Inside Naya Rivera's Legacy as an LGBTQ TV Trailblazer: 'Meant So Much to So Many Queer Women'
Naya Rivera was reported missing on Wednesday after her 4-year-old son was found alone in a boat on a California lake
Naya Rivera's Glee character Santana Lopez was more than just a singing, high school cheerleader — she was an LGTBQ trailblazer.
The star was reported missing Wednesday after a trip to Lake Peru in Ventura County, California, with her 4-year-old son Josey (whom she shares with ex-husband Ryan Dorsey). Five days later, police recovered her body from the lake. She was 33.
When news of Rivera's disappearance and death broke, fans flooded Twitter, praising her contribution to the representation of queer people on the small screen.
"I'm so saddened and disturbed by the news of Naya Rivera. Naya meant so much to so many queer women my age. Her character on Glee awakened a generation repressed. Thank you, Naya," writer Jill Gutowitz tweeted on Thursday, when Rivera was presumed dead.
Rivera's Santana started as a feisty William McKinley High School mean girl, but she evolved over the six seasons as she came to terms with her sexuality. Santana came out in the 2011 episode "I Kissed a Girl" after developing feelings for best friend Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris).
Her coming out was monumental for fans like Cole Delbyck, who said on Twitter: "Part of what feels so devastating about #NayaRivera news is that we were all waiting for her second act."
"She stole every last scene of Glee with ease due to her trademark snark — truly some of the best lines reads in TV history," he wrote.
"But she also gave us SO MUCH MORE and delivered, in my eyes, the finest performance of the series. As her character came to terms with her sexuality, Naya beautifully revealed that Santana could be vulnerable without giving up any of her power."
"Just thinking about her 'Rumor Has It/Someone Like You' performance gives me chills. While she's continued to work since then, I was always hoping to read about her booking a spot in some other Ryan Murphy project or to see her in a role that lived up to her many talents," Delbyck continued.
"She was the breakout star of that show. I hope that she's somehow found and can return home. Praying for her safety and her family during this time," he concluded.
Rivera appeared on Glee from season 1 to the show's final season 6 in 2015. A source told PEOPLE that the actress was "fully dedicated to her craft."
"Anything she did, she put her all into. She always made sure to involve everybody around her. It was never just about her. It was about everybody getting experience everything that she was doing together," the source said. "She made sure everybody felt bigger than they maybe were."
The source, who was close to Rivera during her Glee days, also noted the star's activism. Rivera was a proud ally for the LGBTQ community, and in her 2016 memoir Sorry Not Sorry, she candidly shared her personal mental health journey, including overcoming an eating disorder as a teen. Throughout the years, she also opened up about embracing her identity as a Latina woman in Hollywood (she was half Puerto Rican).
"She was not selfish. She was a very strong person. I think she was ahead of her time for speaking up on certain issues. If you look back around 2011, she was on the forefront of it all. Partnering with GLAAD and doing different things with her heritage," the source said. "Most people at the start of their careers, she didn't care if she faced backlash — she just wanted to make sure she spoke out. Some people would've hidden, but she took everything head on."
In 2017, Rivera wrote a love letter to the LGBT community for Billboard, saying, "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 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 in Glee."
Just this year, in the wake of protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, Rivera supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
"In times like these and always we must stand up and be counted. Stand up against injustice. Prejudice. Pure evil. These are photos of my grandma protesting for civil rights in the 60s. She was an advocate for civil, women's, and human rights. She is my hero," Rivera wrote alongside a newspaper clipping of her grandmother.
"This morning I meditated on her, on what we are all seeing play out in front of us today. It has been playing out for decades. We have been fighting this same fight for centuries. I am proud to come from a lineage of people who stand up for what is right. I am proud of every peaceful protestor, every person who is saying NO. I know my grandma Clara is looking down on me, on all of us and encouraging everyone to keep up the GOOD fight. The fight that gets our point across without giving anyone access to taint our mission with a false narrative of who we really are. Justice. Equality. Peace. Respect. My grandma stood up. I stand up," she added.
Aside from her activism, Rivera was a loving mother to her son.
"Her son comes first. That’s apparent in everything she’s posted and done. Everything is about her son," the source told PEOPLE.
Before her death, Rivera won several awards, including an ALMA Award for favorite TV actress — leading role in a comedy in 2012. She also won a Gold Derby Award for best comedy supporting actress in 2009. Rivera and the cast of Glee took home a SAG Award in 2010 for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series.