Sara Ramirez made her debut as Kat Sandoval on CBS’s political drama Madam Secretary back in November, and butch women everywhere sparked with recognition at the reflection of themselves. Kat wears a suit and tie, rocks a pocket chain, and sports a gloriously dapper haircut. Over the last four months, Kat Sandoval has been a consistent presence as Elizabeth’s policy advisor while maintaining her confident, soft butch vibe, but her sexuality had never been explicitly discussed until just recently.
Even within the representation of gay women we get to see on screen, the words “bisexual” and “lesbian” are rarely straightforwardly uttered. Often, coming out story arcs simply include the revelation that a character has fallen in love with a woman after having been exclusively depicted in heterosexual relationships up until that point.
As viewers, we’re often left to make assumptions about the label, if there is one, or we’re forced simply to wait and see who else the character ties herself to in the future. During shows like CW’s The 100, characters like Clarke are just portrayed to be beyond labels as part of a culture where sexuality is anything but taboo and full of restrictions and gender boundaries.
When Kat Sandoval graced our screens, I resigned to the fact that her gayness might be something that’s seen and not really heard. After all, it’s a political drama that focuses on the Secretary of State and international affairs, rarely pausing to delve too deeply into the personal lives outside of Elizabeth and her family. Color me pleasantly surprised, no actually, completely shell shocked and sobbing, to watch Kat sit across from Jay and utter the word “bisexual” to describe herself.
The big, gay episode of Madame Secretary, entitled “Refuge”, comes in hot right out of the gates as it opens with a nightclub raid in Abkhazia. This raid is the fifth reported one in a month, the target of which is to flush out the country’s LGBTQ population, as being gay has just recently been legalized in the country. When the president of Abkhazia is confronted by Secretary McCord, he looks her dead in the eye and proclaims that Abkhazia has no LGBTQ citizens.
As this news breaks, Kat, along with everyone else, is seething with both anger and panic over their lack of immediate options when it comes to getting these refugees someplace safe. She and Jay Whitman, the Chief of Staff, chow down on some Chinese food in the office while waiting for the next step. Over the nosh session, Kat mentions her young daughter Desi, which prompts a question from Jay as to whether she’s on the whole parenting journey alone.
When Kat responds that she co-parents with a man, Jay is visibly surprised, admitting that he assumed the Abkhazia situation was “personal”, meaning she had to be a lesbian in order for that to be the case. In that moment, you can see the tiny glint in Sara Ramirez’s eye because of what she’s about to do. The out bisexual actress came out personally after her Grey’s Anatomy character did, and now she gets to do it again in a skin that she feels much more authentic in.
Kat manages to proclaim both casually and adamantly that she’s bisexual, even furthermore, that she’s fine with “pansexual, fluid, or non-monosexual”. Either way you spin it, she’s comfortable with all of the labels that encompass the fact that she digs folks of all genders. Mic drop. She also describes herself as “queer”, which is rarely spoken on screen. Queer is not a label everyone wants, and it’s not an identifier everyone should be forced to have. The most important and impactful aspect of this entire scene is the character’s ownership. She ticks off the labels she prefers and is okay with, which is something we should all be encouraged to do. We are exactly who and what we say we are, nothing more, nothing less.
Jay goes on to mention that the last time he saw her a few years ago, she looked quite a bit different. Kat chuckles and nods, confirming that she used to walk the halls in heels, dresses, and long hair. She explained that she had looked a certain way in order to “survive and gain access”. When he asks her what changed she says, “I survived and gained access”. Isn’t that the truth for so many of us? We hesitate to be our authentic selves, particularly when doing so has the potential to put us at risk, to give us less than a fair shake because we go against the grain.
The most poignant part of Kat’s answers to these questions revolves around her take on motherhood. She mentions that since having her daughter, she can’t imagine setting an example for her where she presents herself as anyone other than who she really is. As a stepmom, this is where she sucker punch hit right in the heart.
I want my stepdaughter to wear a dress when she feels like wearing a dress, or shop in the boys’ section at the store if she likes the way those shirts fit better. I want her to understand pink isn’t just for girls and Hot Wheels aren’t just for boys, and how can I expect her to believe me if I’m not showing her? And how will she believe me if she doesn’t see anyone else confidently defying those defined lines that have been drawn between feminine and masculine, between straight and gay.
So thank you Madam Secretary, for giving us a character who not only walks the walk, but talks the talk, and taking the time to let her pause and speak her truth. Thank you Sara Ramirez, for bringing yourself to Kat Sandoval, and for claiming her bisexual identity, your drive to “survive and gain access”, and her motherhood on screen. You’re changing lives on a weekly basis, mine included.