How Naya Rivera Championed Equality, Self-Acceptance and LGBTQ Rights

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Naya Rivera devoted her life to the arts and helping others. The late 33-year-old actress championed diversity and was a huge supporter of the LGBTQ community. Her legacy will be one of inclusion, equality and self-acceptance. The Glee star was confirmed dead on July 13, days after she was reported missing following a boat ride on Lake Piru in California with her young son

Rivera first graced our screens at the age of 4, playing Hillary Winston on the CBS sitcom The Royal Family. But, it was her breakout role in Glee as queer Afro-Latina Santana Lopez that allowed audiences to see her acting range and musical talents. Santana was introduced to the series as a typical high school cheerleader who, despite her feisty demeanor, struggled with her sexuality.

As the series unfolded, Santana's storyline became an integral component to the success of the show. Rivera appeared in nearly 100 episodes during the musical dramedy's six-year run from 2009 to 2015. 

Santana's relationship with Brittany (Heather Morris) on the show broke barriers and made history. 

"Naya is responsible for numerous iconic Glee musical performances -- the Adele Mash Up, 'Valerie,' 'Songbird,' but her greatest Glee legacy is probably the humor and humanity that she brought to Santana’s relationship with her best friend and eventual girlfriend/wife Brittany (played by Heather Morris)," Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan said in a statement following her death. "It was one of the first times an openly lesbian, high school relationship was seen on network television and Naya understood what 'Brittana' meant to the many young women who were seeing themselves represented on television for the first time."

"Naya always made sure that Santana’s love for Brittany was expressed with dignity, strength and with pure intentions. Naya was always moved by the girls who reached out to her to tell her how much Santana and Brittany’s love affected them," the creators continued. "Naya’s obligation to them -- and to all of her fans was obvious. She had the rare combination of humility and endless confidence in her talent."

Over the years, Rivera expressed how "incredibly fortunate" she felt 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 equality, and equal rights for all," Rivera penned in an open letter to the LGBTQ community in 2017 for Billboard. "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 on Glee."

"We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it," she added.

As we continue to honor Rivera's legacy, ET is highlighting a few of the important causes and organizations that were close to her heart.

GLAAD

For many years, during and after portraying Santana, Rivera volunteered with the LGBTQ organization. In her early Glee days, she participated in an anti-bullying campaign in 2011, as well as hosted the 23rd Annual GLAAD Media Awards in 2012.

The Trevor Project

The organization, which focuses on suicide prevention in the LGBTQ community, was also important to Rivera. Speaking out against bullying and to support suicide prevention efforts, the actress participated in various events, including Trevor Live, the annual holiday musical variety show that benefits The Trevor Project.

"I really just wanted to help in any way that I can. I know all the great things they do," she told SuperPopVIP in 2013. "I definitely feel strongly about a cause like this, largely in part to to the fact that I play a lesbian on TV. It is really important."

Latinx Community

Rivera's character on Glee spoke to Latinas and brown queer people. In season 3, Santana comes out to her religious grandmother with a heartfelt speech. It allowed the show to tell a different coming out story. Since Glee ended, other Latina LGBTQ characters have emerged on the small screen in shows like Pose, One Day at a Time and Vida. 

"There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."

Rivera was proud of her heritage and celebrated the Latinx community. "We Latinas are very independent and strong," she said in an interview with Cosmopolitan in 2014. "Latin women are go-getters by nature."

I Am an Immigrant

Rivera teamed up with Welcome.us to support the I Am an Immigrant campaign in 2014. She made her directorial debut with the short film Love, America. The campaign encourages all Americans to celebrate the contributions that immigrants have made -- and continue to make -- every day.

"Had so much fun directing this! Thank you to @Welcome_us. Hope you all enjoy it," she tweeted at the time.

Sunshine Foundation

Rivera also made children's dreams come true by participating and volunteering with the Sunshine Foundation, which works to grant wishes to children with severe physical disabilities and life-threatening illnesses.

Rivera spread a bit of sunshine and made an appearance for the foundation at a Winners store in Toronto in 2012. The actress met Glee fan Taylor Lindsay-Noel, who was 18 at the time and a former gymnast on Canada's national team before a major neck injury left her paralyzed.

"It honestly was such an amazing experience; she’s such a nice person. I’m not just saying that, she is,” Lindsay-Noel said, according to the Toronto Sun, adding, "Her character on Glee has the most spunk."

Rivera couldn't have been happier to meet Lindsay-Noel, expressing, "She’s wonderful, as are all of the kids at the Sunshine Foundation."

Alliance of Moms

Rivera also worked with organizations that helped mothers. She helped raised awareness and funds for Alliance of Moms, which supports pregnant and parenting teens in foster care so they can build a positive future for their families.

Naya Rivera 2017
Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Alliance of Moms

Black Lives Matter

One of her final acts of activism came on Breonna Taylor's birthday, June 5, 2020, when Rivera attended a protest in Los Angeles to demand justice for the late emergency medical technician who was fatally shot by police officers in her home.

Rivera also expressed her happiness after Louisville, Kentucky, Taylor's hometown, banned no-knock warrants.

"And I'll be happier when they arrest and charge the officers who are responsible for her death #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor," she tweeted.

For more on Rivera's life and legacy, see below. 

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