After Naya Rivera’s unfortunate demise in July, there was an outpouring of grief and tributes from the LGBTQ+ community across the world. In thousands of posts, column and op-eds, people have expressed their gratitude for her portrayal of Santana Lopez, the lesbian cheerleader on popular American TV show Glee (2009 – 2015).
Santana was originally written as a typical mean cheerleader sidekick, but Naya brought the character to life and quickly became a fan favourite. They promoted her to a series regular in the second season. As Glee’s writers seriously considered storylines, Naya brought to their attention the young LGBTQ+ fans who were interested in Santana and her best friend Brittany’s relationship. In the first season, there had been throwaway jokes – very problematic and homophobic ones – about how the two would kiss for the attention of boys. On twitter and elsewhere, she saw fans shipping the two and rooting for them.
What started as a mere joke turned into one of the most genuine and inspiring representations of Latinx LGBTQ+ people on TV, paving the way for shows like One Day at a Time and Brooklyn Nine Nine. Before Santana and Brittany, it was uncommon to see femme lesbians on TV shows about high schoolers, without them being sexualised and fetishized. The stereotype of a lesbian only being masculine, or of masculine women automatically being lesbians has been propagated by TV and movies for decades. LGBTQ+ teenagers in mainstream media are also usually social outcasts. They don’t have social circles to fit in to and are treated horribly. Santana was the head cheerleader – literally the most popular and desirable girl in school. Despite that, coming out wasn’t smooth sailing at all. This brought to light that first, anyone can be gay and second, they can struggle with accepting their sexuality no matter what.
She struggled to accept her feelings for Brittany, struggled to show vulnerability because of how scared she was of what people would say. She confronts Brittany about it in a scene that resonated with LGBTQ+ people everywhere. She expresses anger and helplessness, but also a resolve to try to love her as she deserves to be loved.
She’s outed, in a demeaning way and the heartbreak with which she exclaims “I haven’t even told my family yet!” instantly hits home for many people who have gone through the loss of control that she is going through. She, unlike most of us, gets to walk up to the cishet man that outed and then tries to tell her that it’s not a big deal, and slaps him across the face after screaming at him. It’s a truly cathartic moment to watch.
Her arc throughout the show isn’t just about her sexuality either. She’s allowed to be her snappy, talented, intelligent, ambitious self without any judgement. While casting a straight actress to play a lesbian wouldn’t be perfect representation today, Naya truly did justice to her responsibility. She pushed for Brittany and Santana’s relationship to be recognised and given its due recognition on the show and be written with respect. She saw teenagers online and she felt a responsibility to them.
Around the time the show ended, there was a slew of lesbian characters on TV shows who were killed off, for seemingly no reason. Amidst that, Santana and Brittany got married in a beautiful and heartfelt wedding.
Santana Lopez showed a generation of young femmes that as long as we continue fighting for ourselves and being vulnerable with those we love, we will get the happy endings we want and for that enduring lesson, Naya Rivera will always be remembered.