Born January 12th 1987, Naya Marie Rivera found fame on the popular American TV show Glee, portraying the character of Santana Lopez. Like most successful actors, her acting career began early, in Rivera’s case, at the age of four (1991-1992) when she played the part of Hillary Winston in the short-lived BBC sitcom: The Royal Family.
As she grew up, Rivera struggled to find substantial roles and regular work, and by the time she reached her teenage years she was playing only minor roles in small productions and shows. Despite enduring the struggles most actors are accustomed to in relation to securing jobs, Rivera continued to work hard at improving and broadening her skills. She auditioned for American Idol with the song “Emotion” by the Bees Gees ;however, in this instance, found little success and didn’t progress in the show. Interestingly, though, using the same song to audition for Glee in 2009, she landed herself the role of Santana, and became a full-time character in the show.
Naya Rivera inspired millions of people with her sassy character, and helped pave the way for a more positive and accepting view of LGBTQ+ women. Clare Rowden, a 21-year-old bisexual fan of Glee states: “I was 12 or 13, I was so young and I was thinking these things. I was so terrified to say them or even act on them. It was just a little knock on the door is like, ‘Hey, it's ok, what you're feeling is real, and it's special. It's not something to feel ashamed or uncomfortable about.”
Playing a lesbian Latinx character gave so many women an opportunity to see themselves on-screen for one of the first time. Rivera’s character liberated the show from its stereotypical and limiting portrayal of the world: the insecure jock, bullied gay kid, popular bad-boy, annoying short-girl, and more. Many gay or bisexual fans found their peace with fashionable proudly-gay Kurt Hummel (portrayed by Chris Colfer). Queer female fans had thought they had found their peace with Jane Lynch’s character Sue Sylvester, until mid-season one when it’s revealed she’s straight. Queer women were longing for an idol of their own on the show. When the characters are talking about Quinn Fabray (played by Dianna Agron) being pregnant, Santana stated, “Sex is not dating,” . Her best friend, and later in the series girlfriend - Brittany - replied with: “Yeah, otherwise Santana and I would be dating.”
You could hear a pin drop within the three beats the characters took to continue talking, and within that time space, queer, female viewers around the world had at last found their influence on the show. During the next episode, viewers were given more excitement as Brittany states, “Did you know dolphins are just gay sharks?” Bam! Shippers were bombarding the internet with the trending hashtag #gaysharks, and ‘Brittana’ was born! Brittana fans demanded a relationship between the two, and one of the co-creators of glee, Ian Brennan, was assigned the task to make the Brittana wish come true, and he executed it perfectly.
Ten months later and four episodes into the second season, fans were rewarded with what Santana and Brittany call “sweet lady kisses”. This huge network show featured something queer women craved to be shown on TV. The relationship continued till the beginning of season four and resumed in season five, culminating in a Brittana wedding in season 6. Rivera was proud to be representing a lesbian character on television, hosting the GLAAD Media Awards in 2011, and openly speaking of how she’s proud that Glee is said to be “the gayest show on TV”.
It’s not an overstatement to say Rivera’s character saved lives, she introduced a world where lesbians could feel less alone and unquestionably provided some solace for people the world over struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.
Her unforeseen and very tragic death left fans of the show in heartbreak, however, Rivera’s beautiful and life-changing legacy will forever live on. The devastation her fans (or ‘Nayaholics’) experienced proves how much she meant to us. She was a gorgeous, talented, kind and accepting woman, who will forever be in our hearts, as we come up to the first anniversary of her death on July 8th. Santana will continue to change the world for the better.