I’ve never cried over the loss of a celebrity as much as I did when Naya Rivera, who disappeared last week while on a boat with her four-year old son, was confirmed dead on Monday. It’s a strange feeling to mourn the loss of someone you never knew personally, but as I scrolled through my Twitter feed yesterday, it became even clearer to me how much Naya Rivera impacted the LGBTQ+ community. Like many other queer women, Rivera’s portrayal of Santana Lopez on Glee fostered my coming out experience and for that, I will forever be indebted to her.
When Glee first premiered in May 2009, I had a semblance of an idea that I was queer, but I was not ready to admit it to myself. A few years earlier, the thought had crossed my mind when I realized that not every sixth grade girl told her mom what her female English teacher was wearing to school each day. At the time, I brushed it off as normal teenage behavior akin to having a female role model you really want to be like. But after a few years of unsuccessfully trying to push my queerness away, I started to think there might be something to it.
Lucky for me, when I told my mom about my suspicions, she was extremely accepting. But even though she had such a positive reaction, I still had a lot of hesitation committing to any kind of queer identity. At the time, the only reference point I had to women dating women was Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. But I found myself thinking, “Ellen is more masculine, and Portia is more feminine. I’m a feminine woman attracted to other feminine women, so how do I fit into this equation? Is there something wrong with me?” But before I could think about it too much, my question was answered, as two feminine characters, Santana and Brittany, started to date each other in Glee’s second season.
Santana and Brittany or “Brittana,” as they are called, were one of the first femme-femme couples that allowed me to see that I fit somewhere within the LGBTQ community. I loved that they were uber feminine cheerleaders challenging dominant stereotypes about queer women. I loved that Santana had a hard edge to her, something that in retrospect I think I related to since I was battling my own internalized homophobia. And I especially loved the chemistry that Brittana had, whether they were in the Glee club singing Amy Winehouse together or snuggled up under the sheets. With their relationship, I finally felt seen.
The third season of Glee was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, but if I could go back, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In late November 2011, Santana decided to come out to her abuelita. In one of my favorite queer lines of all time, Santana tells her grandma: “I love girls, the way that I’m supposed to feel about boys.” But her grandmother coldly responds: “Everyone has secrets, Santana. They’re called secrets for a reason. I want you to leave this house. I don’t ever want to see you again.” I was absolutely devastated for Santana, and even though I don’t come from a Latinx family, I suspected that my own grandmother might react similarly given that she was a devout Roman Catholic and had grown up in Italy.
With these reservations at the forefront of my mind, I decided I could use this scene as an opportunity to talk to my other grandmother, who was also watching Glee at the time. I remember taking my nana into my bedroom a few weeks after the episode had aired and saying something like: “You remember how Santana came out to her grandma on Glee? Her grandmother had a terrible reaction to it, and I wanted to tell you that I’m gay because I know you’ll be supportive.” She gave me a giant hug, told me that she loved me, and of course, she would support me. It was a huge weight off of my shoulders and springboarded my coming out to friends and family around me, even my other grandmother, who I came out to about three years later. But perhaps more importantly, it helped me come out to myself.
Though Glee was filled with its own ups and downs as the seasons progressed, Santana Lopez and her journey will always resonate with me. In Glee’s sixth and final season, Santana and Brittany have a joint wedding with Kurt and Blaine, and I remember feeling so excited because it was the first time I had ever seen two women get married on television. The writers even made a nod to the Brittana fandom by having the couple give out “OTP” hats at their wedding, which stands for “one true pairing.”
As I continue to grieve the loss of a queer icon along with other members of the LGBTQ community, I hope we can all find solace in the lyrics that Darren Criss wrote for the series finale of Glee: “This time no one's gonna say goodbye / I keep you in this heart of mine / This time I know it's never over / No matter who or what I am / I'll carry where we all began / This time that we had, I will hold forever.”
Becca Damante is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Tagg magazine. Follow her on Twitter @beccadamante.