Clad in a plaid wool suit jacket, tie, and suspenders, and sporting a geometrically fierce haircut, Sara Ramirez's Madam Secretary character is at first glance a far cry from Callie Torres, the character Ramirez bid farewell to on Grey’s Anatomy last year. But judging from first appearances and Ramirez’s premiere episode as political strategist Kat, the character stands to break as much television ground as Callie did when she came out as bisexual on the series nearly a decade ago, which made her one of the first queer women of color on network television.
Considering Ramirez’s personal journey since exiting Grey’s Anatomy, which includes coming out as bisexual in October of 2016 and becoming an even more outspoken activist for marginalized people and the bisexual community (including pansexual, fluid, queer, non-monosexual people and more), Kat appears to be an exquisite fit for Ramirez’s return to the small screen.
A former chief of staff to the U.N. ambassador with some mystery surrounding her departure, Kat arrives at the world of CBS’s Madam Secretary replete with sound advice and sartorial flair; not unlike Ramirez herself.
Ramirez, speaking with The Advocate, was especially energized while attending the BECAUSE Conference to help build empowered bi-plus communities. Ramirez remained coy about whether or not Kat’s presentation telegraphs queerness, but she did highlight a few places where she and the character intersect.
“One thing that I know we have in common is that we both took a step back from our respective fields for over a year,” Ramirez said. “I understand how important it can be to acknowledge when a break is needed, whatever the reasons, especially when the intention is to come home to one's self in ways that couldn’t occur authentically without that time away.”
Ramirez, a Tony winner for Spamalot in 2005 before moving to television, stepped away from the entertainment industry and Grey’s Anatomy six months before she came out publicly at the True Colors Fund’s Forty to None Summit. She’s since worked tirelessly to advocate for LGBTQ people, offering a voice to bi plus people, people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming people, and essentially those most marginalized, even by the LGBTQ establishment.
While Ramirez’s departure from Grey's Anatomy may have seemed abrupt to fans, her return depended on the right role and the right project. The character of Kat came to Ramirez through Madam Secretary’s executive producers Lori McCreary and Barbara Hall. After meeting with Ramirez and hearing her share her journey since exiting the industry, they came back with the character of Kat.
“Ultimately, they are the ones creating this character,” Ramirez said. “But I have appreciated their openness and willingness to collaborate in areas where it may make sense.”
But the appeal to appear on Madam Secretary goes beyond the character. Ramirez spoke ardently about the climate on set and the diversity on and off screen.
“The show is really inclusive. It has an inclusive cast, and crew, and characters. It promotes complex three-dimensional women and their important influential political positions globally in its content and production, which is really exciting,” Ramirez said. “Five-eighths of the writers on the staff are female, the set has inclusive representation on screen and off, and more than 70 percent of the show's directors this season are women or men from diverse backgrounds. And the secretary of state is played by Téa (Leoni), a woman.”
Beyond all of the diversity, representation, and strong female influence driving the series, which takes place in a future election cycle and therefore is afforded the freedom to tell stories that aren’t necessarily steeped in the current near-dystopian state of politics, Ramirez could not be more excited to work with Leoni.
“She is extremely intelligent, talented, welcoming, hilarious, bold. She’s a fierce advocate for her fellow cast; she looks out for the integrity of the show’s storytelling and its characters. She loves her crew,” Ramirez said. “What’s it like working with Téa? It’s like working with an all-around badass who I am so proud to be working with.”
Earlier this month, Ramirez was honored with the Trailblazer Award at the New York City LGBT Center’s 20th Annual Women’s Event, where she gave an impassioned speech about the power of representation and of recognition and safe spaces for the bi plus and trans communities, whose members often intersect in ways that make them increasingly vulnerable. She encouraged audience members to consider ways in which they may have contributed to the erasure of bi plus people by attempting to check one box for them or by ignoring their needs altogether. But she also reached out to her bi plus people with reassurance.
“I know there are people in this room who don't feel safe or comfortable to openly identify as bisexual, pansexual or fluid,” Ramirez said. “I want you to know that despite this, I see you. I was you. I love you. And maybe in a couple of years, we will feel safe enough to show ourselves, and celebrate one another openly without fear.”
While Ramirez took that podium as a strong beacon to those who may yet to come out in marginalized communities or to those who may not feel welcome in LGBTQ spaces, a return to the entertainment industry following a hiatus could prove daunting on some level.
“Stepping back into the entertainment industry is going to be a little different. I think the areas where I don’t feel seen and recognized is in the language used by the media. Especially media that is supposed to be about LGBTQ community, and speaking to LGBTQ community and for LGBTQ community,” Ramirez said.
I think that sometimes the areas I don’t feel seen are in the way some characters are written, the way bi plus characters are written about, or the way that bi plus characters are written to be what their behaviors are, what their attitudes are. Bi-erasure is pretty common in LGBTQ spaces as well as in straight spaces.”
There is work to be done in recognizing, embracing, and celebrating the needs of bi plus people and trans communities, but Ramirez was encouraged by the Nov. 7 election that saw voters elect LGBTQ people in history-making races around the country, including the election of Danica Roem, who is trans, to the Virginia legislature and Andrea Jenkins, a bisexual trans woman of color to the Minneapolis City Council. Jenkins became the first trans person elected to a major city’s governing body and one of the first out trans people of color elected to any office in the United States.
“With the results of the election, inclusive politics is not just an aspiration anymore but obtainable,” she said.
Since art and entertainment reflect the world around us and the personal is also political, Ramirez spoke of her own aspirations for Kat, about whom there is much more for viewers to learn.
“My heart was so full of hope and joy we need to be seen in all spaces,” Ramirez said. “Especially those particularly powerful political ones. And so my intention is for Madam Secretary’s Kat Sandoval to continue normalizing, strengthening and celebrating these outcomes in the real world.”