Remembering Naya Rivera and Her Iconic LGBTQ+ Role

The beloved actor’s best-known role on Glee as lesbian cheerleader Santana Lopez will live on as an iconic role in LGBTQ+ culture.

Naya Rivera, the beloved actor best known for her role on Glee as the lesbian cheerleader, Santana Lopez, has died, according to statements by Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub at a July 13 press conference. She was 33.

Rivera was first reported missing on Wednesday, 8th July after her four-year-old son was found alone on a pontoon boat on Lake Piru in Southern California. Search efforts began immediately, though officials from the Ventura County Sheriff’s department would later announce that the actor was presumed to have drowned.

Following brief roles on Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Rivera was first introduced to many of us on screen as cheerleader Santana Lopez – the smirky, sexual Latina counterpart for the show’s blonde heroine and cheerleading protege, played by Diana Agron. Rivera’s character, alongside Heather Morris’ bimbo blonde Brittany S. Pierce, were created as sidekicks to Agron’s leading lady, able to be sexier, dumber or meaner in a bid to humanize Agron’s popular prom queen character. 

Rivera’s ability to take a sharp line and stab someone with it with expert precision and deft comic timing made her an early fan-favourite, delivering some of the show’s most devastating burns and quotable lines. 

As the seasons progressed, Rivera’s Santana evolved into one of the show’s most fully-realised characters. After joining the Glee club as a joke, she finds a new group of friends and an inclusive environment that the competitive cheerleading team didn’t provide. It is here that Santana realises her deep feelings for best friend Brittany, and the pair begin what became one of the longest-running and healthiest lesbian relationships on prime time television. 

Brittany, played by Heather Morris, and Santana, played by Naya Rivera

As a queer kid growing up in the 00s, I was somewhat aware of gay men and the stereotypes that reappeared in pop culture. I even grew up with an elderly lesbian couple as neighbours, but it took me almost a decade to figure out and have confirmed the true nature of their relationship. Even with real-life examples around me, I genuinely didn’t know that being a queer woman was an option, especially if you’re young. At the time, there were very few lesbian teens on mainstream TV.

Prior to Glee, I’d only ever seen romantic love between women in The O.C, when 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), and in Pretty Little Liars, but the romance between Emily Fields and her friend was based on manipulation, which hardly felt aspirational or realistic.

It’s possibly worth noting at this point that there are several storylines and quotes from Glee that are extremely problematic. I tried to watch back parts of the show during quarantine, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cringe, a lot. But, it is actually thanks to Naya Rivera for the nuance of Santana’s storyline. Glee co-creator Brad Falchuk has said that the writers originally envisioned 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.

Rivera’s glistening performance as Santana meant so much to countless queer women who saw themselves represented by the lesbian character – one who was not defined by her queerness, or her sexual appeal to men, but portrayed as a multi-talented, multi-faceted young woman coming to terms with her sexuality and confidently expressing herself in such an authentic way.

She was also one of TV’s first – and undeniably the most visible – Latina lesbian characters. “There are very few ethnic LGBTQ+ characters on television, so I am honoured to represent them,” Naya 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.”

Colleagues and fans alike were quick to share their condolences online, with many citing Rivera’s role as Santana as an iconic piece of LGBTQ+ culture. 

“I’ll never be able to articulate the importance of seeing Naya, a Black Puerto Rican, portraying a queer Afro-Latina on primetime TV,” wrote Pose co-creator Steven Canals in a tweet. “I’m heartbroken over all the stories that will remain untold.”

While there is definitely a time and place for discussing LGBTQ+ actors being cast in LGBTQ+ roles, Santana’s significance in queer culture is not negated by Rivera’s sexuality, who herself was not gay. She championed LGBTQ+ rights both within the show and for years after the show’s final episodes, showing us all what it means and looks like to be a good ally.

Others sharing their condolences, such as musician Kehlani, revealed how Naya Rivera’s performance on Glee influenced her own artistry: “The reason Songbird by Fleetwood Mac is one of my favourite songs ever is because of the Glee soundtrack version. She transformed it.”

Below is a selection of Naya Rivera’s highlights from the show. 

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