Naya Rivera
Santana served as a lesbian role model for countless queer youth. (Image via @nayarivera, Instagram)

Naya Rivera Broke Ground as a True Multidimensional Lesbian Character on ‘Glee’

Known for playing Santana Lopez on the popular show, the actress’s untimely death last month shocked millions of fans across the world, sparking a celebration of her Latina LGBTQ+ character.

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Naya Rivera

Known for playing Santana Lopez on the popular show, the actress’s untimely death last month shocked millions of fans across the world, sparking a celebration of her Latina LGBTQ+ character.

“Everything about you screams virgin. You’re about as sexy as a Cabbage Patch Kid. It’s exhausting to look at you.” Finn Hudson, played by the late Cory Monteith, stares blankly as Naya Rivera’s character Santana Lopez hits him with some of her infamously cutting insults on Fox’s “Glee.” Santana is known for her smart-mouthed, catty personality, and throughout the course of the TV series, she causes nearly every single character to cry. But when she is around her girlfriend, Brittany Pierce, who is played by Heather Morris, she is as tender and kind as any other lovestruck woman. This is the duality that thousands of fans around the world adore about the unforgettable Santana Lopez, brought to life by the endlessly talented Rivera.

So when headlines began to appear early this June that Rivera was missing after taking a boat onto Lake Piru, California, hearts of “Glee” fans on every continent were heavy. Her body was eventually found by divers, and an autopsy confirmed drowning as her cause of death. This heartbreaking news was worsened by the fact that her body was found precisely seven years after the death of co-star Cory Monteith. She was only 33, and the tragedy of her passing is compounded by the immeasurable impact that she had on her fans for playing one of the first openly lesbian characters on television.

Although the first lesbian kiss appeared on television in 1991, Rivera’s Santana Lopez was different from all prior lesbian representation on TV for several reasons; for one, the show’s accessibility and wide reach were unmatched by other shows that boasted LGBTQ+ representation at the time, such as “The L Word.” “Glee” aired on Fox, a mainstream network.

Additionally, the audience of “Glee” was primarily middle school to high school-aged children and teenagers. Most often, it is between the ages of 12 and 18 that kids start to question their sexuality and begin seeking role models in the world around them. “Glee” allowed young people everywhere to see the issues they were struggling with played out on the screen during a highly critical time. For young queer people such as myself, it meant the world to watch Santana admit to herself that she was in love with her best friend, Brittany. It showed me that my own feelings were okay because she had them too.

Furthermore, Santana is a deeply flawed character, as her caustic external personality functions as a defense mechanism for her deep insecurities. Too often, LGBTQ+ characters appear in shows as nearly perfect individuals, because their main flaw is intended to be their sexuality. Not only does this set an unrealistic expectation for real LGBTQ+ people and may cause them to be overly self-critical, it also makes them less likely to be able to identify with the character. But Santana is far from perfect on “Glee.” She makes bad decisions, she cries, she experiences fear and pain and she struggles with her family’s acceptance of her sexuality. Her imperfections make her even more relatable, so that other imperfect humans like myself could see themselves in her character.

Similarly, it is common for media that portrays LGBTQ+ characters to focus entirely on that character’s sexuality to drive the plot of the movie or show. A good example of this is the popular 2018 film “Love, Simon,” in which a gay teenaged boy spends the duration of the film coming to terms with his sexuality and then coming out. It is true that a queer person’s sexuality is important to their identity, but it is not everything that they are, and to imply so is reductive and harmful.

Contrary to this popular trope, Santana does not spend the entirety of “Glee” grappling with her lesbianism. While she does spend some parts of seasons 2 and 3 accepting her attraction to Brittany and coming out to her community, she also stars in many other storylines in the show. The writers of “Glee” make it abundantly clear that Santana is a lesbian, but she is also a fierce, motivated dreamer who loves and loses like everyone else.  

“Glee,” the first episode of which aired in 2009 on Fox, is known for its diverse cast. Of the many main characters on the show, nearly every sexuality is represented, as well as every race. There are characters with disabilities as well as a transgender character, and the show makes a point to touch on controversial issues such as coming out, school shootings, teenage pregnancy and more. In other words, the writers of “Glee” made a point to push boundaries from the very beginning. A natural result of the representation in the show is that children and teenagers grew up idolizing and identifying with the characters, possibly more so than any other show on the air. Anyone could see their identity reflected on the screen, and for that reason “Glee” was a deeply important and impactful television phenomenon.

One of the most beloved characters in the entire show was Santana Lopez. She is consistently placed within the top 3 on almost every character ranking list, and countless compilation videos can be found on YouTube chronicling her best moments. As a Mexican Afro-Latina and also a lesbian, her character exists at the intersection of two marginalized identities.

Despite this, Santana is shown to be a complex, multi-dimensional character, whose firm sense of self goes beyond her race and sexuality. Rivera portrayed a role model to thousands of young women including myself, and I am forever grateful to Naya Rivera for bringing such a vibrant character into the world. May Naya Rivera rest in peace knowing she changed the lives of countless people through her life’s work.

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