Coming out on Grey's Anatomy: Industry scandal, constructing a lesbian story line, and fan action

Tanya D. Zuk

Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This analysis focuses on a series of industry scandals that created a need for and the development of a lesbian story line on Grey's Anatomy (ABC, 2005–), resulting in the creation of a lesbian-focused fan group dedicated to the lesbian pairing, Erica_Callie on LiveJournal. The resulting constructed representation portrays authentic lesbian and bisexual characters on mainstream broadcast television, promising inclusion to those who identify with these characters.

[0.2] Keywords—Authenticity; Discourse analysis; Emotional realism; Fan studies; Identification; Knight/Washington scandal; LGBT studies; Online ethnography; Production

Zuk, Tanya D. 2017. "Coming Out on Grey's Anatomy: Industry Scandal, Constructing a Lesbian Story Line, and Fan Action." In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

1. Introduction

[1.1] During the 2006–7 television season, the production team and cast for Grey's Anatomy (2005–) dealt with a series of unfortunate industry events that significantly affected the writers' room, cast, and ongoing story lines of the show. An actor uttered a homophobic slur, which received wide media coverage, and which ultimately led Grey's Anatomy to create a compelling, true-to-life lesbian story line.

[1.2] This essay examines the discourse surrounding these events, including news reports and audience reaction to the story lines developed in response to the scandal. The LGBT fan community I examine here is Erica_Callie, a LiveJournal (LJ) community, which was highly active during the 2008–9 TV season, with over 1,800 individual posts and tens of thousands of comments.

[1.3] The production response to real-life events relies on underlying production-culture knowledge of media concepts, such as authenticity, audience identification, and emotional realism, as a remedy for the damage inflicted by the scandal on both the show and the affected LGBT audience. The development of the lesbian story line in Grey's Anatomy was an act of industry public relations; the story line was constructed to develop and resonate with LGBT audiences.

2. Inciting industry incident: The Knight/Washington scandal

[2.1] The introduction of a major lesbian story line on Grey's Anatomy began not in the writers' room but on set with the use of a slur (figure 1). The instigating event occurred on October 9, 2006, when the actors Isaiah Washington (who plays Dr. Preston Burke) and Patrick Dempsey (Dr. Derek Shepherd) had an argument on set. Washington was overheard calling cast mate T. R. Knight (Dr. George O'Malley) a faggot (Wyatt 2007a). News of the incident spread quickly as entertainment magazines, news programs, and major newspapers reported the exchange. Washington publicly apologized to Knight in a press release the next week. On October 19, 2006, Knight for the first time made a public statement regarding his sexual orientation, confirming that he was gay. There were no additional press releases from any of the parties involved in the incident.

Image Transcript:

Title: Coming Out on Grey's Anatomy
Summary: A timeline of industrial and in-text events related to the television show Grey's Anatomy and its ongoing representations of LGBT characters.
Industrial Event 1: On-Set Argument on September 10, 2006
Isaiah Washington and Patrick Dempsey get in an argument on-set. Washington calls fellow actor T. R. Knight 'faggot.' 

Industrial Event 2: T.R. Knight Publicly Outed on October 19, 2006
T.R. Knight makes his first public statement regarding his sexuality, confirming that he is gay.

Industrial Event 3: Golden Globes Incident on January 15, 2007
Washington denies having called Knight a 'faggot' during the post-win interview, while using the word again.

Industrial Event 4: 'Power of Words' PSA Released on May 20, 2007

Industrial Event 5: GLAAD Consults in Writers' Room on June 1, 2007
Nikki Weiss and Trish Doolan, representatives from GLAAD consult on the development of a new LGBT storyline.

Industrial Event 6: Isaiah Washington Let Go on June 1, 2007	
Washington's contract is not renewed and his character Preston Burke is written off the show.

LGBT Storyline 1: 'Piece of My Heart' airs May 1, 2008
Callie and Erica begin flirting.

LGBT Storyline 2: 'Freedom' airs May 22, 2008
Callie and Erica begin dating.

LGBT Storyline 3: 'Brave New World' airs October 16, 2008
Callie goes to Bailey for romantic advice regarding Erica.

LGBT Storyline 4: 'There's No 'I' in Team' airs October 23, 2008
Callie goes to Sloan for romantic advice.

LGBT Storyline 5: 'Life During Wartime' airs October 30, 2008
Callie and Erica consummate their relationship. Erica has her revelation that she is 'so gay.'

Fan Response 1: Scrapbook for Brooke first post on November 1, 2008
Erica_Callie LJ moderators Aly and Alicia begin an online and physical scrapbook campaign.

LGBT Storyline 6: 'Rise Up' airs on November 6, 2008
Erica and Callie have a fight, and Erica leaves the hospital parking lot never to be seen again.

Industrial Event 7: Brooke Smith is Let Go on November 6, 2008
Brooke Smith's (Erica Hahn) main cast contract is broken and the actress is let go from the show, due to 'lack of chemistry' after the first lesbian sex scene on the show.

LGBT Storyline 7: 'Wish You Were Here' airs on January 8, 2009
Arizona Robbins introduced as head of pediatrics. Actress, Jessica Capshaw joins as recurring cast member, and Arizona quickly becomes a love interest for Callie.

Fan Response 2: Brooke Responds on January 16, 2009
Brooke Smith responds to the Erica_Callie LJ community after receiving the physical scrapbook. Her response is shared via a locked member-only community post.

Fan Response 3: Erica_Callie Home Page Change on January 30, 2009
Permanent statement, and perma-link for the Scrapbook project is created.

Figure 1. Detailed timeline of industry events, story points, and fan response. An interactive version is available ( [View larger image.]

[2.2] On January 15, 2007, Grey's Anatomy won a Golden Globe award for best television drama. Washington broke from the cast lineup, approached the press microphone, and denied ever calling Knight a faggot while using the offensive word yet again ("Sound Bites" 2007). Washington's outburst tainted the win by reinvigorating the original scandal. The resulting media frenzy marginalized not only Knight but also the efforts of the cast and crew. After the second incident, Washington fired his press agent, made yet another public apology, met with the president of GLAAD, Neil G. Giuliano, and entered counseling for his behavior (Wyatt 2007b). Washington was not fired outright, but his contract was up for negotiation, and his placement on the program was not assured.

[2.3] In late May, Washington released a public service announcement (PSA) created in conjunction with GLAAD and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which aired on ABC, to further address his behavior (video 1).

Video 1. "Isaiah Washington PSA," pride77777, YouTube, May 24, 2007; "ABC Debuts Isaiah Washington PSA for GLAAD and GLSEN."

[2.4] However, producer Shonda Rhimes deemed Washington's efforts insufficient, and his contract was not renewed. Washington's eventual departure and the events that led up to that decision were directly responsible for the program's collaboration with GLAAD on the development of a new story line for season 4. This lesbian story line was an act of industry public relations, constructed to address LGBT audiences' concerns regarding representation.

[2.5] Nikki Weiss and Trish Doolan, filmmakers and GLAAD representatives, collaborated with the program's producing and writing staff to develop a romantic story line featuring Callie Torres (played by Sara Ramirez) and Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) for season 4. They also spoke with the actresses about portraying lesbian and bisexual identities. Weiss and Doolan stated that the production team "didn't want to stereotype anything" ("Behind the Lesbian Story Line on Grey's Anatomy," 2008) and asked for personal examples for reference. The season 4 cliffhanger, Callie and Erica's first kiss, began the only lesbian/bisexual relationship with "regular" characters on network television at that time (note 1). The success of these characters and the story line is attributed to the detailed, well-developed, and authentic representations that Grey's Anatomy constructed; the program created a set of characters and experiences designed for a specific audience to identify with.

3. Authenticity and emotional realism

[3.1] Creating quality representations involves the concept of authenticity or verisimilitude. Defining authenticity is subjective; Charles Lindholm describes it as "the leading member of a set of values that includes sincere, essential, natural, original and real." The function of authenticity is to provide discernible, if ineffable, qualities through which people can create social groups that provide members with "meaning, unity and a surpassing sense of belonging" (2008, 1). The Grey's Anatomy producers, writers, and cast, through their collaboration with GLAAD, actively pursued the ideal of authenticity when developing the new queer story line by leveraging first-person accounts and LGBT advocates at all levels of production. Notably, Ramirez and Smith's connection with GLAAD's Weiss and Doolan enhanced their performances, making these representations emotionally resonant.

[3.2] In their analyses of fandom communities, Ien Ang and Henry Jenkins both focus on the visceral reaction of the individual to the media text. Ang defines the concept of "emotional realism" as truth of feeling (1984, 41). Emotional realism, when found in actors' performances, intends to be read as emotionally authentic. The audience validates this authenticity by establishing an emotional connection. Henry Jenkins (1992) argues that emotional realism is constructed by the audience through identification with the characters. Representations become authentic for the viewer when he or she identifies with the characters and situations on screen. Grey's Anatomy purposefully constructed story lines and characterizations meant to appeal to a specific minority group as authentic.

4. Erica's epiphany and Brookegate

[4.1] The development of the Callie/Erica romantic story line occurred over the course of two seasons, featuring several episodes devoted to pivotal moments in their relationship. The episode 4.13 "Piece of My Heart" features Callie's resistance to her attraction to Erica. In 4.16–17 "Freedom," Callie and Erica begin awkwardly courting. In 5.04 "Brave New World" and 5.05 "There's No 'I' in Team," Callie goes to friends for romantic advice regarding her new relationship. Though Callie is clearly the dominant character, it is Erica's sexual awakening that is the culmination of the story line.

[4.2] In 5.06 "Life during Wartime," Callie and Erica have sex. In the morning-after scene, both Erica and Callie have a sexual revelation—but not the same one. Erica describes it as an epiphany, like "needing glasses" as a child. However, Callie does not share this revelation; instead, she is alienated by Erica's sexual awaking (video 2).

Video 2. "You Are Glasses!," hobegregg, YouTube, November 3, 2008. Erica Hahn (played by Brooke Smith) and Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), Grey's Anatomy 5.06 "Life during Wartime."

[4.3] These two diverse experiences of a single shared experience are common for individuals discovering their sexual orientation (Stevens and Wunder 2002). Broadcast television does not typically attempt representations of this sort; instead, characters are introduced as already established in their LGBTQ identity, or the coming-out process is glossed over quickly (note 2). Grey's Anatomy, however, depicted awkward moments and struggles in finding a queer identity in a way that was both authentic and distinctive.

[4.4] The framing of the actors' performance and the melodrama presented in the scene emphasize the importance of the narrative moment. The camera creates distance between the characters and highlights the emotional impact of Erica's epiphany. David Thorburn asserts that "television melodrama is an authentically popular art" that derives its popularity from the simultaneous presentation of ordinary reality and heightened emotions that are rarely presented in everyday life but that specifically allow for a connection between audience and performance (2000, 606). Erica is consistently in close-up, which accentuates the subtleties of the actress's performance and heightens the moment's emotional impact. The camera frames Callie in a wider shot than Erica, creating distance between the characters both physically and emotionally. The scene's filmic language directs viewers to identify with Erica's performance and to experience her feelings of emotional distance and rejection. The scene ends with a filmic punctuation as Erica's close-up abruptly changes to a long shot that includes Callie, thus creating a void between the characters. This foreshadows the distance growing between the two characters' mental spaces—and ultimately the demise of their romance.

[4.5] In 5.07 "Rise Up," Erica and Callie have a disagreement over a patient scandal from 2 years ago, which Erica has only now become aware of. The conflict quickly dissolves into an argument about their relationship. In this scene, Erica and Callie start the conversation in a series of medium shots and shot/reverse shots. As Erica becomes increasingly angry, her medium shot tracks into a close-up while Callie remains in a medium shot. Erica's argument is based on a simple sense of morality that has created a binary: good versus bad, white versus black. She sees no moral middle ground in the situation and believes that Callie must side with her in the decision to report the hospital's error.

[4.6] This moral binary quickly shifts to a romantic one, when, at the climax of Erica's tirade, she says, "There is no gray area here…You can't kind of be a lesbian." It is only here that Callie's reverse shot tracks into a close-up. Callie's response is simple: "Yes, I can." Erica turns to leave, and the camera cuts to a long shot of her walking into the night. Erica has broken up with Callie; she has left Seattle Grace Hospital only one episode after declaring her orientation as "so gay."

[4.7] Indeed, Grey's Anatomy eliminated Erica the episode after her spectacular coming-out scene and after only 25 on-screen episode appearances; Smith had a main-cast contract for the season, and her final episode was only the seventh of the 24 scheduled. Though her relatively short run on Grey's Anatomy limited her newly realized representation of a lesbian identity on television, her emotionally authentic representation energized fans to create LJ communities devoted to the character and her relationship with Callie. Smith's firing and Callie and Erica's breakup was dubbed Brookegate by fans of the couple in the LJ community Erica_Callie.

[4.8] Moderators of the Erica_Callie community eloquently sum up the shock of the announcement felt by fans in a statement made January 30, 2009:

[4.9] The Erica_Callie community was stunned at the seemingly cavalier attitude towards an important depiction of lesbian and bisexual women on television. Having viewed Erica Hahn's beautiful coming out monologue only the week before, we were even more invested. It felt very personal. (LJ, rhyfeddu)

[4.10] In November 2008, two community moderators, Aly and Alicia, began an online scrapbook where community members could e-mail or post their appreciation of Smith, the character of Erica, and the representation of a lesbian voice on broadcast TV (figure 2). The "Scrapbook for Brooke" posts have the most comments in the 6-year history of the community, aside from live reaction posts. Aly and Alicia created video blogs of their efforts to create a physical scrapbook to share with the community. They also shared Smith's response to the tribute in a locked members-only post. This call for action, the overwhelming response from the fandom, and the interaction between fans and the show (via Smith) document the strong fan identification.

A collage image including a picture of two young women smiling and a torn piece of notepaper reading 'A Scrapbook for Brooke'.

Figure 2. Cover for fan page "A Scrapbook for Brooke," a tribute to the actress, Brooke Smith, who played the character of Erica Hahn. Smith was fired one episode after her character's coming-out scene. [View larger image.]

[4.11] In January 2009, the moderators created a special entry permanently linked in their layout: "Scrapbook for Brooke" ( This tribute includes graphics and quotes from community members, such as the one shown in figure 3.

As a young person, this says to me that ABC is showing the treatment that we can expect growing up into a nation that, for the most part, refuses to respect us. It is depressing and I don't want to believe that they're doing this, that this is the message they're sending. -bandwidth_limit

Figure 3. Example of an entry in the Erica_Callie LiveJournal "Scrapbook for Brooke" by bandwidth_limit, November 4, 2008. [View larger image.]

[4.12] The lesbian representations of Callie and Erica were considered to be authentic by the members of this community. The identification was so strong that the couple's breakup and Smith's firing caused emotional distress and passionate responses from community members. The response critiqued the ideological message that ABC was broadcasting, supported the representation of lesbians on the show, and thanked the actress who helped create a representation on television that they could identify with. Unlike the prevalent "lesbian kiss" sweeps trend, which features a one-off and short-lived lesbian romance to boost ratings (Heffernan 2005), Callie's exploration of her sexual identity does not end with her breakup with Erica but becomes an ongoing aspect of her character.

[4.13] Callie continues pursuing her queerness throughout her time on Grey's Anatomy, including a long-term relationship with Arizona Robbins (played by Jessica Capshaw) that lasts for six seasons before ending in divorce and joint custody of their daughter. Even after the end of her marriage, Callie continues to attempt lesbian relationships. She eventually leaves Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital (formerly Seattle Grace) to pursue a relationship with Penny Blake (Samantha Sloyan) in New York at the end of season 12 (Ramirez had requested an exit from the show).

5. Conclusion: Fan call for action

[5.1] The existence and quality of minority representations in broadcast television are particularly important for communities that are still fighting for legal and social equality. A variety of lesbian and bisexual primary characters, as well as LGBT recurring characters and LGBT-themed episodes, enhance diversity on Grey's Anatomy. Unlike the majority of televisual history, where representation was cobbled together with subtext and slash fan fiction (such as Xena: Warrior Princess, syndication, 1995–2001), Grey's Anatomy and its direct antecedents, ER (NBC, 1994–2009) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997–2003), kicked off the current rise in canonical LGBT representation on TV. It is therefore fitting that the founding members of the Callie_Arizona LJ community directly call for inclusion:

[5.2] Now we know that it's time for lesbians to be portrayed on network television as something other than the token best friend or guest star. It is time for lesbians to be at the forefront of story lines the same way that heterosexuals are. (February 2, 2009)

[5.3] LGBT fans of Grey's Anatomy hold the production, writing team, and network responsible for providing high-quality, complex, and authentic LGBT characters on the show. Likewise, fans call for the expansion of LGBT representation in programming to include characters that are more than stereotypes and sidekicks. Fans continue to highlight the inadequacies of lesbian portrayals on broadcast television: the fan uproar over the death of Lexa (Alycia Debnam Carey) on The 100 (CW, 2014–) serves as an example of the resurgence of the "bury your gays" trope (note 3). However, programs such as Grey's Anatomy provide some hope that equality in representation is possible.

6. Notes

1. There have been a few lesbian relationships previously on prime-time network television: Willow and Tara (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seasons 4–6); and Kerry Weaver with Kim Legaspi and then Sandy Torres (ER, seasons 7–10). Callie's on-screen relationships are visible longer than their predecessors and do not fall prey to the "bury your gays" trope.

2. Examples of broadcast shows featuring LGBT characters include Will & Grace (NBC, 1998–2006), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Modern Family (ABC, 2009–), Glee (Fox, 2009–15), and Ugly Betty (2006–10).

3. Twenty-seven, or 22 percent, of all LGBT characters on broadcast and cable television were killed off in the 2015–16 season, causing fans to rally and to create LGBT Fans Deserve Better ( and the Lexa Pledge (, devoted to improving LGBT representation and creating a voluntary production code (Framke, Zarracina, and Frostenson 2016; GLAAD 2015).

7. Works cited

Ang, Ien. 1985. Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. New York: Methuen.

"Behind the Lesbian Story Line on Grey's Anatomy." 2008., June 15.

Framke, Caroline, Javier Zarracina, and Sarah Frostenson. 2016. "All the TV Character Deaths of 2015–'16, in One Chart." Vox, June 1.

GLAAD. "Where We Are on TV Report, 2015." 2015. GLAAD, October 23.

Heffernan, Virginia. 2005. "Critic's Notebook: It's February. Pucker Up, TV Actresses." New York Times, February 10.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Lindholm, Charles. 2008. Culture and Authenticity. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

"Sound Bites: Global Blunder." 2007. Weekly Variety, January 22–28.

Stevens, Tracey, and Katherine Wunder. 2002. How to Be a Happy Lesbian: A Coming Out Guide. Asheville, NC: Amazing Dreams Publishing.

Thorburn, David. 2000. "Television Melodrama." Television: The Critical Review. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wyatt, Edward. 2007a. "Anatomy of an Insult: ABC Is Stung by an Actor's Anti-gay Slurs." New York Times, 22 January.

Wyatt, Edward. 2007b. "ABC TV Star Is Seeking Counseling after Epithet." New York Times, 25 January.