A few weeks ago, I was one of many heartbroken over the news that Naya Rivera was missing, presumed dead. A few days later, she was gone. It was difficult to take in.
Like many queers born in the late 90s or early 00s, I gravitated towards Glee as a teen. It was an integral part of my coming of age and, eventually, coming out. Naya’s portrayal of Santana Lopez was one of the show’s highlights for me.
I know we’ve come a long way since then, and God knows Glee wasn’t unproblematic. Arguably, in the end, it wasn’t even a good show anymore. But in 2009, before Love, Simon and all the representation we’ve been getting in the past few years, what else was 10-year-old me supposed to watch? Where else was I supposed to see myself? How was I supposed to figure out what it was about me that made me different from everyone else? And who was going to make me feel that I wasn’t actually different from everyone, because there were others like me out there?
Yes, Glee was full of clichés and stereotypes and karaoke-like covers, and it very much became the very thing it began as a parody of. But dammit, I loved it. Those early seasons still hold a place in my heart. And few characters touched me more than Santana.
She may have been a bitch, but wow, was she complex, and nuanced, and layered. She was the popular, cheerleader mean girl. And then she was the girl most LGBTQ+ people have been at some point; she was discovering herself, she was realising she wasn’t like the others, and she was terrified. She made some terrible decisions because of this fear. She had status at school and a family whose approval mattered to her. And it was raw and hard to watch and frustrating and real. Because I know that fear. I have felt that internalised homophobia. I have made those bad decisions.
Nowadays, it’s rare to be introduced to any other kind of lesbian than the lipstick variety in the media. But as quite a feminine person who used to identify as a lesbian, it’s comforting, when your only concept of that word is a butch, shorthaired, leather-wearing biker, to see someone who feels the same way as you, and isn’t all that different. Santana was a solid 6 on the Kinsey scale, yet she was a style icon, feminine, beautiful, and a cheerleader. It made me realise that I could be that word. It made me realise that I didn’t have to change to fit society’s expectations of what that should look like. I’m sorry to all the butches who aren’t getting to see themselves like that, because it’s such a validating feeling. It’s like a hug. And who wouldn’t want to be hugged by Naya Rivera?
I’m not saying Glee provided the best of representation all the time. And I’m not saying bad representation is better than no representation, because it isn’t and it can actually be harmful. Nor am I implying that Glee was a groundbreaking show in its progressiveness. It wasn’t the first of it’s kind; we’d already had The L-Word and Will & Grace.
What I’m saying is, it was important. It was important for all the gay kids to see themselves on screen. I’m saying it meant something to me, before I even knew that it did, to watch Santana go through her journey of self-discovery. One that was rough at times. That included getting a beard, being rejected by her grandmother, and other hiccups. But what meant even more was seeing her come through the other side of it all. And she was okay. She was happy, successful, and married to the love of her life. (Sorry about the spoilers, but really, it saves you from having to watch season 6 yourself.)
Like we’ll all be okay. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the rough part of coming to terms with your identity and expressing it to the world. You’ll be okay.
So, thank you, Naya, for giving us this queer icon. For portraying her with such passion and integrity and realness. For letting us know that we exist, and we’re okay.
I hope you knew the difference you made. Rest in peace.
Photo courtesy of Delia Giandeini