Why JoJo Siwa’s coming out matters

As LGBTQ+ rights are clawed back from Trump, could it be a gearshift moment for America’s hetero-dominant cultural elite?

by Douglas Greenwood
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Jan 25 2021, 6:24pm

She did it on TikTok, to an audience of 31.6 million people. JoJo Siwa -- grinning and lip syncing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” -- sort of came out. The online star and Dance Moms alumni was wearing a rainbow hairbow and a hoodie emblazoned with multicoloured sequins that spelled her own name. It was a little coded at first, but she clarified things three days later in an Instagram Live titled “So so happy ”, thanking her followers for being receptive to “this side of me”, wearing a hoodie she was given as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

JoJo Siwa -- the 17-year-old known for being the motor-mouthed online influencer, turned Nickelodeon kid, turned arena-filling pop cultural entity -- is a member of the LGBTQ+ community. A T-shirt she wore on Instagram, gifted to her by her cousin, alludes to her being gay, but she’s not fully confirmed exactly how she’ll choose to publicly identify. “You know, I’ve thought about this and the reason I’m not ready to say this answer is because I don’t know this answer,” she said on that Instagram live.

Jojo’s reach is astronomical: she’s accumulated 3.3 billion YouTube views and tens of millions of followers across multiple platforms. To young kids, her core audience, she’s the face of poppy optimism. Her house, documented on her YouTube channel, is a hellfire, but feels like your childhood dreams writ large; colourful, filled with merch and candy. Videos of her speed-talking in vlogs have been transformed into compilations. Her music is part of that strange, glossy Disney Channel subgenre. Her 2016 track “Boomerang” has accumulated nearly one billion views on YouTube alone. It’s led to brand and merchandise deals left, right and centre. A conservative estimate of how much money she could have made selling her signature hairbows? Somewhere in the region of $400 million.

So, for a 17-year-old with a generation of young pre-teenage kids watching on to come out as queer, in a weightedly conservative America, feels like a gearshift occasion. The shelves of Walmart are plastered with her face; she’s set to perform a Nickelodeon-supported live show at Madison Square Garden this summer. She’s coming out in the midst of what’s still very much her moment -- lucrative contracts are attached to her name.

It may seem unremarkable in minor terms, but if we look at the wider picture, and the longstanding bigoted link between queerness and depraved sexuality, the unveiling of a kid star (not a reformed kid star, like Demi Lovato or Miley Cyrus) as a member of the LGBTQ+ community feels sort of momentous. After all, the past five years, through which JoJo has ascended as a politically inoffensive avatar for kid’s ambitions to be famous on the internet, have been mostly ruled by a Republican government in the USA. Trump’s power proliferates, and is echoed in the very same houses where JoJo Siwa’s presence is a mainstay. In a country where gay marriage is legal, but still considered immoral by the majority of Republican baby boomers, here you have the single greatest influence on many young girls refuting the very politics they’d be fed otherwise.

Even major pop stars, like Lady Gaga and Lil Nas X, who’ve made queerness central to their art, exist in a plane where censorship within households was easy from the beginning. From the start, they represented liberal figures engaging in politics and opinions that directly opposed those of many conservative parents. Banning their children from engaging with them was easy from the offset. But here is JoJo Siwa, having already embedded herself within that space, educating children about a subject they may never have been told about otherwise.

We see queerness as mainstream and accepted -- part of a wider cultural economy in which our existence is celebrated -- but often forget how rarely LGBTQ+ folks’ stories  permeate the mainstream. Even Ellen DeGeneres, a once-powerful, out daytime television host, came out at 29 in an environment even more homophobic than today’s. The queer art we know is brilliant -- think Pose and the onslaught of queer cinema -- still exists as a footnote in the world of domineering blockbusters and TV epics. Even calls for representation within these worlds, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are responded to with pithy, backtracking, JK Rowling-style identifiers. The characters you’ve seen a dozen times before are suddenly, according to a Disney press release, bisexual, actually.

But organic queerness is rarely seen in the way that it was this weekend. There is no coming out blueprint for JoJo Siwa. She can’t turn to Miley Cyrus’ bisexual coming out story because the context in which Miley did it -- emancipated, grown up -- is so far from the (yes, luxurious) life she leads, fed through a particularly suburban American family lens. What you’re seeing, God willing, is the beginning of something new. The arrival of a queer figure in American popular culture who, with her unequivocal, massive influence, has the power to teach kids about what their parents, their school, and what the media they consume seldom tells them: that people are different sometimes, and they can love whoever they like.

A good question to ask may be: Who came before JoJo Siwa? Who did young queer people see themselves in? So often, gay men in particular turn to the iconic matriarchs they see as teachers who embrace difference, either through their own queerness or allyship. But as pre-teenage kids, we seldom looked around us and found that representation within our own age group. What JoJo Siwa’s coming out signifies is the direct queering of modern American pop culture for a generation who’ve been ostracised by the Trump administration, and who see hope in change.

Who would have thought that this would come in the form of a hyperactive, hair-bow wearing, all-grins Nickelodeon kid? “I, right now, am super duper happy,” JoJo Siwa says in her coming out video. “What matters is that you guys know that, no matter who you love, that is okay.”

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