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June 11, 2018 at 12:30 PM EDT

For more from Wilson Cruzpick up the special LGBTQ issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

There was more than just a paycheck at stake for Wilson Cruz while he waited to see if My So-Called Life would be picked up to series.

“I was still in the closet when we made the pilot, but I had made an arrangement with myself that if the show got picked up, that I would come out to my parents,” the actor recalls in the current issue of EW.

It took months, but Cruz eventually got the call—and on Christmas Eve 1993, he told his mom and dad that he was gay.

“It didn’t go well with my dad,” says the actor, who was 19 at the time and living at home. “He kicked me out. I lived in my car. I slept on friends’ couches.”

But three months later, he began filming My So-Called Life—and when the short-lived, critically acclaimed drama launched in August 1994, Cruz became the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character as a series regular on a television show.

“I took it as an opportunity to shed light on LGBT youth issues and give a voice to young people,” Cruz, now 44, says of playing abused teen Rickie Vasquez. “I felt like, at that time, there weren’t a lot of people who were willing to take those roles. Here I was, not only willing but excited to take them—and to make a difference because of them.”

And he knew the only way he could do that was to come out publicly.

“The moment I was told that I was playing [Rickie,] it felt, to me, that it came with the responsibility of coming out—and I was excited about it,” he says. “Now, I can’t say it was exciting for everyone who was representing me, but I didn’t really care.”

RELATED VIDEO: Star Trek: Discovery Star Wilson Cruz On If He’s A Hero, Healer Or Hustler

Cruz won rave reviews for his work on Life, but the series was canceled after one season, and he admits he worried about his next gig.

“I would say, ‘So, what do you think is gonna happen when the show’s over?’ My team was like, ‘We don’t know. We’re gonna have to wait and see.’ ”

But the gigs did come. He joined the Broadway cast of Rent, and has appeared in the film Party Monster and TV shows like Party of Five, Grey’s Anatomy, 13 Reasons Why, Pushing Dasies and more. Off-screen he joined the board of GLAAD, a non-governmental media monitoring organization founded by LGBT people in the media.

But Cruz was offered the chance to break new ground yet again when he was offered a role on CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery, where the actor stars alongside his former Rent castmate Anthony Rapp as half of the first openly gay couple in the Star Trek universe.

“This franchise has been around for over 50 years, and to not have LGBT characters represented was an obvious missing piece of the world,” says Cruz, whose character, Dr. Culber, technically died in season 1 but will return in season 2. (It’s complicated). “So many LGBT people have been fans since the ’60s and have been wanting the LGBT community to be a part of this universe. For them to be thanking us, it’s so moving.”

But Cruz may be even more thrilled about reaching newer Star Trek fans.

“I think about young people who are watching the show and, I hope, feel that their futures are being represented in this relationship,” he says. “That they see our relationships are as worthy of representation as everyone else’s—because they are.”

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