I came out in 2005.
I was 13-years-old and the only middle schooler I knew who was out in my New Jersey suburb. Times were bleak, and hadn’t changed too much by 2009, when “Glee” came on the air.
Queer representation in mainstream media up until this point was Ellen DeGeneres, maybe a character in “Degrassi” and the original “Queer Eye” cast. We were relegated to side plots and fairy godparents who made straight people’s lives better, whether with a new haircut or bad dance moves.
I wouldn’t say “Glee” changed my life. I don’t even think I made it to the last season, which aired after I graduated from college. But Naya Rivera’s portrayal of Santana Lopez was the first time I felt like I could really see myself in a character on television.
I remember the first time I heard Santana hint at being in a romantic relationship. I felt like I had a mini stroke and had misheard. Did she really just say “sweet lady kisses?” I remember whipping my head around, desperately trying to make eye contact with another queer teenager with whom I could freak out.
(Alone in my living room, there wasn’t one.)
Santana is shown making out with another character on the show, Brittany, throughout the first season. I was familiar with making out in secret before my parents came home, but it was never something I thought I’d see on prime time television. From there, their relationship got more and more airtime, and I felt more and more connected to these two characters. They felt real.
Though I’m not Latinx, it meant something to see a queer character with brown skin and a devoutly Catholic family like mine navigate her first love, coming out and surviving high school — all things I could relate to and had freshly gone through, too.
Rivera’s Santana showed me that there was no one way to be gay. She was a gorgeous femme, spoke her mind and was unapologetically herself, even when it led to heartbreak and family trauma. Watching her come out to her abuela allowed me to revisit and process my own feelings about how my parents reacted (and were still reacting) to my coming out a few years earlier.
If “Glee” had come out today, folks might have been critical of a straight actor playing a queer character. But in this case, the care Naya Rivera had for playing Santana and the broader queer community was clear. Her involvement with organizations like GLAAD and her outspoken support of her queer fans was a protective comfort. She really was on our side.
My heart hurts for a life tragically cut short, especially now, when the weight of this year and those we’ve already lost often feels too much to bear. I pray for her family, friends and son.
I think of all the queer kids like me who saw Santana Lopez and saw ourselves in her.
Thank you, Naya.