"Naya Rivera is being remembered in headlines as a 'former Glee star,' but to countless queer women like me across the globe, she has been and will always be so much more," says Dorothy Snarker. "Her sudden tragic death, confirmed Monday, has sent a wave of profound sadness across what was once a vibrant and vital fandom. And it's a reminder how much it means when the people who portray LGBTQ characters become fierce advocates for that very same community. Rivera's Glee character, Santana Lopez, was always written to be devastating — the smoking hot cheerleader with the razor-sharp wit and bitch-with-pom-poms attitude. But over the course of the show's six seasons, she became a beacon to lesbian, bisexual and questioning fans, especially young Latinx and Black fans, many of whom were seeing themselves onscreen for the first time. Now her death devastates us all over again. Her character's evolution on the show was also proof of the power of fandom in the early days of social media. In fact, she may have never become such a queer icon without it. Make no mistake, us fans willed the onscreen relationship into existence between Rivera's Santana and her best friend and fellow cheerleader Brittany S. Pierce (played by Heather Morris)." Snarker adds: "In the Brittana story and fandom, queer viewers found not only a voice but also power. Those in the LGBTQ community have long been accustomed to table scraps when it comes to representation in mainstream stories. Yes, things have gotten progressively better over the years and a character revealing her, his or their sexuality is no longer the stuff of Very Special Episodes. But through Twitter and other social media, we found a concrete way to petition for what we'd wanted all along — fully realized relationships between two out female characters who were (in the parlance of fandom) endgame. While straight couples have countless romantic pairings to choose from onscreen, queer women were still waiting for their happily ever afters. The onscreen pair eventually married in a joint wedding with the show's queer male couple, Kurt and Blaine, in the final season."
Naya Rivera as Santana Lopez gave a generation of queer people a role model: "That sounds so serious and stodgy — 'a role model for a generation' — for a character whose lines in any given episode included from one to 27 instances of her verbally dressing down any person who dared get in her way or under her skin," says Madison Malone Kircher. "But that’s why she mattered so much. She was human. She f*cked up. She was just as much gay icon when she was in the closet as she was when she was out of it. She made it okay to know that you were queer but also know that you were frustrated and scared and angry and, sometimes, hopeful about being queer. She loved deeply and openly and grew, all of which is a testament to the gentle care and energy Rivera put into playing her. She existed on mainstream television in a time where looking for queer women on television yielded incredibly limited results. That was more than enough. She was, well, like never before."
Rivera's Santana Lopez helped change queer TV history: "I don't use the word 'legacy' lightly," says Dana Piccoli. "But Rivera and her beloved Glee character, Santana Lopez, helped change queer television history. She paved the way for the Waverly Earps and Elena Alverezes of the world. Santana danced and sang through her pain, her confusion and, ultimately, her joy, and as she did, so did we." Piccoli adds: "Rivera's role remained an integral part of the Glee story, and Santana's on-again, off-again relationship with Brittany was the heart of the series for many fans. Many queer people felt seen in a way they never had before. As documented on social media, people inspired by the Brittana love story came out. They talked to their parents. They fell in love. They found families. They found courage. There was even a convention dedicated to Santana and Brittany."
It was important to see a queer person of color on TV: "Glee has been off the air for five years already. Since the May 2015 finale, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the series beyond going down a YouTube rabbit hole of performances every so often," says Patrick Gomez. "So it surprised me how much Rivera’s disappearance and now death hit me. But in writing this piece, it became clear to me how much I needed to see a character like Santana growing up. I was long out of Glee’s target demo even before it premiered, but watching a queer person of color blossom as Santana did over six seasons was cathartic. Just 10 years since its premiere, I’m happy to see the number of diverse queer characters has exploded—but I’ll always be grateful for Santana, and in turn, Rivera. To paraphrase the show’s fast-talking narrator, that’s what I’ll miss from Glee."
Rivera's Step Up: High Water co-stars pay tribute: "Never judge a book by its cover," says Lauryn Alisa McClain, who appeared on the first season of the then-YouTube series. "When I looked at Naya, I saw her spirit. She had one of the most innocent, purest spirits that I have ever come across to this day. She was so sweet. It’s very easy to judge someone. She was definitely a bright light for me when I was in a dark place. She made things better when she was around."