Naya Rivera and Heather Morris at the Paley Festival 2011 panel on Glee / Francis Orante / Wikimedia Commons
“Abuelita – I love girls, the way I’m supposed to feel about boys.”
The year was 2011, and Santana Lopez had just made it official: she told her grandmother she was a lesbian. The scene was masterfully acted, of course, not to mention heartbreakingly written. But it was more than that, too. It was thrilling. As a queer, and deeply closeted young girl, it represented an act of bravery I didn’t think I’d ever arrive at.
Spoiler alert: I got there. But in 2011, it felt impossible.
All I had were a couple of books about lesbianism, a small number of YouTubers, and then, on prime time television, Santana.
It’s easy to make fun of Glee. Lord knows I’ve partaken. It’s also easy to forget exactly what it was. I think a lot of people place Glee in the High School Musical pantheon: cutesy, colourful, and, most of all, innocent.
But Glee wasn’t really like that at all.
While High School Musical’s Ryan is coded, to an almost farcical degree, as gay, his sexuality is never spoken of. In the High School Musical universe, queerness barely exists.
In Glee, it’s central – and it’s essentially articulated from episode one.
As with most things, it begins with a white male. But the journey the show takes with its queer characters, be it Kurt, Blaine, Unique, Santana, or bisexual Brittany, are long and complex. It certainly doesn’t nail everything, in fact, the show’s blunders are pretty bloody massive, but Glee tried to explore issues that other shows simply weren’t touching. Certainly not on prime time. Certainly not in 2009, 2010, 2011.
In the wake of Naya Rivera’s tragic and untimely death, I, like a lot of people, have revisited Glee on Netflix. And I’ve been surprised by what I’ve found. The show, while ridiculous, is also a lot more in-on-the-joke than I had remembered. And Naya, as the brilliant, caustic, incredibly talented Santana, is a star. She flits in and out of the pilot episode almost wordlessly - but her presence (while surely coloured by a bit of hindsight) is massive. Rivera wasn’t originally cast as a series regular but, in one of the smartest moves Glee ever made, she was quickly bumped up.
Eventually, she was the girlfriend of Demi Lovato’s Dani.
Said Lovato on Instagram, “Naya, I’ll forever cherish the opportunity to play your girlfriend on Glee. The character you played was ground-breaking for tons of closeted queer girls (like me at the time) and open queer girls, and your ambition and accomplishments were inspiring to Latina women all over the world.”
For a teenage girl watching from the cheap seats in West Auckland, Santana Lopez was a revelation. She wasn’t some Sapphic chick in an unwatchable French film. She wasn’t some chain-smoking riot grrrl in a cult 90s doco. She was a teenager in a high school. And as she came out to her grandmother, that night in 2011, my heart was in my throat. I wouldn’t come out to my parents for another four years. But as Santana Lopez, brilliantly realized by Naya Rivera, took a breath and opened her mouth, it almost felt as if, one day, I could.Support Villainesse