In a much-discussed “comedy gig” on “And Just Like That…,” HBO’s “Sex and the City” sequel series, much-discussed character Che Diaz tells his coming-out story to members of his family.
“I stood up in the living room and was like, ‘Family, I love you and I just want you to know that I’m queer, non-binary, and bisexual,'” Che told the audience with a serious face, before breaking into a broad smile. “And they were like, ‘That’s good, can you move? You’re blocking the game.’
The track was similar to how Sara Ramirez, the actor who plays Che (and who, like Che, is non-binary and uses singular pronouns), came out to their family as bisexual – except that a “Harry Potter” movie was on the television instead of sports.
The writers of “And Just Like That…” didn’t take much else from Ramirez’s life, the actor said in a recent interview. Aside from the character’s hairstyle (a clean cut) and his ethnicity (Mexican and Irish American), “I don’t recognize myself in Che,” Ramirez said.
A cocky, fast-paced comic that employs Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) on a gender and sex podcast, Che is often a conduit for the show’s original girl group (minus one) to learn more about the new cultural practices in New York City. young progressives: pronouns, sex positivity and shotgun weed, to name a few. More importantly, Che inspires Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) to explore her sexuality.
The show, which will release its season finale on Thursday, has been critical for his rough handling of identity issues and for the occasional clumsiness of its efforts to diversify the mostly white, straight original series. (New York Times reviewer Maya Phillips called these attempts “commendable but superficial.”)
Che has been a popular target of such complaints. A critic, writing in Them, an LGBTQ news and culture website, said the character read like a “caricature” meant to “gather Diversity Wins.” The daily beast went further, calling Che “unbalanced” and “the worst character on TV”. On social media, viewers groaned at Che’s “wake-up moment”! button, a podcast prop and sometimes stuffy dialogue. (“DM me if you want to relax again soon, okay?” Che says to Miranda in a pivotal scene.)
Others have defended the character, arguing for the importance of a non-binary person on the show and wondering why so many people were piling on Che, in particular. “People have a real problem with gender non-conforming individuals,” the interpreter Lea DeLaria told the New York Post, adding, “I don’t think it’s the show’s fault. I think it’s the public’s fault.
Speaking via video chat from New York, Ramirez, 46, said they had grown accustomed to playing roles that draw criticism and debate. For example, the sexuality of Dr. Callie Torres, the tireless orthopedic surgeon whom Ramirez played in Shonda Rhimes’ medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” from 2006 to 2016, was vigorously dissected by fans of the show.
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Ramirez – who was born in Mazatlán, Mexico, and was sent to live in the United States at age 7 after their parents divorced – graduated from Juilliard in 1997 and quickly landed theater roles (the Broadway musical “The Capeman”), in cinema (the romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail”) and television (the soap opera “As the World Turns”). Ramirez joined ‘Grey’s’ shortly after winning a Tony Award in 2005 for playing the Lady of the Lake in the Broadway production of “Spamalot”.
It wasn’t until after Ramirez left “Grey’s” that they publicly came out as bisexual and then, four years later, as non-binary. In an interview, the actor discussed the appeal of the original “Sex and the City,” viewer reactions to Che Diaz, and the pressure of coming out on TV before doing it in real life. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You were in your early twenties when “Sex and the City” premiered in 1998. What were your impressions of the show?
I had just graduated from Juilliard. I was working professionally as an actor and falling in love with New York. So it was a perfect show. I enjoyed the focus on friendships, the power of friendships and the power of personal purpose as well as female sexual empowerment.
Your first high-profile TV role, Callie Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy,” demonstrated a similar sense of purpose and empowerment. Did you get attached to this character?
I was really excited to take on a role that was very powerful, strong, but also extremely sensitive and vulnerable. I bonded with this because of my own upbringing and some of the trauma I’ve overcome. I’ve developed a very hard shell, and I’m also extremely sensitive at the same time.
How did Callie come to explore her sexuality on the show? Did your own experiences play a role?
I knew I was bisexual from an early age, in my teens, and it was a gradual process of discovery. So living with this truth about myself was one thing; it was another thing to work in television and slowly become more well-known. So on the one hand, I felt a sense of pressure to come out publicly. On the other hand, I wondered if I could have a creative impact by infusing the character I was playing with a more expansive sexuality.
Were you nervous about pitching this plot to creator Shonda Rhimes?
I think it was a mixture of comfort with Shonda and nervousness, mixed with excitement in the face of the unknown. If she says no, that would be disappointing – but on some level a relief. If she says yes, it’s excitement and terror that we could be wrong.
What do you mean by being wrong?
Simply failing the community – portraying someone in a way that would be detrimental to the community, that would be considered inaccurate in some way. I think it comes with an internalization of bi-antagonism. I was conditioned to believe there was only one way to be queer in those days.
Do you remember getting any comments from viewers about the path Callie ultimately took?
Social media hadn’t taken off when we started exploring this journey for Callie [in fall 2007], and the only thing available was chat rooms, online forums, or comments on websites. I checked it a few times, and it was a mix of different opinions, which is great in a way, because you want people to have opinions. I think it’s a good thing to get people talking. But I’ve learned that it’s not a good idea to lean into any of them because opinions are vast and as an artist I have to protect my process.
You didn’t come out publicly until you left the show. What was it like playing a bisexual character on TV, but still struggling with whether or not to be open about your own sexuality?
It was incredibly stressful. I was living with a lot of anxiety – and I happened to be married to a cisgender man. Living the life of a bisexual person in real life but deep down knowing there would be all kinds of judgments around my own sexuality was really hard to live with while portraying someone who is becoming more empowered to be with women. It was a very interesting time.
There is less overlap between you and Che Diaz. Did you pay attention to criticism of the character, or did you try to separate yourself from it?
I’m very aware of the hate that exists online, but I have to protect my own sanity and my own artistry. And that’s much more important to me because I’m a real human being. I’m really proud of the representation we’ve created. We built a character who is human, who is flawed, who is complex, who is not there to be loved, who is not there for anyone’s approval. They are there to be themselves.
I don’t know how to write either. I salute the passion people bring to the table around this performance. But in real life, there are many different human beings who come to the table, speaking truth to power in myriad ways. And they all land differently with different people. And Che Diaz has his own audience that he talks to that really appreciates what he does.
How do you think Che would respond to this criticism?
Michael Patrick King [the showrunner of “And Just Like That …”] and the writers room would probably answer best since they wrote the character of Che Diaz. I imagine Che would have something very witty and silly and funny as a rebuttal; something that ultimately reminds everyone that they are human; something with a pinch of self-mockery, because I think they know they’re narcissistic. And maybe just a little reminder that no one is perfect.