"I have been so incredibly fortunate to portray a character on television that has meant so much to so many within the LGBTQ community. Off screen, I am a woman who stands in support of equality, and equal rights for all. It has been one of the great blessings in my life to receive such love and touching stories as a result of my portrayal of Santana Lopez on Glee."
As made clear in this love letter to the LGBTQ+ community written for Billboard in 2017, Naya Rivera did not take lightly the impact her work on Glee had on fans of the show. Over the course of nearly 100 episodes during the Fox hit's six-year run from 2009 to 2015, viewers watched as Rivera's Santana struggled with her sexuality, eventually finding lasting love with BFF Brittany (Heather Morris) in what series creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan called "one of the first times an openly lesbian, high school relationship was seen on network television."
"Naya understood what 'Brittana' meant to the many young women who were seeing themselves represented on television for the first time," their statement, released following the confirmation of her death in 2020, continued. "Naya always made sure that Santana's love for Brittany was expressed with dignity, strength and with pure intentions. Naya was always moved by the girls who reached out to her to tell her how much Santana and Brittany's love affected them. Naya's obligation to them—and to all of her fans was obvious. She had the rare combination of humility and endless confidence in her talent."
In the days following her passing, which came after an afternoon spent on Lake Piru in California with son Josey that went tragically wrong, fans of the actress flooded the internet with loving tributes, making clear just how comforting it can be to see yourself and your struggle represented on TV while celebrating the singular and special spark Rivera had on screen.
"I cannot begin to describe the impact that Naya Rivera has had on my life. Through her portrayal of Santana, I was able to accept myself for who I am," Twitter user @meghanxgrace wrote. "She made me understand that it's okay to love whoever you want to love. I'm glad I had the privilege of having her as an LGBTQ+ representation onscreen throughout my childhood. You are deeply loved and will be dearly missed."
It's a sentiment that's shared by many.
Nia Lachau tweeted, "Naya Rivera's portrayal of Santana on Glee was life changing for me. I saw someone who was like me. Someone who was gay but was also beautiful and sassy and LATINA. Her character gave me strength when I was hiding who I was from everyone."
As Twitter user @Dodger_Jess83 pointed out, Rivera's work not only gave people struggling with their own sexuality some solace, it brought others together, as well. "Naya Rivera had a huge impact on my life," she tweeted. "If it wasn't for her playing Santana Lopez, I wouldn't have met my girlfriend. We bonded over Brittana. This year it will be 7 years for Brianne and I. Thank you Naya for everything."
Over on reddit, user tar_r shared, "Santana was the first time I saw a gay/queer woman quite literally anywhere. The character's storylines made me feel like I was okay, in some aspects. Very truthfully, the show made me feel that no matter who hated me for who I am, no matter who bullied me, no matter who was against my sexuality, I was okay because it wasn't actually a bad thing. That show, through Santana, was the ONLY THING THAT TOLD ME THAT. NO ONE ELSE DID. My teachers didn't like me because of my sexuality, my peers, only my two friends were the ones who never once cared that I liked girls. No one in my life told me that gay was okay other than Santana Lopez."
There were also celebrities who mentioned the positive impact Rivera's character made on them as they watched her groundbreaking performance of a queer woman of color.
As Pose star Ryan Jamaal Swain wrote on Twitter, "One of the first queer characters I saw myself in, Miss Santana Lopez. A QPOC on Primetime television. Naya, thank you for handling her with care, what a force you are. It's not easy but you ran your race. You were and forever will be one of my heros [sic]."
YouTuber Hannah Hart noted, "#NayaRivera & the Santana storyline on Glee freed many closed-minded, self-hating gays like me. Only a multi-talented performer & force like Naya could bring a background character forward into the spotlight."
Even performers who shared the screen with her, as Demi Lovato did for a brief time in the show's fifth season, were changed by Rivera's character. "I'll forever cherish the opportunity to play your girlfriend on Glee," the superstar shared on Twitter. "The character you played was groundbreaking for tons of closeted (at the time) queer girls like me, and your ambition and accomplishments were inspiring to Latina women all over the world."
A person's legacy can be measured in so many directions. While Rivera's greatest mark on the planet will be her beloved son, Josey, the support she provided for the LGBTQ community both on screen and off—she was an avid supporter of both GLAAD and The Trevor Project—comes in a close second. And that's something she would readily—and proudly—admit.
As she concluded that letter to Billboard a few years back, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Here's hoping she knew the pleasure was all ours.
This story was originally published on Monday, July 20, 2020 at 1:59 p.m. PT.