The character of Callie Torres from ABC's Grey's Anatomy has garnered legions of fans throughout the years for bringing much-needed bisexual representation to the TV landscape. Among them is the actor who gave life to her, Sara Ramirez.
"Prior to Callie Torres, I'd never seen myself represented on television," remarks Ramirez, who uses they/them pronouns.
Ramirez won a Tony Award for Spamalot on Broadway in 2005, long before most Americans knew her name. But since then, the Mexican-Irish American actor has become a leading force in visibility. In fact, Callie -- who appeared in 11 seasons and 239 episodes of the Shonda Rhimes series -- is the longest-running LGBTQ+ character in TV history. Callie's influence can't be overstated, and Ramirez credits her with their own growth toward self-understanding. "There was so much I didn't know that I didn't know...so I've caught up with myself in a lot of ways," they reflect.
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The need to move the needle for LGBTQ+ folks was instilled in Ramirez from a young age. Born in Mazatlan, Mexico, they moved to San Diego when they were 8 and later attended Julliard. Early in her acting career, they realized the power of her platform, and "it wasn't enough to play a role or write a check," they say, adding, "I felt the need to get more involved."
A golden opportunity presented itself at a D.C. event for True Colors United, the nonprofit cofounded by Cyndi Lauper that works to end youth LGBTQ+ homelessness. That night, Ramirez and Lauper had a passionate conversation about social justice, and the actor joined the board of directors the very next day. The group "really helped me hone in on my own truth about myself," Ramirez shares. In fact, Ramirez came out as bisexual and queer in 2016 at a True Colors summit. The group later helped them come out as nonbinary in 2020.
True Colors "really brought me into a space where I could explore my own most authentic self in ways that I hadn't prior," says Ramirez, who also found it invaluable to "speak with LGBTQ youth and hear from them what it is they think needs to change about various systems."
The organization awakened Ramirez to how they could leverage her "hyper-privileged" position for positive change in the real world. They began attending protests. Notably, in 2017, they rallied at the Texas State Capitol against anti-trans legislation. However, Ramirez shies away from the activist label. "There are activists, organizers, and movement leaders...[whose work] is life or death for them. They are putting their lives literally on the line for this work for justice," they say. Ramirez is "grateful" to anyone who continues to "to fight the fight in the middle of a pandemic. I mean, I just cannot thank them enough."
Along with Ramirez, the on-screen identities of their characters have progressively evolved. The long-haired femme Callie Torres turned into the butchy, undercut-sporting Kat Sandoval in Madam Secretary. And Ramirez is again breaking new ground in the Sex and the City reboot (HBO Max's And Just Like That...) alongside original stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristin Davis; the show comes out in December. Their character Che Diaz is a stand-up comedian and podcast host who has "this smart and funny and dynamic -- and I've been told sexy" swagger, Ramirez details. The first big-name addition to the cast, Ramirez also portrays the first nonbinary character in the Sex and the City canon.
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As a longtime SATC fan, Ramirez says being on that show has long been "the dream...and when the series ended, I thought, Well, there goes that dream." Thus, Ramirez was "elated" when creator Michael Patrick King offered them the role via a Zoom meeting last January. They are "so grateful for...the entire Sex and the City family for what they started, for this continuation, and for including me in it," they say.
Ramirez's star is only growing. Their fans include a "wild mix of generations" -- from older viewers of Madam Secretary to the Gen Z kids who discovered Grey's while lockdown-bingeing. And Just Like That... will tap into a brand-new fan base. Their acting legacy will be tied, in large part, to the many viewers who have seen themselves reflected in their characters for the first time over the years, a testament to the power of representation. "If we can spark fresh, new conversations in spaces that normally would not be engaging in those conversations, I think that visibility...can change how we view ourselves and the world," they say.
From their identities to mental health issues to activism, Ramirez has been open about many aspects of their personal life to the world -- including their relationships. Their marriage to Ryan DeBolt ended officially this year. In actuality, the two had been amicably separated for several years, with each of them dating other folks without making the big announcement.
Separation is a "very tender and vulnerable" process, Ramirez attests. It was made easier in her case because "we had a foundation of real love.... I am just so grateful that we were able to work through that process with such grace, with such integrity, with such honesty and open communication. We were rooting each other on every step of the way." The pair remain friends and, in the queerest sense of relations, share a sense of humor about the breakup too, with Ramirez recounting a joke made to DeBolt, "I married the right man, because there's no one else I'd rather be getting divorced [from]."
"We have the kind of foundation of love where we can joke like that. But it's because we're holding space for each other as friends," Ramirez says. "But we felt a huge responsibility because we also have family that's going to see this stuff, and we wanted to make sure that we had had private time with them to process before the world was going to process. I'm really, really proud of the way that we have moved through things."
Now 46, Ramirez appreciates the wisdom they've gained from experiences such as these through the years. "Life and its unfolding [are] not linear," Ramirez says. "We don't have to have everything all figured out to be worthy of love. It's the people who can hold space for you -- when you don't have all the answers -- that really matter."
"Life is not over after 40," declares Ramirez, adding, "Of course, there's been heartbreak. [But] I'm surrounded by people who I actually trust to witness my growth as I keep moving forward. So I feel so blessed. I love being in my 40s, I just love it. You couldn't pay me to go back unless I knew everything I know now."
Ramirez loves being a member of the LGBTQ+ community for the support they've found as well as its long history of advocates who fought for a better world. They credit these ancestors with paving the way for her to thrive.
"Our queer and trans community is a resilient one.... We're not going anywhere. We've existed through all of time and space. We're here now, and we're going to be here. So when I think about the history of our people of our community, which spans across the world...I feel empowered within," they say.
Ramirez acknowledges the many pressing issues facing young activists in the world today -- among them climate change, a "racist capitalist" system, and a global pandemic that has worsened inequalities and exposed the vulnerabilities of marginalized communities. "Some people would call this an apocalypse that's unfolding. We are in it," they say.
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The challenges are daunting, but Ramirez wants LGBTQ+ youth to know that older generations are advocating for them. "You are real and valid...there are so many people out there fighting for their right to exist and to access the spaces that bring them joy, where they can thrive in a world that feels quite limited and constrained at the moment," they tell them.
And as Ramirez reflects on the "honor" of being on an Out100 cover, a testament to the vital work they've been doing over decades, they also underscore the power one person can wield in the world to make a difference. "Sometimes, we have to be the hero of our own story.... Sometimes, we are the one we've been looking for."
"I also want to make it clear that the only reason I'm here is because of all the people that my life has touched and whose lives have touched mine," they conclude. "And as empowered as I have grown to be in my life, it's not by being alone. It's by working with others."
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Sara Ramirez is one of seven cover stars of Out's 2021 Out100 issue, which is on newsstands November 30. Since this is also Out's 300th issue, we are running a $3 promotion for a one-year subscription. Subscribe now (the promotion ends on December 1). Otherwise, support queer media and subscribe outside of the promotion -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.