Wednesday marks National Coming Out Day, and actor and LGBTQ activist Wilson Cruz — who was the first openly gay teen to star as an openly gay teen in the cult show, My So Called Life — is opening up about his own experience.
He’s also sharing hi personal advice for those who are thinking of coming out today.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it was hard,” says Wilson, now 43 and starring on Star Trek: Discovery.
Still, he credits Ricky Vasquez, his My So Called Life character, with changing everything.
“My parents knew I’d auditioned for a gay character, but that’s all the knew,” he tells PEOPLE of his Puerto Rican mom and dad. “I made a deal with myself that if it got picked up, I would come out.”
Before the show began airing, he came out to his mother, which he says didn’t go so well. “But she got over it pretty quickly, because that’s her,” he says.
His father was a different story. “He chased me and kicked me out of the house,” Cruz says. It was Christmas Eve, and without anyplace to go, Cruz wound up sleeping in his car and couch-surfing until they began filming the show.
“My character Ricky Vasquez went through the same experience on the show, and was kicked out of his house,” Cruz says. “I didn’t know my father was secretly watching the show, and when the credits rolled on the Christmas episode, he called me and said, ‘Maybe it’s time we had a talk.'”
Cruz says he went back home and proceeded to have the most heartfelt, loving conversation with his dad. “It was difficult, uncomfortable, but I told him, ‘If we’re having this conversation, you need to ask questions you’re afraid to ask, and I need to answer questions I’m afraid to answer,'” he says.
They did, and with a greater understanding of one another, it brought them closer than ever.
Choking up at the memory, Cruz says, “My dad is now an incredibly important ally of mine. I’m so impressed with him. He’s a hero to me because he put love and his family first.”
But Cruz has advice for those hoping to have a positive experience when coming out.
“When I think about people coming out, especially young people, my first concern is, ‘Are you safe? Is this a safe time? Are you in a safe place?'” he says. “Do you have a network of people outside of your parents you can go to if this doesn’t go as well as you hoped?”
Cruz says his second concern is for their education and wellbeing at school.
WATCH: Orange Is the New Black Star Lea Delaria Says ‘It’s Taken Everybody’ to Achieve Diversity for LGBT Television Characters
“When you’re 14, 15, the most important thing in your life should be education, because that’s what’s going to set you up for success as an adult,” he says. “So if coming out now will hinder your education, maybe we take some time to think about whether the time is right or not. Those are my concern.”
Cruz says he still has people approach him several times a week on the street to tell them what Ricky Vasquez meant to them, or how it inspired them to be okay with coming out. And he understands what they mean completely.
“The show changed my life. When I tell you that I am just as grateful for Ricky Vazquez as much as anyone else?” he says. “I mean that.”