'And Just Like That' Star Sara Ramirez Says Coming Out as Non-Binary Was 'Freeing'

"There was so much for me to unlearn," Sara Ramirez tells PEOPLE about their coming out journey

Photo: Paul Gregory

As a young actor in New York City, Sara Ramirez once dreamed of landing a role on Sex and the City.

So now, to be starring on the HBO Max revival, Ramirez, 46, tells PEOPLE: "I am floating on air. And I'm so grateful for the experience I had with everybody."

The part of Che Diaz — an outspoken podcast host and stand-up comic — who is non-binary, comes at a fortuitous time for the former Grey's Anatomy star, who came out as non-binary last year. (Ramirez uses the pronouns they/them.)

"It felt like a really organic, natural fit," says Ramirez. "Che is someone who came out as non-binary later in life and who speaks their truth unapologetically. I thought, 'This character will teach me a lot about how to embrace the power that you have even against systems that would have you shut down.' "

Sara Ramirez and Sarah Jessica Parker.Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

The road to Ramirez's self-discovery has been paved with struggles, but ultimately is one of joy.

"There was so much for me to unlearn, and I faced my own internalized oppression," they say. "In this society, we often feel this pressure to live in these rigid boxes. When I stepped out of the box I had put myself in, I discovered my own possibilities for change."

Ramirez was raised in Mazatlan, Mexico, but was sent to San Diego, California, alone at just 7 years old to live with a family friend following their parent's divorce. "Fitting in can be very complicated," they say of adjusting to life in a new country.

"I was born to a dark brown Mexican father and a white Mexican-Irish-American mother. And there was so much xenophobia against Mexicans. I internalized it as, 'I was born in Mexico and that means I'm not white and that's bad.' "

Ramirez says they now realize that they were non-binary from a young age, but didn't have the language to name what they were feeling. "I felt quite limited in the way that I could exist given that I was assigned female at birth," they shares. "I grew up under these conditions where I had to wear my hair a certain way or dress a certain way, things that felt really rigid and not right for my body."

Paul Gregory

Ramirez, a Juilliard grad who won a Tony for their 2005 role in Broadway's Spamalot, would go on to play groundbreaking roles on television including Kat Sandoval, a policy advisor on Madam Secretary who identified as queer. They also starred on Grey's Anatomy and portrayed Dr. Callie Torres, the longest-running LGBTQ+ character in television history.

Their Grey's Anatomy character came out as bisexual in 2009; at the time Ramirez says they knew they were bisexual themselves but wasn't ready to come out publicly.

"I was really afraid it would hurt my career if I came out as bisexual," they recall. "I was very aware of the bi[sexual] antagonism that exists. But I'm really proud of what we put out in the world. It was definitely disrupting a narrative."

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Adam Taylor/Walt Disney Television via Getty

After the departure from Madam Secretary, Ramirez was inspired by their character and their work with True Colors United, a non-profit dedicated to ending homelessness, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth. Ramirez was also ready to share their authentic self.

"I was able to get a handle on some language that helped me understand myself better," they say. "It's been so freeing to finally know myself and to understand that I live in a more fluid space."

Being non-binary, "isn't about being married to one hairdo or a way of dressing," Ramirez says. "It has more to do with your understanding of gender being on a spectrum. A lot of times you don't feel male or female, other times you feel like both and times you feel like neither."

Ramirez continues, "Freedom requires that we become more vigilant about our lives. For me, it was about taking responsibility for my humanity. I am no longer afraid. And I can finally be my true self."

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