Isaiah Washington Returns to 'Grey's Anatomy' ... and the World Doesn't End

Why do some stars get a pass when they drop gay slurs and some don’t? It’s complicated, but at some point we have to put value on their positive actions and move on.

By now we are all too familiar with Isaiah Washington’s controversial dismissal from Grey’s Anatomy after uttering an anti-gay slur during a cast altercation. This one-time transgression saw Washington—a man who previously played gay in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, no small undertaking for a promising young African-American actor—banished to Hollywood’s version of Siberia for the better part of eight years. I’m not sure we will ever get the E! True Hollywood Story with precisely who said what during the infamous argument, and we don’t need to. Washington uttered the word ‘faggot,’ something that is not acceptable in any context. And while nobody deserves a pass on any type of hateful speech (can you hear me now, Alec Baldwin?), Washington has more than paid his penance. 

The only thing Hollywood values more than a scandal is a comeback, and Isaiah Washington is in the midst of mounting one long overdue that should firmly re-establish his professional career. He was named an Oscar contender for his lead role in Sundance favorite Blue Caprice, starred in the new CW sci-fi series The 100 and, most spectacularly, Washington is set to make a one-night-only return to Grey’s Anatomy—the scene of the “crime”—that poetically coincides with Sandra Oh’s departure from the show. (The episode airs Thursday, May 1.) The opportunity to create closure for both characters, and great ratings—Shonda Rhimes is nobody’s fool—was perhaps too good to pass up. 

While this is the stuff of great headlines, the more profound component of Washington’s second act lies in his role as producer of the highly regarded gay-themed independent movie Blackbird, co-starring Mo’nique and directed by Patrick Ian-Polk. In this film, currently making the festival rounds, Washington co-stars as the soul-searching father of a gay teen in a small Mississippi Baptist town. Cynics and skeptics will surely be quick to dismiss Washington’s role in the film as a contrived act of contrition. 

Washington himself admits, “It doesn’t go without being said that someone who was fired for being a homophobe is telling a story to re-ingratiate or reintegrate himself in the Hollywood system—or remove the idea that I am homophobic. That simply is not the truth. I would have done this movie no matter what.” Anyone can, and eventually everyone does apologize, but these words are hollow unless backed by the conviction of one’s character. 

In a world guided more by the Twittersphere than a moral compass, we often forget that people need to have the space to say dumb things. Justin Bieber has made a career out of it with far less talent (and fewer consequences) than Washington, and Paula Deen is somehow already back to full speed. Why can James Franco immediately get away with trying to pick up an underage girl while Isaiah Washington was Kryptonite for the better part of a decade for using the ‘f-word’? If we are to grow as a community, we need to demonstrate the capacity for less selective clemency. As an educator and parent I’ve trained myself to more evenly apply forgiveness—all while reserving the right to never forget. This rubric works for me, and apparently for GLAAD, too. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, the media watchdog welcomes Washington’s return and commends his growth. “His PSA and his statements promoting marriage equality in recent years have sent a strong message of support for LGBT people.” Everyone deserves the opportunity for redemption.

In a few weeks the headlines will proclaim that Isaiah Washington made his return to Seattle Grace, but they will miss the greater story. Washington is human, and like any of us, bigger than his worst transgression. He has earned this opportunity to prove that his heart is now in the right place, even if the process was sloppier and took longer than we would like. 

“I have been wanting to use my artistic life to give value to the marginalized, the abused, the neglected, the stigmatized individuals of all walks of life,” Washington explains. This Isaiah may be nobody’s prophet, but his story can serve as a cautionary tale for a society all too quick to judge.