Ten years ago on Fox’s Glee, Santana Lopez came out of the closet as lesbian as she found her voice on the beloved teen musical series. Played by actress Naya Rivera, the character has since been praised as a groundbreaking role model for LGBTQ teens and LGBTQ Latinx teens.
To honor the milestone and pay tribute to the late Rivera, who drowned last July while boating with her son at Lake Piru in Ventura County, California, 16 Glee castmembers gathered virtually as part of Thursday night’s GLAAD Media Awards. The organization was a champion of the hit show, honoring it as outstanding comedy series twice in back-to-back ceremonies, in 2010 and 2011. Rivera also hosted the show on two occasions, once by herself and another time opposite Glee co-star Cory Monteith (who also met a tragic fate when he died of an overdose in 2013).
The special segment opened with pop superstar Demi Lovato, who had an arc on the series playing Dani, the girlfriend of Lopez. “I will always cherish the chance I got to play Naya’s girlfriend, Dani, on Glee,” said Lovato, who identifies as pansexual in real life. “The character Naya played, Santana Lopez, was groundbreaking for closeted queer girls, like I was at the time. Her ambition and accomplishments inspired Latina women all over the world.”
Lovato then introduced the Glee cast, which included Jacob Artist, Chris Colfer, Darren Criss, Jessalyn Gilsig, Dot-Marie Jones, Vanessa Lengies, Jane Lynch, Kevin McHale, Heather Morris, Matthew Morrison, Alex Newell, Lauren Potter, Amber Riley, Harry Shum Jr., Becca Tobin and Jenna Ushkowitz. (Notably absent was star Lea Michele.)
Gathering on a virtual call, the actors each took a turn sharing memories and praise for Rivera. Potter said she was “always in awe of how talented she was.” Criss added, “There was so much more than met the eye with Naya.” Lynch recalled first seeing Rivera on set when she was a bit player. “I always thought she was cute and was a great dancer,” she explained, “and then [co-creator Ryan Murphy] started giving her lines and I was like, ‘Wow, this girl is really something.'”
Tobin was equally awestruck. “I remember getting to work one day and she was performing ‘Nutbush City Limits.’ I think that was the first time I had seen her [perform live]. You could not take your eyes off of her.” Newell added: “She quite literally turned that song out.”
Ushkowitz said that Rivera always made everybody laugh on screen and off, “but the real win is if you made her laugh.” She added that Rivera’s “best role was being a mom.” Morrison also mentioned Rivera’s transition to motherhood, having a son, Josey, with former partner Ryan Dorsey. “Naya and I were good friends on the show but I think we became much better friends when we both had children,” he explained. “To see her put all that energy into her son was an incredible sight to see and something I’ll always remember.”
Lengies said she will never forget the scene during which Rivera’s character came out as lesbian to her grandmother. It was an emotional and pivotal moment in Lopez’s trajectory on the series, “and it still makes me cry,” she added, as it saw the grandmother disown Lopez.
Gilsig shared brief comments and then read a prepared statement from Yolanda Previtire, Rivera’s mother who was not available to join the ceremony. “When Naya was told that Santana would be a lesbian, she called me to let me know and I asked her how did she feel about that and she said, ‘I feel great about it.’ Little did we know that she would impact so many people in the LGBTQ community,” read the statement. “Her desire was to always be an advocate to those who did not have a voice. I don’t believe that she realized how important she was to this world. I am grateful that my eldest daughter helped to change the landscape of how we view and see each other.”