Author’s note: This article is a follow-up to a piece I wrote for the Observer during the spring of 2019 entitled “Confessions of a Former Gleek,” in which I discussed Glee’s Brittany and Santana (Brittana) and how Glee and its fandom shaped my own coming-out journey.
How should I mourn someone that I did not even know? Naya Rivera, the talented actress who played Santana Lopez on Glee, tragically passed away this summer in a boating accident. Words cannot express how grateful I am for Naya and how sad I am that she is no longer with us, but in writing this article I hope to process my grief.
The casual observer of Glee would not know this, but Naya was one of the primary (if not the primary) reasons that the creators of Glee decided to develop Brittany and Santana as a couple starting in its second season. In the first season, Brittany and Santana are introduced as minor characters, cheerleaders who are best friends and sidekicks to head cheerleader Quinn Fabray. Brittana as a romantic pairing originated halfway through Season One, with a pair of throwaway lines that the writers did not intend to follow up on. During a phone conversation with some members of the Glee club in episode 1×13, “Sectionals,” Santana says, “Sex is not dating.” Brittany responds, “If it were, Santana and I would be dating.”
This confirmation that Brittany and Santana were canonically sleeping together sent lesbian fans of the show into a frenzy. In 2009, when “Sectionals” aired, queer women characters on TV were few and far between, and these throwaway lines were enough to convince lesbian fans that Brittany and Santana were secretly in love.
Fans began pressing the writers and producers of the show to develop their relationship, mostly through flooding social media, especially Twitter. They organized on lesbian sites like Autostraddle and AfterEllen, but the Glee creators would not have listened to the fans without encouragement from Naya. In an interview, Naya discussed her role in the development of Brittana: “It started off as this funny little thing, like ‘oh yeah [Santana] just randomly hooks up with her friend Brittany.’ But I was kind of encouraging [the writers] to make it more serious and not play around with it ‘cause there are people out there that it’s not a joke to. It’s their real lives.”
In a time when queer fans’ demands for media representation were largely ignored by the entertainment industry, Naya listened to us. She understood that Glee, which from its first episode was committed to the representation of gay men, owed its lesbian fans representation too. She understood that we, the lesbian fans, could not ignore the implications of Brittany and Santana sleeping together, and that every small morsel of representation in the barren TV landscape of 2009 was important to us. She was a true ally.
Santana Lopez was a groundbreaking character not only because she was one of the few queer women on TV at the time, but also because she was one of TV’s first major queer Latina characters. Naya Rivera was Afro-Latina and got her start in the TV industry as a child actress with roles on Black sitcoms including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. However, the Glee creators chose to emphasize Naya’s Latina heritage. According to GLAAD, during the 2011-2012 season, Santana was one of two queer Latina series regulars on cable television. “I just remember seeing Santana and being mesmerized by her…I never saw a [H]ispanic queer in the media, Santana was the first,” said junior Alyssa Vargas-Levine. “Being a queer Latina, that representation not only made me feel valid but also extremely loved.”
Glee introduced us to several members of Santana’s family, and in a Season Three episode, Santana comes out to her conservative abuela, who rejects her. Junior Isabella Getgey spoke about her reaction to this scene: “To see a queer woman claiming her sexuality instead of keeping it hidden…was really intense. The scene still makes me tear up a little bit because of how similar it was to my experience coming out to my parents. While my parents eventually came around and accepted my sexuality, the fear of rejection was still there, like it is for every queer child anywhere.” In Glee’s final season, Santana’s abuela comes to accept her granddaughter’s queerness and attends her wedding to Brittany.
Naya portrayed Santana with a nuance, care, and grace that transcended Glee’s often abysmal writing. When I was struggling to accept my sexuality at the ages of 13 and 14, Santana and Naya were my heroes. As I wrote in “Confessions,” Santana showed me that I was not alone, and that there were other people out there experiencing the same struggle that I was. When she came out to her abuela with the words, “I love girls the way that I’m supposed to feel about boys,” Santana showed me how to be brave. And Naya showed me how to fight for what is right, how to stand up for people whose voices are not being heard.
I have been a part of the online lesbian community since my Glee days. On July 8, 2020, the news broke that Naya Rivera had gone missing at a lake in California, and my social media feeds blew up. On Twitter, on Tumblr, and on other social media sites, queer fans were writing messages to Naya telling her how she had changed their lives and writing messages to each other to offer support. One Twitter user wrote, “I will always have a part of Naya Rivera with me. She was a long-standing ally who took pride in the work she did that made young lesbians, like me, feel whole and real.” A Tumblr user named Michaun wrote, “my heart hurts for [my fellow Brittana fans] right now but I look forward to standing up beside you and holding up Naya’s legacy…[I] love you all.” Five years after Glee ended, we were all united in hoping and praying that Naya would somehow return safely to us. On July 13, Naya’s body was found, on the anniversary of the day Glee cast member Cory Monteith passed away in 2013.
It is always difficult to know how to properly grieve a celebrity. I did not really know Naya, but from interviews that I have watched, from videos I have seen on social media, and from the words of her friends and family, I know that she was funny, brave, and a natural leader. From watching her for six years on Glee, I know that she had a beautiful, expressive voice, and that she was a deeply talented actress who could move effortlessly between Santana’s vicious comedic monologues and her truthful dramatic moments. I knew Naya well enough to love her, and she was my hero. She showed the rest of the world that she was a hero when, in the final moments of her life, she saved the life of her four-year-old son.
To my fellow fans, I am thankful that Naya brought us together, and that we can mourn her together. I see my pain reflected in your pain, my love for her reflected in your love.
To Naya’s friends and family, I recognize that the grief I feel about Naya is incomparable to the grief you feel. Thank you for sharing with us your memories of Naya. I hope that you can take some comfort in knowing how many people Naya helped, and how many people continue to love her.
To Naya, thank you. Thank you for the compassion and kindness you showed to my community, thank you for fighting for us, thank you for making us laugh and cry along with Santana. We will never forget you. Rest in power.