As the 2021 GLAAD Media Awards prepare to pay tribute to the late Naya Rivera, I would like to take a moment to celebrate the profound influence that she holds over generation after generation. No matter how you came to know her; whether it be through her acting or philanthropy; perhaps you may not be familiar with her at all, Naya touched the lives of millions around the world and her presence is still felt everlastingly so.
I have never been affected by the death of a celebrity as much as I have with Naya. I often wonder how it is possible to be so devastated over the passing of someone I had never truly known. How do you grieve such a loss? When I took to social media, the outpouring messages of grief and love were peculiarly enlightening. To see the extent of her reach; to have the weight of her existence put into perspective by countless tributes, is a sincere credit to Naya and her work.
I was introduced to Naya back in 2009 through her role as the fiery, quick-witted cheerleader, Santana Lopez, on Glee. Initially, Santana entered the series as the snarky second-in-command to Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron). She began as a minor character with little to no lines. Her objective? Take down the glee club. No one could have anticipated that Santana would leave such a perennial impact.
Naya was mesmerising to watch. Her performance as Santana remains unrivalled. Her tremendous talent radiated in every way imaginable. A genuine powerhouse. From her razor-sharp quips to hearing her sing for the first time, there was no denying that Naya was a force to be reckoned with. However, I did not only admire her soulful voice and brazen confidence; I applaud how she purposefully led the charge on tackling Santana’s romantic feelings towards her best friend, Brittany (Heather Morris).
Positive LGBTQ+ representation for women was nearly non-existent pre-Glee, with a lot of these characters and relationships treated as punchlines. They were never taken seriously, which was almost the case for Santana and Brittany… Until Naya stepped forward. She recognised the importance of this blossoming relationship; she shouldered the responsibility, and she provided a voice to the queer community. She understood that Santana’s conflict with her sexuality was a reality for people, and to play it off for laughs would be demeaning and regressive.
Santana embodied strength and resilience. She was bold and ruthless; she spoke freely, and carried herself courageously. There had never been a character quite like her on television and there is yet to be another. She was full of complexities. As Santana transitioned into a prominent figure within the show, the more exposure she faced, and Naya portrayed the balance between raw vulnerability and self-assurance with authenticity. Santana symbolised that it was possible to be both: emotional and empowered.
Not only was she an advocator for her work on-screen, Naya was forthright in talking about ethical dilemmas – particularly those endured by women – and mental health. She was an active donor for multiple charities – notably supporting LGBTQ+ and anti-racism campaigns. In 2016, her memoir; ‘Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up’, was released. Naya took this opportunity to discuss the gravity of eating disorders, abortion and the pressure to fit in, hoping to divert the stigma that typically condemns each topic.
I cannot begin to tell you how invigorating it was to have someone speak so candidly and passionately about these matters – especially a woman who had experienced them first-hand. Reading her book was a breath of fresh air and remarkably encouraging. It felt more like a casual chat between friends – albeit one sided, but equally as engaging. In fact, you do not even need to be familiar with Naya to enjoy her memoir because you feel so at ease whilst reading.
It is absolute unapologetic honesty; nothing is sugarcoated; purely a young woman using her platform to address what others would deem taboo. It gave myself – and plenty others I am certain – reassurance. Naya highlighted that these life hurdles are not shameful, nor should they be treated as such, but instead should be managed with compassion. Her words were nothing short of uplifting and put a great amount into perspective; granting irrefutable comfort towards anyone who shares similar experiences.
Naya was always giving back – to her fans and the community. She frequently collaborated with numerous non-profit organisations – most recently Alexandria House, which provides supportive housing for women and children in need. Naya was also known to have ran toy drives and volunteered with food banks and homeless shelters around Los Angeles. Her avidity and commitment to her work was life-changing and selflessly for the betterment of others.
There is so much more I would love to say about Naya Rivera. The impact she made is a rarity, and I am thankful that we experienced all that she was willing to share. A role model for endless reasons. Whether you are a woman, latinx, LGBTQ+, Naya shaped an entire generation whilst helping millions feel validated through empathy, benevolence and optimism.
Though this loss is still incomprehensible, the legacy that Naya leaves behind is monumental. An inspiration beyond words, and as I wrap this up, I’d like to leave you with one of my favourite quotes from her memoir;
“Your life doesn’t have to be perfect for you to be proud. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: the more imperfect your life has been, the prouder you should be, because it means you’ve come that much further, and also probably had a lot more fun along the way.” ~ Naya Rivera (1987 – 2020)
You can find more information on Alexandria House, GLAAD and BLM and how to help below: