Rivera was a hugely talented performer, who brought joy and her sharp sense of humour to many things she did. From the parody anti-yeast infection commercial that she filmed as part of her role in Glee, to her turn as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Naya Rivera was a force of comedy in particular. And for members of the LGBTQ+ community, many will also remember Rivera as an ally in the truest sense of the word, who represented us on television when few other shows were willing to go there.
Santana Lopez’s on-screen romance with fellow cheerleader Brittany was genuinely groundbreaking – for many young people growing up as Glee aired, Rivera played the first lesbian character they had ever seen on TV, full stop. This was in the late noughties, less than a decade after the ending of Section 28, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in UK schools. Gay marriage wasn’t legal yet. The first ever broadcast of a lesbian sex scene in the history of television took place just six years before the first season of Glee, and according to Amber Benson (who played Tara on Buffy The Vampire Slayer) getting the network to even agree to a same-sex kiss previously was “like pulling teeth”. This came at a time when Buffy and Spike were merrily shagging their way around secluded graveyards – there was a vast and clear disparity between the way that straight and gay couples were depicted in the media.
Meanwhile, you could easily count the number of queer women starring on mainstream TV shows on one hand. In the UK we had Emily and Naomi from Skins, and in the US, viewers had Ellen Degeneres, and Samantha Jones experimenting for a couple of Sex and The City episodes with the heavily stereotyped Brazilian artist Maria Diega Reyes.
And where there was more substantial media representation, it was often limited to more niche LGBTQ+ shows like The L Word, Sugar Rush, and Lip Service – hugely important shows, but with a key difference: we had to actively seek them out. These shows were also predominantly white. Queerness was something that was repressed and whispered about in the mainstream; when we saw ourselves reflected, it was often late at night with the volume turned down, one finger anxiously poised over the TV remote’s power button at all times. Glee, on the other hand, had an average of 10.11 million viewers at its peak in popularity. Besides reaching the queer people who arguably needed a character like Santana the most, it reached their parents, friends, and grandparents – all watching the show next to them on the sofa. As a young gay kid who was scared shitless at the idea of ever coming out, Rivera’s character offered me genuine hope.
And Santana – the hilarious expert in smarting one-liners and ponytail flicks that she is – was one of Glee’s best characters. Captain of McKinley High’s Cheerios, she was at once terrifying, and terrifically witty, snarling razor-sharp quips at anybody who dared to cross her. Many of her best barbed comments can still be recited from memory. “How can you do a duet by yourself?” she asks Kurt at one rehearsal. “That’s like vocal masturbation”. As with the groundbreaking film But I’m A Cheerleader, Rivera depicted a lesbian character free from the usual tired stereotypes. Switch on the TV now, and you’ll see countless other queer characters who are indebted to the foundations she lay down: Riverdale‘s Cheryl Blossom, to name one character who may not exist without her.
Without a talent like Rivera, Santana might’ve just ended up being another bitchy TV cheerleader, but in this case, the actor studied classics like Mean Girls for inspiration and brought comic timing to every line. And behind her steely exterior, it always felt like Santana was holding a part of herself back – in season two, Rivera explored her kinder, more vulnerable side, and behind the scenes, pushed for Santana’s relationship with Brittany to be taken more seriously. Originally, it was conceived as a brief punchline.
“It started off as this funny little thing, like “oh yeah she just randomly hooks up with her friend Brittany,” Rivera explained. “But I was kind of encouraging them to make it more serious and not play around with it ‘cause there are people out there that it’s not a joke to. It’s their real lives”. She understood that she could achieve something truly meaningful instead.
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Naya was a fierce talent with so much more to do and this is such a terrible tragedy. We are forever grateful for the indelible contribution she made to GLEE, from the first episode to the last. Our hearts are broken and our thoughts go out to her family, friends and young son.
Whatsmore, Rivera played one of the only queer Latinx women on TV – and was certainly one of the first in a series as high-profile as Glee. In the role, she navigated sensitive and difficult plot lines with tremendous depth.
“I love girls,” she tells her grandma when she first comes out, “the way I’m supposed to feel about boys… When I’m with Brittany, I finally understand what people are talking about when they talk about love. I’ve tried so hard to push this feeling away and keep it locked inside, but every day just feels like a war. And 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 have to just be me.”
And this moment in particular was a cultural lightning bolt – what simpler, more powerful way of explaining to an audience can there be?
It’s no exaggeration to state that, for a lot of young LGBTQ+ people growing up, Naya Rivera, was far more than another actor playing a cheerleader on a TV show. She was a true and powerful reflection for queer people – what an enormous and powerful legacy to leave behind.