Naya Rivera’s death hits me hard for several different reasons. Mainly because I’m also a mother, and I can totally understand the sacrifice she made for her son. I know I would do the same. But also because of her role as Santana Lopez on Glee. The character, and Rivera, were hugely impactful on an entire generation of girls and women. Santana was an icon for queer girls, especially Latinx and Black girls, at a time when we didn’t have much representation.
In 2011, there weren’t many queer girls on television. Especially not queer girls of color. At the time, it felt huge to see a young girl be so secure in her sexuality. That wasn’t usually something girls were afforded. Up until that point, Santana dated almost every boy in the New Directions, even though they were always power plays. Any girl who comes out as a woman-loving woman after dating men can tell you about the disingenuous relationships she’s had. It felt very real.
Santana’s coming out shows just how far we’d come by then. As someone who knew she was queer but was deeply in the closet for most of high school, I was amazed at the way she could be so confident, even though she was terrified. When everyone knows that you like boys, it’s hard to then pivot and say, “turns out I’m a lesbian!” But she does, and I remember feeling nothing but an immense pride.
Santana Lopez is one of the first times I can remember with clarity seeing a queer girl whose sexuality isn’t played for a joke. There’s no sloppy drunken kiss between her and another girl. She didn’t do it for the amusement or titillation of the male characters either. It was clear that the show’s writers really took her story arc seriously, as did Naya Rivera. They understood what they were doing, and felt the weight of that decision.
Her interactions with Brittany are usually the moments where you see her at her most tender. A lot of the time she’s seen as villainous. Like a Regina George in a cheerleading uniform. She’s ruthless, and there’s no one she won’t cut down to size if she thinks they deserve it. But once she comes out, a lot of her defensiveness goes away.
When you’re in the closet, especially as a young woman, it’s very lonely. You have no idea how people’s perceptions of you will change when you decide to be your true self. High school puts so much pressure on girls socially to be likeable and create these long lasting female friendships. I remember the fear that if I told my close girl friends that I liked girls sexually, they’d treat me differently. Would they think that I’ve always been in love with them? Read into every interaction we’ve ever had? Sitting on that secret can make you behave in a lot of different ways. And that’s probably why she’s so mean! She’s walking around with a huge secret that could irrevocably change her life.
One of the things I remember relating to the most in her coming out storyline is the fear of how her family is going to react. At the time, I was about 25, and even though I knew I was queer and had for years, my family had no idea. I just didn’t know how to tell them. Her fear is real for any queer kid coming out to their parents at any age. But there’s an added layer to it — the fear Black and Latinx queer kids have telling their families that they’re queer. When you’re a teenager, you don’t want your family to treat you differently or even kick you out of the house.
While Santana’s parents are entirely accepting of her sexuality, her abuela disowns her. It’s devastating to see your biggest fears play out on TV. My grandmother died when I was a teenager, so I never had to come out to her, but the prospect is terrifying. We were incredibly close, and I can’t imagine how it would have felt to not have her support. Thankfully, her abuela does eventually come around in a later season, thanks to intervention from Brittany.
The relationship between Santana and Brittany is the most pure and genuine on the show. You can always tell just how much they deeply care for each other. They are so fiercely protective of each other and their relationship, which is very indicative of a queer woman relationship. We hold our partners the closest we can, and pour all of our love into them. Santana never wants to hurt Brittany, and tries so many times to ensure that doesn’t happen. In one of her best performances on the show, she sings Taylor Swift’s “Mine” as a way to let Brittany know that she’ll always love her, even though she doesn’t think they should be together.
Despite the obvious need for conflicts, “Brittana,” as fans referred to the duo, is the most stable couple on Glee. Their relationship always had a strong foundation of love, which showed us queer girls that it was possible for us to have a loving relationship with another girl. Unlike most of the other couples, you were always rooting for them. Many of us queer girls would have died to ensure the safety of their relationship because they gave us hope for our own futures.
Glee certainly got a lot of things wrong during their six seasons. But one of the things they always seemed to get right was Santana’s sexuality. Her coming out story and journey to fully embracing herself as a lesbian is an example for many of us Black and Latinx girls and women out there. Seeing her gain acceptance from the people in her life showed us what was possible. She was the light at the end of a very dark tunnel for a lot of girls, and we have Naya Rivera to thank for that. She will be sorely missed and forever loved for the way she inspired an entire generation of girls and women to be who they are.
This article was originally published on