Glee was not just a show about the high school glee club “New Directions” trying to make their mark at McKinley High, it was also a (satirical) show about LGBTQ teen life in the early 2010s. It was the first time we saw out and proud students accepted by their peers and faculty, manifesting in their passions while making it through their coming out journeys to loving themselves.
Naya Rivera’s role and character development as cheerleader Santana Lopez captured viewers and made us fall in love. We saw her go from a tough girl bottling up her queerness to being a bold, confident woman who marries a woman, the love of her life. Santana Lopez made us laugh, cry, and changed our lives for the better.
With Naya Rivera’s recent passing, it is vital for us to pay our thoughts, condolences, and thanks for giving it her absolute all in such a life-changing role for LGBTQ people, especially the generations of youth who grew up watching the show.
I was the biggest Gleek back in the day, and recently started rewatching during quarantine in the curiosity of why I was so obsessed in the first place. Seeing Naya Rivera play Santana Lopez on screen brought me right back to my obsession with the show. Santana Lopez’s coming out story in the series was the first time I really saw an accurate portrayal of what it means to come out. We saw the anger and anxieties through her character, and Naya executed that emotion perfectly. Her character brought me peace within myself.
Seeing her grow on Glee showed me that I could have a promising future being bold and fierce doing what I love as who I truly was. Naya Rivera will forever have that special place in my heart. Unfortunately, I never had the privilege of meeting her but Naya really made me feel that I, and so many others, were a part of something bigger than ourselves, that we were welcomed every time she appeared on screen. Her talent and advocacy is something I will always appreciate.
In honor of Rivera and her contributions to the LGBTQ community, I asked fellow young LGBTQ advocates the question “How did Naya Rivera’s role as Santana Lopez impact you?” Here’s what they had to say:
Jamie Margolin, Washington
As a Latina Lesbian, I pretty much never saw anyone like me in the media when I was growing up. So when I saw Santana Lopez on Glee, it was so comforting and affirming. Back when I first saw her on Glee, I felt so alone. It felt like there was no one like me, which is why Naya Rivera’s role as Santana changed my life. Her role made me realize that I wasn’t alone. That I didn’t have to choose between my Latinx identity and my LGBTQ+ identity — both could coexist. Santana made me realize I could be proudly Latina and proudly a Lesbian, and that didn’t make me weird. Being a Lesbian coming from a first generation Colombian-American background, I always felt alone and like I couldn’t relate to anyone. There are no other out members of my family and in LGBTQ+ groups that I participated in, I hardly ever saw another Latina. Because of this, I felt like I didn’t belong with either community. Santana made me realize I belong. Naya’s role as Santana Lopez was so comforting to me. To see a Lesbian Latina thrive and find true love on TV gave me hope that someday I too could thrive and find true love. Santana Lopez helped me become comfortable and proud of who I was, and I am forever grateful to Naya Rivera for so beautifully playing a role that gave so many other girls like me the representation that we are so often deprived of.
Arlene Reynolds, California
Watching Glee with my dad, I was beginning to suppress my own queer self for fear of what it meant for me. I had this very narrow view of what it meant to exist in the world as a not-straight person and I didn’t want it for myself. There’s this scene from Season 2, known fondly as Hurt Locker. Santana finally admits to Brittany, but also to the audience, that she’s afraid of dealing with her queer feelings because of the consequences. There’s so much apprehension in the delivery and that line sticks with me to this day, because it so accurately summarized where I was in my life before I could even think to dictate that for myself. I was almost surprised to see Santana being allowed to continue to exist in the same way on the show afterwards. She wasn’t demoted to a joke or a prop in the show. I don’t remember seeing a healthy, long-term queer relationship until Brittany and Santana existed for me. Truthfully, that character would not have existed in that way without Naya Rivera. She became this empowered Lesbian woman, but also someone who could be hurt and sad, and showed it all. I was certainly affected. I noticed the importance in positive and inclusive representation and I started to engage in online fan communities, where I continue to visit now. For me, Naya’s Santana represents a certain happiness and a turning point in my sense of self.
Andre Menchavez, Washington
Naya Rivera was an influential role in my early development as a queer kid of color. I came out fairly early to close family and friends, and going into high school I was unsure about being as open about my sexuality. Naya Rivera’s character, Santana Lopez, was a Latinx queer womxn who helped me overcome these fears. Santana had to overcome conservative cultural barriers to fully accept her identity. Her story was special because it gave insight to what being queer looked like for people of color. I could not emphasize enough how many times I rewatched the scene of her coming out to her Abuela as a kid. “I walk around so mad at the world, but I’m really just fighting with myself. I don’t want to fight anymore, I’m just too tired.” I remember the tears I’d shed hearing her say that to her Abuela, it gave visibility to my own experiences with conservative ideals and family members in my culture. Santana Lopez overcame these barriers and was openly proud of her sexuality. She gave me the strength and confidence to be open about my sexuality, in high school and in my own family, and also to overcome the barriers that came in my way. Naya Rivera will always have a special place in my heart, and her death feels like a part of my core self has been taken from me. But I will forever remember her for her fierce advocacy for the community, remarkable talent, and the hope she gave me that made me who I am today.
Shannon Li, New York
Naya’s role as Santana Lopez on Glee and her romance with Brittany were always the highlights and scenes that my young queer heart always looked forward to the most. In fact, they are the scenes that I’ve always rewatched. The representation she has brought on screen for the queer community, the hope for a love story that I never thought existed for queer folks like myself, the coverage of the complexities of understanding our sexuality, and the realness of the experiences that queer folks like myself face will never be forgotten. Especially as a queer woman of color, I’ve learned from Santana’s own journey to take risks, chase after what matters most to me, and to take charge of my own story whether it be to come out, ask the girl out, or most importantly, be unapologetically myself.
Tae D’jair, Texas
Being a choir kid in high school is what led me to Glee. I believe that the overall development of the show and its characters meant the world to millions of fans. ‘Santana Lopez’ played by Naya Rivera had a huge impact on me as a person. In the beginning of the show, Santana spent most of her time as a “mean girl.” She was the cliché cheerleader and to many she was the villain. But as the show developed, we were met with Santana battling a common battle that many of us have struggled with as well; her queerness. Santana struggled with coming to terms with her sexuality and in many ways her journey resembled a few of our own. She was so afraid of how the world would treat her that she lashed out at anyone in an effort to keep herself and her identity protected. I believe it was healthy for so many LGBTQ+ people to see that type of character development; the challenges and growth that she faced throughout the show. She soon embraced her queerness and her conservative grandmother even began to start accepting her granddaughter’s sexuality. Naya Rivera helped to shape the lives of so many in the role of Santana Lopez.
Naya Rivera’s role as Santana Lopez impacted a generation of LGBTQ people. She taught us to love ourselves and that it was possible to one day grow up and be our best selves. That we can love who we wanted and be who we wanted, and to live your truth will set us free. From her singing, comedic timing, to her most vulnerable scenes Naya Rivera gave it her absolute all and we will always appreciate her amazing impact in our lives. Rest in Peace Naya Rivera, we love you and thank you for everything.
Liam Gillin is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and recent graduate of Marist College with a degree in Film and Television Production with a minor in Graphic Design. Ever since he was 14, he has participated in his school’s LGBTQ clubs and was president in both his high school and now college groups. Liam Gillin has organized an LGBTQ Formal on his campus and is planning to create a gender neutral floor for incoming freshmen.