An occasional series where we pose some questions to local LGBTQ folks (and Allies) to learn more about their personal experiences with LGBTQ culture. Click here for a complete list of all LGBTQ&A profiles.
Natalia is one of my favorite people holding office. And I run into her in the most unexpected places, often in line at events she comes out to support. Or in the occasional Twitter exchange on a social justice issue. And – lately – her staff have been working with me on the City’s blockade against this blog. Rather than simply fix the “Sue’s blog” problem – her team are looking at the big picture issues, policy, procedures and best practices. I love that! Natalia is great for Pittsburgh – smart, hard-working, savvy and unbowed by misogynistic crap. Read this (very very long – she really invested in her answers!) interview and you will see that Natalia truly cares about the LGBTQ community, cares about being a good ally and goes to great lengths to make that happen.
Natalia is helping create a better life for today’s Rickie Vasquez!
Name Natalia Rudiak
Affiliation Member of Pittsburgh City Council, District 4.
Tell us about the very first LGBTQ person you met and what that meant for you. I would say high school was when some of my peers officially came out. I don’t want to tell someone’s very personal story without their permission, so without getting into the details, I was one of the first people who these friends came out to. I remember feeling a palpable sense of relief that they could finally be themselves to the world, but a kind of awe of the courage it took to do that. One friend of mine was really depressed, did not fit any particular stereotypes, and I remember there being rumors about whether these revelations were just a cry for attention or help. Thinking about this issue at the time made me realize how I really wasn’t equipped to provide the best support, even though I wanted to be supportive and helpful as a friend. We didn’t have Gay-Straight Alliances back then, and we had neither the mainstream attention to LGBTQ issues nor the LGBTQ role models we have today.
Despite more mainstream attention, however, I cannot speak to whether LGBTQ teens are faring better today. I see that social media has, in many ways, created an expectation for private lives to be made more public, all the time. This is difficult on so many levels, because being a teen is confusing enough without the scrutiny of the world upon you. I think this aspect of modern life is important when we talk about bullying in the 21st century. Those of us who grew up without social media cannot truly know how the angst of adolescence can play out in this 24/7 world we live in. Unfortunately, many of the bullies from our high school days are now teaching their children to do the same. We must be sympathetic and listen to young people when they speak of this new reality.
How do you stay informed on LGBTQ issues? I stay informed on LGBTQ issues by listening and talking with LGBTQ friends and colleagues. LGBTQ issues have also found a home more and more in the mainstream media, and on alternative media sites like this one. I am active on social media sites like Twitter and follow you and organizations from Equality PA to the Fenway Institute in Boston. Recently I read this article about homeless LGBTQ youth and it impacted my thinking on the topic. I keep up to date on trending issues and am particularly interested in changes I can affect on the municipal level as a city councilwoman.
What is the most important issue facing the LGBTQ community today? I would say one of the most important issues facing LGBTQ people is the myriad forms of economic discrimination that persist in America today. It has been a tough couple of years for all Americans, but LGBTQ individuals have the added burden of lacking basic partner benefits, or not being protected by employment discrimination laws in many parts of the country.
That being said, there is an entirely separate dimension to this issue that goes beyond the simple economic calculations. Living in a place where it is legal to be fired because you are an LGBTQ person, or being told that the government won’t recognize the relationship you are in is a demeaning and devaluing experience. That is unjust, and it is important to me that our laws be written in a way that values all people and allows them to lead lives with dignity and respect.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community, what would it be? If I could wave a magic wand over the LGBTQ community in Pittsburgh I think I would wish for more unity and better organization. In other parts of the country–even other parts of the industrial midwest–LGBTQ organizations like the Stonewall Democrats have emerged as very powerful and important organizations in local and state politics. That same kind of influence has been elusive in Pittsburgh. We have groups of individuals who have emerged as influential or powerful people in politics, but folks are not often on same side of the political debate. Better organization and more united lobbying efforts for LGBTQ-specific legislation and policy would help the community at large assert itself in local and state politics more effectively.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character in television, film or literature? Rickie Vasquez from My So-Called Life! Not only did this short-lived cult show take place in Pittsburgh, but it spoke to millions of high schoolers everywhere. I don’t recall seeing a character like Rickie Vasquez (played by Wilson Cruz) since this aired. I will let your readers correct me if I’m wrong! I hope I am wrong.
I’ll let this blog post speak to Rickie’s lasting impact on youth and mainstream LGBTQ culture. (And yes, I cried during that overwrought episode too.)
The So-Called Life of Rickie Vasquez
My So-Called Life was a short-lived little series. It was canceled in 1995, after just one season. And yet, those 19 episodes somehow managed to acquire a kind of epic status for a lot of people I know. It’s one of those shows that inspires fans to proclaim on the internet that MSCL is, hands down, the GREATEST SHOW EVER MADE!!!!
I was 14 when the show came on. 18 years later, there are key details that—I can’t help it—make me nostalgic for the earnest, angsty mid-nineties. I remember flannel shirts, Mary Jane Doc Martens, Angela’s flaming red hair that all the ‘deep’ girls copied. Jordan Catalano, the beautiful, brooding object of Angela’s obsession (and that of every other one of my female classmates).
My So-Called Life wasn’t a perfect show, by any means. It could be self-serious, and at its weakest points, cringingly sentimental. But here’s the thing about MSCL—for those of us teens who didn’t really know how to handle adolescence, it was a revelation. What set this show apart from any other TV show about high school was that the people who made it respected adolescents as complicated, thoughtful, intelligent human beings, not idiotic half-adults.
A couple of years ago, I went underground and re-watched every MSCL episode back to back. I rolled my eyes a couple of times. But at other times, I cried. A lot. Episode 15, ‘So-Called Angels,’ is the one that made me bawl the most. In the episode, Angela’s best friend Enrique ‘Rickie’ Vasquez find himself homeless on Christmas Eve. His parents have kicked him out of the house because he is gay. He shows up to school with a black eye, refuses to tell his friends what’s going on or where he’s sleeping. Angela finds him in a squat full of homeless teens, and eventually talks him into spending Christmas with her family.
While the episode seems Christmas-corny on the surface—complete with a holiday angel who appears in the shape of a guitar-strumming homeless girl—nothing is as simple as it seems. Angela’s parents struggle with their own dislike of Ricky, the ‘weird’ friend whose loud clothes and effeminate behavior threaten to derail their previously perfect daughter. Rickie spits at Angela when she tries to help him, and, like many kids who get kicked out, struggles with equal parts pride and shame. Things get resolved, but only sort of. We don’t know where Rickie will end up. His parents are totally absent, and there’s no tearful reunion. Ultimately, we’re left in the middle of Rickie’s situation, wondering what will become of him.
In retrospect, I happen to think that Rickie’s character is one of the boldest and most path-breaking depictions of teenage homosexuality in TV history. At the time this show aired, there was no Glee, no Will-and-Grace, no Queer Eye, no Ugly Betty. While it sometimes seems like every show has a ‘gay angle’ these days, it also seems like these same shows often use their gay characters opportunistically—as sidekicks, punch lines, or a way to ‘get the gay demographic.’ Rickie, on the other hand, is an awkward teenager deep in the confusion of coming out, and it’s not pretty. He doesn’t even know what to call himself—gay? bisexual? In the episode when he finally does let his freak flag fly at the school dance, it’s excruciatingly awesome to watch him take over the floor with Delia, the chubby dork, and rock his patterned vest like his life depends on it.
There’s another thing about Rickie that sets him apart. In a bold move, the creators of the show cast Puerto Rican-American actor Wilson Cruz to play him. Rickie’s ethnicity is subtly, but clearly present—his sympathetic English teacher insists on calling him ‘Enrique’—and adds another layer of exclusion to his outsider status. But much of the credit has to go to Cruz himself, whose own difficult adolescence provided inspiration for much of Rickie’s character. Cruz was the first actor of my generation who came out, stayed out, and played out from the very beginning of his career. Since MSCL Cruz has become a prominent LGBT activist who, among other things, has advocated on behalf of LGBT youth of color like Rickie.
When I first saw MSCL, I didn’t really think I knew many gay people (although of course I did). I led the kind of sheltered suburban existence depicted on the show. Homosexuality was this foreign, dangerous, sinful thing that I had a vague notion was ‘bad.’ My own uncle’s sexuality was still a mystery, and few family members talked about it. And suddenly, there was Rickie. A dork like me. Hispanic like me. Hating high school like me. And I was able to imagine how terrified a kid like him could feel.
My uncle Miguel was never kicked out of the house. He never got a black eye for telling his parents he was gay. But he did run away from home—hopped on a plane and flew from San Juan to Florida when he was Rickie’s age. And like Rickie, he was never fully accepted. He never got to share his love for his partner with his parents. And he died, at the age of 31, being told by his mother that it wasn’t ok to be the person that he was.
As Christmas approaches, I think about all the LGBT teens who hate high school, or want to run away from home, or just want to have a holiday where they feel totally, fully loved.
Eighteen years after MSCL, as I make a documentary about my own uncle’s struggle with his sexuality, I watch this Christmas episode with new eyes. And I give Rickie credit for his part in opening them.
What is one simple thing a reader can do to support the LGBTQ community? Talk to LGBTQ community members. Getting to know an LGBTQ person is the best way to understand the miles walked in another’s shoes. But I’m sure that your readers don’t need this advice, so I will say that the best thing to do is to get more politically involved in local and state politics, especially in groups like the Stonewall Democrats or Equality PA.
Thank you, Councilor.