Rickie Vasquez stands on the front steps of his high school, in a floral shirt, buttoned up all the way, and a maroon vest—soft-butch style. He’s 15 years old and his straight best friend is Angela Chase. Rickie’s got a crush on a straight boy, and Angela says she understands his pain—she too has a crush on a boy who won’t notice her. Rickie looks at Angela. He decides to swallow what he is actually thinking but, as a viewer, if you’re paying attention, it’s easy to interpret what’s on his mind: No, Angela, you *don’t* understand what it means to be me.
It’s a terrific scene about the way straight people misunderstand queer oppression, the kind of nuanced representation we need on TV today—and it aired 25 years ago, on My So-Called Life.
I was first introduced to the hit ABC show—and Rickie Vasquez—in my best friend Zoe’s attic when I was around 15, but the show aired earlier than that, from 1994 to 1995. In 1994 there weren’t queer characters on TV, and people like RuPaul were the punchline of late-night jokes. The queer plot tropes we see on TV now—like the special coming out episode, or the unwanted sexual advances from a queer person on a straight person plotline—hadn’t yet emerged, which is what makes Rickie Vasquez an important anomaly. Not only was he the only queer character in an otherwise straight primetime lineup—Rickie was defying queer tropes before queer tropes even existed.
Queer trope #1: Defined identity
Rickie was the first openly queer character I had ever seen on a TV show, soon-to-be followed by Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But unlike Willow, who was a conventional-looking woman with superpowers and a girlfriend, Rickie didn’t have passing-privilege, or have sex, or have magic. He was a kid whose housing and access to meals was precarious. Unlike Willow’s defined and easy-to-follow plotline, Rickie’s queerness was unspecific. In some episodes, characters referred to him as bisexual, other times people called him gay and sometimes characters wondered if Rickie was trans, since Rickie regularly used to the girls’ washroom. His fluidity resonated with me. While the queerness in Buffy felt like a poster for the queer life I was supposed to aspire to, Rickie’s queerness felt like the life I was already living—a life of fluctuating interpretations of my gender and sexuality. On the street, I’ve been called everything from a dyke to a fag, and bunch of things in-between. The uncertainty with which Rickie was perceived created a character that seemed to confused the world as much as I did.
Queer trope #2: The Gay Best Friend
The Gay Best Friend, which we’ve seen in Will & Grace, Glee, Ugly Betty and other shows, became well-worn after Sex and the City introduced Stanford. My So-Called Life didn’t ignore this phenomenon—Rickie’s best friends are straight women—but unlike Sex and the City’s Stanford, Rickie doesn’t play into a stereotype of a G.B.F. who lives to talk about style and do emotional labour for their straight friends.
When we first meet Rickie, there’s exactly one person, Rayanne Graff, who is willing to be seen with him at all. Rickie’s not the easy-to-please gay best friend who spills his guts all the time, he’s an isolated queer person, who keeps his feelings close to the chest, and who takes friendship where he can find it. And sometimes, that means choosing to put up with straight arrogance when that hurts less than being alone.
Rarely do we get to see a scene like the one between Rickie and Angela, where a queer character is being told they are understood, and that queer character is allowed to feel—even if they don’t voice it—like the understanding on offer is not good enough. Stanford never side-eyed Carrie. Stanford felt like an example of what straight culture expected me to want out of friendship with straight people—that straight culture expected me to be endlessly grateful for any friendship at all, even if that friendship demanded I be as deep as a puddle. Rickie’s tense, tongue-biting in the face of being patronized underlined what I already felt, even as a young teen: that reductive understandings from straight people are not the allyship queer people need.
Queer Trope #3: Queer homelessness is straightforward
When TV audiences are shown a young queer person becoming homeless, they are conditioned to assume that a very obvious manifestation of homophobia is the cause: The queer kid will say, “Mom… Dad… I’m gay,” and then an angry parent will say, “Get out!” The “Black Girl Magic” episode in Season 3 of Queer Eye is an example of this. The clear-cut unfairness of Jess Guilbeaux’s situation was easy for Fab Five audiences to comprehend. Too often, overt bigotry is the story in a family home—but it’s not the only story, and subtler narratives about the factors that lead to queer homelessness rarely make it to TV. For example, where’s the multi-episode arch where a queer person suffers consistent microaggressions from their family, but the family members themselves are unaware that they are enacting microaggressions, so the queer kid behaves resentfully at home, and then the parents kick that kid out for what they perceive to be a lack of gratitude? I’d like to see that plotline.
The single-narrative we see on TV about queer homelessness is harmful. It actively teaches queer audiences to dismiss the discrimination we’ve faced if it isn’t as blatant as what happened to Queer Eye’s Jess. In My So-Called Life, Rickie never comes out to his family. While he doesn’t pass as straight, he isn’t bringing a boyfriend home, either. All the show offers about Rickie’s homelessness is that Rickie is beaten, and after being beaten he has no home he can go back to. Later on, while Rickie’s bouncing around staying other places, we find out that his family has moved without giving Rickie their new address. Beyond these facts, Rickie refuses to explain more detail, and really, why is anyone entitled to the details when all that’s relevant is already obvious: Rickie needs help. Is Rickie beaten, and does his family move away because Rickie’s queer? My So-Called Life never answers these questions, because the answer to those questions doesn’t help Rickie.
The show engages with the topic of queer homelessness, which is essential, because a disproportionate number of homeless people are queer. But the show does not need to draw a cause-and-effect link between Rickie’s queerness and his homelessness to make it worth talking about, and that’s important. I’m a queer person who was kicked out by parents, and while, yes, biphobia was part of what I experienced at home, I can’t say I was kicked out because I came out—but I can say that biphobia added to existing frictions. The way Rickie’s homelessness was portrayed makes me feel seen to this day, because it tells audiences that being queer, and how that interacts with different areas of our lives, doesn’t need to be straightforward to be true. And moreover, just because queer people need support doesn’t mean straight people are entitled to a voyeuristic, tell-all tour of our lives.
My So-Called Life didn’t just create a queer character—they created a real person. Rickie mattered to me when I was in my best friend’s attic, because I needed to see a queer person on TV, period. But today, Rickie matters to me because in My So-Called Life, his queerness wasn’t served up for straight audiences (or the straight characters on the show) to be able to put their finger on. Queerness doesn’t need to be easy to understand to have a place in My So-Called Life—and that’s what gives Rickie Vasquez the kind of authenticity and dignity I want out of queer representation today.
Netflix’s Tales Of The City Made Me Rethink What I Want From Chosen Families
Season 3 of Queer Eye Is Unlike the First Two—and That’s a Good Thing
Someone Great Makes All the Points About Representation That Gina Rodriguez Didn’t