinary and trans people. “And it’s a great time to set a new course for this organization, because if there’s ever been a need for a GLSEN, it is in this moment when education and queer kids and the relationships to their education is so fraught.”

Variety first broke the news on July 26, but as it turns out, the award-winning actor best known for “Star Trek: Discovery” and “My So-Called Life” and for his advocacy spilled the beans to the Blade way back on June 8. That evening, Cruz joined his “Star Trek” co-stars Anthony Rapp and Blu del Barrio for a Q&A with fans, following a performance of Rapp’s extraordinary one-man off-Broadway musical, “Without You.”

The Blade asked each of the stars on stage that night at the New Worlds Stages theater in Manhattan what their plans were for Pride Month, and Cruz let it slip that he was about to embark on this new adventure with GLSEN.

“Just between you and the 30 people who are in here, I’m taking over as the chair of the board of GLSEN,” Cruz revealed to wild applause. Rapp asked his “Star Trek” “space boo” about the group’s current name, which Cruz confirmed will soon be known only by its acronym. “It’s basically an organization that works around the country to make sure that every school in this country is a safe place for queer kids,” said Cruz. And then he turned to the Blade and added, “You can’t print that yet! It’s off the record!”

Although newsworthy items are not traditionally considered “off the record” when a newsmaker says it after the fact, the Blade agreed to hold the story in exchange for this exclusive, in-depth interview following the official news release on July 26.

“This has actually been in motion for six months,” Cruz said in our conversation that day. “Why I am doing it is because I really believe in our new executive director, Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, who just came on officially as our executive director after Eliza Byard left, And I really, truly believe in her leadership and in the vision that she has for GLSEN going forward. I really fought for her to become our executive director, and I wanted to support her in this role.”

As he prepares to celebrate his 50th birthday in a few months, Cruz reflected on his lifelong journey as an advocate: A trailblazer on television at just 15, his work supporting fellow Puerto Ricans, serving as GLAAD’s director of entertainment industry advocacy and as its national spokesperson, serving on the board at GLSEN and now as its chair.

“This is my opportunity to help create a better world for the generations that come after me,” Cruz told the Blade. “For 30 years now, I have been a voice for LGBTQ youth because of the fact that I was Ricky Vasquez. And so, it’s been a passion of mine to make sure that the school experience for queer students is better than the one that I had.”

Cruz’s father kicked him out of their Southern California house on Christmas Eve, and he spent three months living in his car and at the homes of friends, he revealed in a 2020 podcast. But as he told Variety, most of his high school peers bullied him.

“I don’t even know what it was like not to be bullied,” Cruz said. “I was called faggot every day. It got to the point where I didn’t even hear it anymore.”

Without a network to support him, Cruz turned to other queer students and to teachers. “I went to high school in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before there were gay-straight alliances,” he told Variety. “The only way I got through school was with my best friends — the other four gays kids I knew at school. I know because I had them in my life that I had a sounding board and that there was someone who could reflect back my own experience and make me feel like I was not ‘not normal.’ They saved my life. We saved each other’s lives.”

Cruz told the Blade that was another reason he is dedicating his time to GLSEN.

“One of the things that I did have, which GLSEN is at the forefront, is how students can support each other,” he said. “These student-led groups, where you can see others like you, who you can relate to, who can support you, who you can in turn support. And as we know, community is how we support each other, our children, our families, if you will. And GLSEN is also an amazing place for parents who have queer kids to come and be supported and have resources.”

Those resources are key at this time as LGBTQ children, their parents and healthcare providers as well as adults find themselves under attack across the nation. And GLSEN itself became a target earlier this year, because of its partnership with Target, as the Blade has reported.

The retail giant came under siege over its LGBTQ affirming “Pride Collection” of merchandise in May. Target moved some merchandise from display and purchase after physical assaults, verbal threats and bomb threats.

“That whole controversy, it was about us,” said Cruz. “We received death threats, which were taken very seriously by the FBI and by the police. One of the ways that we’re protecting our staff is having them work remotely.”

In a statement released in May, GLSEN called out Fox News and other conservative news media: “Right-wing media outlets have spread harmful and vicious lies about GLSEN — and these intentional and heinous attacks have spurred an onslaught of hateful messages and threats to our mission and the physical safety of our staff.”

Cruz noted that GLSEN is also committed to countering the hate that has spread to statehouses throughout 2023.

“There have been 650, I would say, anti-queer and anti-trans bills that have been introduced in the last year, I believe. And in terms of all of those legislative efforts, we rely on our core support, which is we work for more comprehensive policies both statewide but also on the federal level. So, we work with state leaders and federal leaders. We work with supported educators to make sure that there is at least one educator in every school that students can look to who they know is an ally and in their corner, we work all day to make sure that there is inclusive curriculum, because we want to make sure that students see themselves reflected in their education and know their history and how we gained the rights that we have gained and the intersectionality that lie within. And we support the GSAs, which used to be called Gay Straight Alliances and are now called Gender and Sexuality Alliances.”

Cruz said his decision to lead GLSEN’s board was also a result of the woman named vice chair: Imara Jones, an award-winning journalist named to Time magazine’s 2023 list of 100 Most Influential People and the creator of TransLash Media, a Black transgender-led nonprofit news organization and digital community.

“Imara has been on our board for a year now, and the moment she came on, she was a powerhouse,” said Cruz. “She was powerful in her views. She was a leader right away. She really made sure that we stayed on task and that we stayed true to our vision. I believe she’s probably the strongest trans activist voice that I know personally, and she does it with such joy and such reverence. And I love our working relationship.”

“Wilson is amazing because Wilson brings both tremendous heart and reach and star power,” Jones told the Blade in a phone interview Sunday. “And I think with that kind of combination, of the ability to be able to shine brightly in the world as a star, but also be deeply connected to community and what we’re trying to do and understanding what it is like for queer kids all across the country right now, I think that Wilson is the perfect chair.”

“She makes me feel stronger and I hope that I do the same for her,” added Cruz. “I think it’s a great pairing of minds. And her strength really filled in for my weaknesses.”

“I’ve served on a number of boards and I have a pretty strong grasp of parliamentary procedure and just a good idea about how boards are supposed to function,” Jones told the Blade. “And essentially it’s meant to be a committee and an organization of equals. The role of the people that are running it is to facilitate the ability of everyone to bring their talent. And for me, what I look to, more than anything, is to move everyone to consensus. I think we always want to be moving towards unanimity when it comes to what we’re trying to do.”

That self-deprecating comment absolutely required the Blade to press Cruz to enumerate his so-called weaknesses: “There are some things that I’m not great at, but I’m learning, right? As in, I’ve never been the chair of a board. So, I have to learn, you know, parliamentary rules of procedure. And Imara Jones is like a master at them, so I am learning from her here.” 

Plus, Cruz expects that at some point Hollywood’s ongoing labor dispute will be settled and he will be back to work as an actor. Before the strikes, he spent almost a month filming in Phuket, Thailand, alongside actor Benjamin Bratt. 

“If and when I have to go to work and not be available, she can take over for the time that I’m away,” Cruz said. “I was hesitant to do it at all because of my schedule. But with Imara there, I feel really confident that the three of us — for the first time in 33 years that the leadership of this organization is all people of color, nonbinary or trans, you know, queer people — that we really reflect who our students are, that need to be helped by GLSEN the most.”

“Mel is nonbinary, I’m trans and then there’s Wilson, who is gay, and we’re all people of color,” said Jones. “I think that it just reflects the need to expand the thinking about who is LGBTQ. I think that for so long we have had very narrow definitions of who we think are ‘our community.’ And especially at this time of, as you said, unprecedented attacks, I think that it’s really important that we have a wide lens of who our community is, so that we can begin to energize people in the way that we need to, and also be able to push for solutions that are going to help us get to another place, because they’re going to include all of us. So, I think that it just is reflective of where we are and is a really positive step forward.” 

“We know from history, from our experience, from after 34 years, that when we do those four things,” said Cruz, meaning GLSEN’s work with state leaders, with federal leaders, with educators and with students. “When we keep a young Black trans girl at the forefront of our minds, we know if we work to make her school experience better, we make the school experience for every student better.”

You can watch an interview with Cruz as well as with the stars of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” and his Q&A with his “Star Trek: Discovery” co-stars by clicking here.

The National LGBT Media Association represents 13 legacy publications in major markets across the country with a collective readership of more than 400K in print and more than 1 million + online. Learn more here: NationalLGBTMediaAssociation.com

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