6 celebrity LGBTQ trailblazers on growing up, coming out, and living proud in Hollywood

A raw and honest roundtable discussion with Anderson Cooper, Wilson Cruz, Melissa Etheridge, Neil Patrick Harris, Janet Mock, and Ruby Rose

A writer, a journalist, a musician, and three actors walk into a bar…No, it's not the beginning of a lousy joke — and it's not a bar, but rather a downtown Manhattan studio transformed into the legendary Stonewall Inn. The cover stars of EW's annual LGBTQ issue have assembled to spend a Friday afternoon reflecting on their experiences of coming up, coming out, and living their truths in Hollywood.

"You've invited the coolest folks," music legend Melissa Etheridge declares, looking around at her couch mates for the next hour or so. We think so too.

So here's your seat at the table with: Etheridge, 58; CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, 52; Star Trek: Discovery's Wilson Cruz, 45, who made history when he played Rickie on My So-Called Life; How I Met Your Mother actor Neil Patrick Harris, 45; transgender activist and director Janet Mock, 36; and Ruby Rose, 33, who will star as Batwoman, the first openly gay superhero to headline a TV series, this fall.

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: Have you seen this bar set?

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It's pretty fantastic. It's been 50 years since the riots at Stonewall, so we wanted to pay homage to that major moment in LGBTQ rights history. We're really happy that you all have chosen to be a part of that. What motivates you to be not only visible but also vocal members of the community?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: Oh, well, shoot. Every time one of us who is visible comes out, it is so monumental. I grew up in Kansas in the '70s, and there were no gay people. You know, it was still [considered] a mental-health issue. I remember just seeing the cover of Time that had two men [and two women] holding hands and it was like, "What's this?" Anytime you can do that, it helps people who think that they're alone, who think that there's nobody like them, who think that they can't be happy. You get to show the beautiful rainbow of people.

WILSON CRUZ: I think it's important, in light of recent progress, to remember how we got here and that there was a time when this wasn't possible — that you couldn't walk down the street in major cities holding your partner's hand and being your entire self.

ANDERSON COOPER: It's interesting how rarely you see a man and a man or a woman and a woman holding hands walking down the street. Maybe you see it in gay neighborhoods, but I travel around the country all the time, and I can tell you, you don't see it in airports, even in New York.

HARRIS: It's totally to the normalcy element of it. I think the more examples there are on TV, in a magazine, in music, then the less strange it seems to see two people holding hands. Because you've seen it before, right? I feel like that's what our potential obligation can be. Some people choose to be big activists and really try and move the needle and make a big difference, but other people can just exist. And I think just existing, in a lot of ways, creates change as well.

Melissa mentioned the cover of Time, but what were the touchstones for the rest of you that gave you the hope that you could live the life that you inevitably wanted to live?

JANET MOCK: What's so wild to me is Wilson Cruz playing Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life was one of those for me. The fact that there was this queer, gender-nonconforming, discarded, homeless youth that looked like me and my people and my communities, that was deeply affirming to see.

CRUZ: Thank you for saying that. Because, for me, there really was no one. I combed the magazines and searched for someone that I could relate to, and it wasn't until I read James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, in my bedroom, by myself, that I understood that I could be a gay person of color who was smart and fierce and could write. He gave me permission to be me. And he was long gone by then.

COOPER: We really do stand on the shoulders of generations of people who have lived and died before us, often in silence. They were literally being hospitalized or forced hospitalization or in jail, but they still found ways to love. It's sad but also has always made me hopeful. I am so moved when I think about our history.

RUBY ROSE: I was very isolated in a country town in Australia. I would try to find someone that I could identify with on television, and it would be someone that would pop up randomly in a daytime soap — don't ask me why I was home on a school day. I would be like, "Oh my goodness, this is a bisexual woman," but then she would die in some spectacular fashion after an episode in a tidal wave that only killed one gay person. And that would always be devastating, and I would stop that show. Really, the only one that was consistent, and it's more of an assumption, is Xena and Gabrielle's story [on Xena: Warrior Princess]. She was a strong woman and [there was] this other strong woman, and they needed each other, and they loved each other, and they were gentle, but then they were like, "Lalalalalalala!" It was what I really needed at that age.

HARRIS: For me it was Ellen's coming out and the magazine cover that said, "Yep, I'm Gay." I thought that was really amazing. I liked the "Yep" in it. It seemed relatively inconsequential. It didn't seem like big news, even though it was the cover of this magazine. And now, look at what she's done. She's been accepted almost uniformly and been able to create great positive change in so many ways, daily.

MOCK: That story is a story of resilience as well, right? That wasn't automatic.

HARRIS: For sure. People had to band around her a little bit.

ETHERIDGE: It's a beautiful community we had there in Hollywood. It was supportive, and we all kept saying, "Are you gonna come out? Are you gonna come out?" And one at a time [we did] and we really supported each other. We call it the gay community, or whatever we wanna call it, the rainbow community. It does that. Each of us can relate in that one way even though we're so different in so many other ways.


How was coming out publicly different from coming out privately?

ETHERIDGE: I personally came out when I was leaving home when I was 18. I'm like, "I'm gay!" And they were like, "We know!" My mother didn't talk to me for a while, but that all came back. Then I entered Hollywood, and the funny thing was, the only work I could get as a musician was at gay bars. Every-place else, you pay to play. It was crazy. I started working in lesbian bars, which was fun, but it was hard to get people to come see me. And when they did, it was like, "Yeah, I'm gay, and here I am playing." I got turned down by every record company. But finally, when Chris Blackwell signed me to Island Records, he said, "Okay, what are we gonna do about this gay thing?" And I said, "I don't know. I'm not gonna be anyone I'm not." And he said, "Well, as long as you don't flag-wave."

There was this funny "don't ask, don't tell." Nobody in the press would ask in the '80s, early '90s. I kept thinking, "All you gotta do is look up where I used to play and you can figure it out." And nobody asked. It wasn't until I did a lot of work for Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign — I met so many incredible gay leaders and I went to the inaugural ball, and we had the [LGBTQ] Triangle Ball, it was the most fun ball of all, of course. And I just said, "Oh, I'm gay." There comes a time when you just…you just do it.

COOPER: I came out in high school to my friends. I was in love with this guy and I was so desperate, I just asked all my friends how I could get him. And I sort of always felt like, I was out, I had boyfriends, I'd go dancing, I'd go to bars and stuff. But reporters didn't really talk about their personal lives. And then, with Twitter and the internet, suddenly you could access something about anybody. And the expectation became "You're a public person, you should be public." And in the world of journalism, that was kind of still…I don't know. It was a difficult thing to navigate.

I was traveling in the Middle East a lot. I spent most of my early years in war zones. And I'd gone to a lot of countries where it's illegal and where, at the time, I had no security. I was by myself in Somalia and all these places and it was just easier not to say something. But I reached a point where, by not saying something, I realized I was saying something. Oftentimes you hear, "Well, why should I have to come out? I'm open in my private life. I'm not hiding anything. I never pretended." But it does make a difference. So I thought about it a long time. I spent a lot of time writing out an explanation, a letter. And I decided not to try to make a big deal about it at the time. I just published it on a website of a friend of mine, Andrew Sullivan, and that was it.

It was actually funny because I was in Africa shooting something when it was published, and I didn't realize I was in a place that had absolutely no cell-phone service for three days. But as soon as I got to Johannesburg, my phone lit up. And I'd realized I'd forgotten to tell my mom I was making this announcement. I'd come out to her a long time ago, but she was like, "Oh, you could've given me a heads-up!"

HARRIS: I was the same as Anderson for a long time. I wasn't trying not to reveal myself. I just thought, as an actor, you need to have the opportunity to be seen as a bunch of different things without a potential bias from someone else. I do magic, and magicians as well don't want anyone to know anything about them. And so I didn't deny anything at all. But then I was dating my now husband [David Burtka] and I realized it was most disrespectful to him to go in the car to an opening of a movie, and then I would go down the carpet and he would go with our publicist, behind where the camera guys were, and we'd meet up at the end. And it just felt disrespectful. All that said, though, I don't think that anyone should be told when anything is supposed to happen.

ROSE: I actually got outed by one of those [blind items in a magazine]. I was just like, "What took you so long?" Because I came out when I was 12 and my mom was like, "Yeah. I know." I started working at MTV and everyone knew, and they were discussing, "When that time comes, how do you want to approach it?" And I was just like, "What do you mean? I just say it." And they're like, "No. Do you think…?" Some were worried about me coming out as gay and suggested I try coming out as bisexual, and I was like, "No! I don't know how to pretend to be bisexual. That's weird!" I don't even know what that looks like because I've only ever been gay.

MOCK: When I was 26 I decided to step forward, and be open, and invite the world into knowing that I'm trans. Having grown up in Hawaii, I came out at 12 years old and transitioned through middle school and high school. And so, when I went to college and grad school in New York City, I didn't think that it was something that I needed to go up and say, "Hi, I'm Janet. I'm trans." I came there to be a writer, right? I wrote for a number of years at your sister publication People. And I was following certain stories like the murder of Larry King [the out teen who was killed by a classmate in 2008]. I saw the suicide of Tyler Clementi.

We covered both those stories for PEOPLE. They were on the cover. And there was a part of me that just felt like I had a different, affirming experience that I hadn't seen. And I was holding on to that. And the reason I wanted to write was that I could tell the truth. In that sense, my career, for me, really started when I stepped forward and told my own story. As a young trans person of color, there had been no affirming images for me. And so I was basically like, "Bitch, I guess you gotta do it."

CRUZ: And that was the case for me, almost verbatim. I was 20 years old when I did My So-Called Life, and I was playing the first gay teenager [series regular] on primetime TV. And so it was not lost on me, the responsibility that came with that. I literally came out to my parents because of My So-Called Life, because I knew I was gonna come out publicly and I was like, "Well, I should probably tell them first." But it was a conscious choice. And it was a conscious choice for people like you, [Janet,] because it was lonely out there. And then, to be inspired by you in return is a full-circle moment for me.


Do you feel like coming out helped your career? Hurt it? Both?

ETHERIDGE: I went from selling about a million records each record to coming out, putting out the next record, and it sold 6 million records. I [joke that] my coming out was a publicity stunt.

ROSE: Gay for pay, honey.

ETHERIDGE: There you go. It's working for me. All of a sudden I had more press than I ever had. And it was awkward press. I'd sit down, and these poor reporters, some interview with The Des Moines Register or something, and they're asking about being gay. And I just kept answering the same questions over and over. But I realized, this is the first time they've been asked.

CRUZ: I think it changed the trajectory of my career. When I came out in the mid-'90s, I think there was a hunger to tell LGBT stories, but there was a lack of people willing to play those roles. And so, after My So-Called Life was canceled, people started to call me because they knew I was not only willing but excited to play them.

MOCK: My initial goal, when I came to New York, was to be the features editor of Vogue. But I think that if I didn't tell my own story, I would not have written two books and been able to help shape and create [Pose,] one of the most trailblazing TV series, well, ever.

HARRIS: I was a little bit concerned because I was on How I Met Your Mother where I was playing a very, very straight, alpha male, best friend kind of guy. I was concerned that the writers would feel like they needed to write jokes for me differently. And that wasn't the case — I just kept playing it. And I'm happy. My job as an actor is to play as many different types of roles as I can. And so, I'm just trying to be turning on as many different demographics as possible. For me, when that happened and I was able to stand taller and be who I actually was, then I could flirt with guys, I could flirt with girls, and I could flirt with older people and young. It almost made it more inclusive, as opposed to more marginalized. I like flirting.

ROSE: Like when we first met and you told me I look like a 12-year-old boy? Like that? 'Cause honey, it worked.

HARRIS: I said you were gorge first! I was afraid you'd be offended.

Rose: [Laughs] No! I said, "Thank you so much!"

We are in a time of major evolution in the vocabulary we use to describe LGBTQ people, so that fear of offending is not uncommon when it comes to pronouns and terminology.

MOCK: Young people have always been at the beginning of every major movement. We cannot forget that it was a bunch of homeless trans and queer people on the streets who rioted at Stonewall, who were at the Compton's Cafeteria riot, who were also part of ACT UP. They're always going to push you. So, when I think about ways that language and identities and expressions have evolved, I look to young people to help guide me.

CRUZ: I was a young activist, right? And when you're a young activist, in my experience, you do a lot of talking, because you must. And then I started working at GLAAD as an older activist, and I learned you have to listen. And I got called out while I was working at GLAAD. And it was the biggest learning moment I've had. I was called out on my own bi erasure by a fellow activist, and she's my friend, Sara Ramirez. She was like, "You might wanna take a look at this." And my reaction was defensiveness right away. I think that's a human reaction. But then I learned how to listen.

HARRIS: You have two choices in that: You can be tolerant and go, "Okay," or you can have "What? This is…I will never!" It's a hard skill to try and wrap your head around, but our [8-year-old] twin boy and girl, they can be tolerant of differences.

MOCK: Ruby's own career, and your own way in which you've talked about being gender-fluid, that messes up the way that people think about queer people.

ROSE: Yeah. I came to the States to get into acting, and I couldn't even get a manager or agent, so I made a short film based on my life because I had the time to do it. I put it online, just to say, "This is something I wanted to do," and it went viral, which I didn't ever expect. And then I got an opportunity to audition for Orange Is the New Black because they wanted to have a gender-neutral character. But I've also gotten backlash. And that's when you realize you have to keep up with the terminology. When I got cast as a lesbian on Batwoman, I didn't know that being a gender-fluid woman meant that I couldn't be a lesbian because I'm not a woman — not considered lesbian enough. My initial response was "Pfft!"

And then I was like, "Wait. Let me just figure this one out. How do I right this wrong, because if someone out there is upset by this, I need to know why and how to fix it." That's when I sort of said, "I'm a woman that identifies as a woman. I'm not trans. But if being gender-fluid means that I can't identify as a woman at any point, then I guess I can't be that." Maybe I need to make up another term, one that doesn't step on any toes. One where I can be fluid in my gender, but also a lesbian, because otherwise I'm not sure what I am.

ETHERIDGE: I think the English language fails us. I think we have a miserable language that was born of duality: You were either a man or a woman.

ROSE: We're all just human.

COOPER: I think it's gonna be really interesting to see the future of what gay life becomes. The way I grew up and the way new generations of gay people have grown up is so different — and that's a remarkable thing.

For more on Stonewall and LGBTQ+ pop culture you need to know about, pick up Entertainment Weekly's special double issue on stands Friday. You can buy all six covers now, or purchase your individual favorites featuring Anderson Cooper, Wilson Cruz, Melissa Etheridge, Neil Patrick Harris, Janet Mock, and Ruby Rose. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. And if you want to get involved in LGBTQ causes, donate to The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, a nonprofit that seeks to eliminate the social intolerance affecting members of the LGBTQ community.