What Naya Rivera’s ‘Glee’ Character Meant to Me as a Young LGBTQ Woman

Santana helped me understand my sexuality and feel comfortable coming out.

Naya Rivera, who tragically passed away on July 8th, 2020, while swimming in California’s Lake Piru with her son, was so much more than just Santana Lopez from Glee. She was a daughter, a sister, a mother to four-year-old Josey, an author, a singer, and a former child star who made it big. But there is no denying that Santana was her most prominent role, and the one that meant so much to countless queer women who saw themselves represented by the lesbian character. For me, Rivera’s Santana is a huge part of the reason I was able to come out as bisexual. 

Before Glee explored the same-sex romance between Santana and her friend Brittany (Heather Morris) in 2010’s Season 2, I genuinely didn’t know that being a gay woman was an option for me. At the time, there were very few lesbian teens on mainstream TV. Years prior, fans suspected that Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Willow was bisexual, but creator Joss Whedon declined to label her as such. In May 2020, Whedon told Metro that if he could do it all over again, he would be clearer about Willow’s sexuality. “I’d be like yes she can be bi. Because some people are! But back then it was like, no… we’re not ready for that.”

Buffy aired in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and the next few years saw only slightly more female queer representation on TV, like in South of Nowhere, a show I couldn’t see because it aired on the paid network The N. There was also Once and Again, a show that was suspiciously cancelled not long after two female characters kissed on-screen, and The O.C., in which Marissa Cooper had a brief same-sex relationship that ended when she went back to an ex-boyfriend, in part because the network reportedly pressured the writers to drop the storyline. Pretty Little Liars had Emily Fields, but the gay teen’s romance with her female friend was based on manipulation, not exactly something to aspire to. 

Santana and Brittany’s relationship on Glee felt different, and far more relatable, than those other portrayals. To start, the girls were regular high schoolers — not vampire hunters or, in the case of Pretty Little Liars, teen sleuths being stalked by a psychopathic texter. I could actually see myself in these Glee characters, who dealt with regular problems like friendship troubles and homework while having crushes and falling in love. I’ll never forget how much those moments between Santana and Brittany meant to me, from their first kiss (which was also my first time seeing a female same-sex kiss on television) to the time they went to the school dance together to their exchange of I love yous. 

Thanks to Glee, I started to better understand myself, and realized that my feelings for my own female best friend were deeper than just friendship—just like how Santana’s feelings for Brittany developed. And while Rivera’s character struggled with some people not accepting who she was, she was able to overcome much of that with the support of Brittany, her other friends, and her own strength. 

Watching the show, I thought for the first time that maybe, it was possible for my own sexuality to be embraced by others. 

Shortly after Santana entered her first same-sex relationship on the series, I was able to come out in real life and enter my own. If I hadn’t seen Glee represent young LGBTQ women as real and worthy of respect, who knows how long it might have been before I figured out my own feelings and felt comfortable coming out?

Rivera deserves a lot of the credit for the nuance of Santana’s storyline. Glee co-creator Brad Falchuk said during Comic Con in 2011 that the writers first entered into the Santana-Brittany romance idea as a “goof,” but Rivera, along with the fans, championed for the teens’ budding relationship to be treated with more deference. “It’s up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it’s not comical for them in their lives,” Rivera told E! News that same year. “So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that.”

The actress herself wasn’t gay, and there is a time and place to discuss casting LGBTQ roles with LGBTQ actors, but she clearly understood the importance of her role. “There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them,” Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. “I love supporting this cause, but it’s a big responsibility, and sometimes it’s a lot of pressure on me.”

Even after her time on Glee ended in 2015, Rivera continued to champion LGBTQ rights. In 2017, the actress penned what she called a “Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community” for Billboard‘s Pride Month coverage. “I have been so incredibly fortunate to portray a character on television that has meant so much to so many within the LGBTQ community. Off screen, I am a woman who stands in support of equality, and equal rights for all,” she wrote, adding: 

“It has been one of the great blessings in my life to receive such love and touching stories as a result of my portrayal of Santana Lopez on Glee. We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life.”

That’s the thing about Rivera’s portrayal of Santana—it didn’t just affect 18-year-old me, but tons of young people who feel seen and understood for the very first time. 

At Paleyfest in 2011, Rivera touched on that impact, saying, “A lot of people have said that [Santana’s storyline] gave them courage to come out to their parents and their friends and their loved ones.” She certainly gave me that courage. That’s the legacy of Santana—a legacy that Rivera pushed to create in order to help others.

Sure, pop culture’s queer diversity issues weren’t solved because of Glee; even today, it’s still hard to find representation for young gay women in film and TV. Many LGBTQ teen storylines focus on guys instead, like the movie Love Simon, the Netflix film Alex Strangelove, and the Hulu show Love, Victor, to name a few. Notably, the series One Day At A Time has a lesbian teen main character, but it was cancelled by Netflix and now airs on the lesser-seen Pop TV. Even representation in adult female characters is still scarce. Grey’s Anatomy wrote off its lesbian character Arizona Robbins and then came back the next season with a romantic storyline for two male doctors, instead. (The one female character left who’s into women has had an unrequited crush on a straight character for the entire three seasons she’s been on the show.) 

There’s still clearly work to be done, but thanks to Santana, a whole generation of queer women were able to better understand themselves, find the courage to be who they are, and grow up to demand more on-screen representation. I am proud to be bisexual today in a way I never could have imagined before Glee, and Rivera, show me that loving women was okay.

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