On last night’s season 12 Grey’s Anatomy finale, Callie Torres said goodbye to Seattle Grace. She didn’t get shot or stabbed or blown up by a bomb trapped in a patient’s stomach; she didn’t get hit by a train or smashed by a car or thrown from a plane; she didn’t get flattened by an earthquake or leveled by stray shrapnel or sucked up into a tornado and flung through the sky to Oregon. She didn’t even get swallowed up by the Parking Lot of No Return like her first girlfriend, Erica Hahn. Callie simply reached a custody agreement with her ex-wife, and walked out the door to go to New York with her girlfriend, Penny. An exit that un-traumatic, on Shondaland, is like ascending to the right hand of God.
Sure, I wish Callie and Arizona had been able to work it out. Or, if they hadn’t, I wish Callie had left the show with a relationship that had some resonance, even just a little spark. And, well, while I’m wishing, I also would have loved to see Callie leave without the bizarro out-of-character behavior that led up to her exit, forcing her friends to take sides in an ugly custody battle. That’s no way to remember the most beloved bisexual character in the history of TV!
I didn’t love the way she left, but I will never forget the way she got there.
Eight years ago, the world was a very different place for gay women. The end of 2008 saw California pass its now infamous Proposition 8, a voter-approved ballot initiative that overturned California’s same-sex marriage law and made it illegal for gay people to get married. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still going strong. We were facing a pandemic of gay teens committing suicide after being bullied by their parents and peers. President Obama was still four years away from from supporting marriage equality.
We knew nothing was going to change in the real world if gay representation didn’t change on TV, and there was nothing to watch on TV! The L Word was on its way out, South of Nowhere was airing its final episodes, and Cashmere Mafia — our one hope for representation on broadcast network TV — had gotten canned after seven episodes. We sustained ourselves watching Skins and subtitled soaps on YouTube, but those portrayals of queerness didn’t force Americans to grapple with their ignorance or bigotry.
Into that bleak void wandered Callie Torres. She arrived on Grey’s Anatomy in season two as a love interest for George O’Malley, but she quickly became a fan favorite and was elevated to series regular and then main character. Callie was tough but vulnerable, unapologetically competent, smart and sarcastic, a proud Latina, and one day she just fell for a woman. It didn’t work out with her and Erica, but then she fell for another woman — an unprecedented turn of events, actually. In 2008, established female characters who kissed guest starring female characters on the mouth only ever did so for three episodes at most, and then it was back to men and never a mention of their queerness ever again. But not Callie!
The golden days of Callie and Arizona’s relationship played out on one of the most watched TV shows in America, at a time when Americans were trying to decide whether or not they were cool with gay people having the same civil liberties as straight people. The GOP and evangelical Christian leaders hammered home the message that gay people were faithless deviants, but Callie and Arizona contradicted that lie in 12 million living rooms every single Thursday night. Callie came out to her super religious dad, who didn’t take it so well, but ultimately embraced his daughter’s sexuality. Inside the show, Callie’s bisexuality was never an issue with her co-workers and friends, and when she and Arizona got married, the doctors at Seattle Grace cried as much as we did.
Callie was extra special because she identified as bisexual, actually said the word “bisexual” out loud on television. She had deep, life-changing relationships with men and women. But Grey’s Anatomy‘s writers never leaned into the tired, damaging tropes that have plagued bisexual representation on TV and in movies forever. She wasn’t a psychopath. She wasn’t depraved. She wasn’t unable to commit or remain monogamous. She wasn’t a prop for a threesome, a ratings stunt, or a gateway for the male gaze. Callie was a complicated, fully-realized woman who loved men and later recognized she loved women too. And she refused to apologize for either.
Things have changed so much since Callie came out, in large part because Callie came out. She clocked 240 episodes on Grey’s Anatomy, making her the longest running queer character in television history. And after she came out, 227 more lesbian and bisexual TV characters made their way into the world.
Callie confronting her father about his unwillingness to accept her sexuality is one of my all-time favorite TV moments. It makes me cry every time.
Jesus may be her savior, but in one of the bleakest moments of visibility in modern gay rights history, Calliope Torres was ours. She told America they couldn’t pray away the gay, and she was right, and we believed her.