Nothing about JoJo Siwa’s coming-out looked like anything I’d recognized as a coming-out.
First, it involved a lot of sleuthing, at least on my part. It started with a TikTok of the bedazzled children’s entertainer lip-synching to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” posted last Thursday. On its own, I thought it was a big nothing. Who doesn’t like that song? Maybe she was just being an ally; maybe she was in some kind of mood following the inauguration. Sure, there were some supportive comments from fellow influencers, but even those weren’t clear.
On the same day, TikToker Kent Boyd posted a video of Siwa dancing with members of Pride House LA, a collaboration house for queer creators. The caption referenced the lyrics of the Paramore song playing in the video: “Now you’re one of us.” Simple camaraderie!
At this point, I tweeted something about how the whole thing made me uncomfortable — all this speculation. I’d been taught that being declaring someone queer before they explicitly say it is always wrong. But then I deleted the tweet. I had a gut check. What if I was being the weird one?
Well, spoiler, I was. With a picture of a queer-themed T-shirt and on Instagram Live, Siwa, who is 17, confirmed on Jan. 23 this was indeed her coming out. The Gen Z teens and young adults who follow her and commented recognized it for what it was immediately, while I was in denial. But that shows how much coming out has evolved past my outdated millennial comfort zone.
I grew up learning that coming out was a big deal. The biggest deal. An event! Stepping out of the closet wasn’t to be taken casually. There should be balloons that pop to reveal rainbow confetti or an Elton John impersonator or something. It should be accompanied by immeasurable anxiety, and no matter how you expect the news to be taken, you have to do it. You must! You’re not a true self-loving queer until you bite that particular bullet.
When I was a closeted teen, celebrities coming out was the biggest to-do possible. In 2006, Lance Bass came out with a People cover with a giant headline that said “I’M GAY.” The only famous lesbian I really knew was Ellen DeGeneres, who’d come out with a similar magazine cover in 1997 that, for a time, derailed her career. It was an era when getting outed seemed more likely than outing yourself, and gay rumors about people like Ricky Martin were salacious gossip.
That was my blueprint when I came out to my own family, drenched in anxious sweat and convinced that following through would make me a real queer. An out queer.
When I was a closeted teen, celebrities coming out was the biggest to-do possible.
But times change. Gen Z is more openly queer than any generation before it. One 2018 survey, from Ipsos, reported that a full third of Gen Z’ers are, in some way, not straight. As for celebrities, you could make a list of those who came out publicly in 2020 alone that’s longer than one of those who came out in the early aughts. That’s not to say there’s no backlash or anti-gay harassment. There is. And these coming-outs are celebrated within queer communities, but to a larger audience in the US, a young celebrity coming out is a blip.
On TikTok, queerness is discussed in ways I never saw as a teen. There seem to be a million more ways to identify, capturing both hyper-specific desires and the gray area where you’re not quite sure. And there’s flexibility. I’ve seen TikToks about young people who came out as one thing, then again as something else, and then maybe choose a different label later on. And it’s OK. The comments tell them it’s fine, people change, knowing yourself is a journey, not a destination.
That’s the world Gen Z has grown up in, and it’s being reflected in how they’re coming out. Siwa is a prime example. She followed up those initial TikToks with a photo of a shirt her cousin had sent her that says “Best. Gay. Cousin. Ever,” and in an Instagram Live, she said she wasn’t ready to declare a label just yet.
What I read initially as vague, her peers simply saw as casual. While I wrung my hands over whether we were jumping to conclusions, Siwa’s fans were dropping heart-eyes emojis and congratulating her.
I felt like those grumps who don’t want student loans to be forgiven because they had to pay them at one time. Why should Siwa get to mosey out of the closet when I felt like I had to claw the door down?
What I read initially as vague, her peers simply saw as casual.
Of course, that’s not fair. I want things to be easier for the next generation of queers. I want someone like Siwa, or some kid living in a small town somewhere, to be able to be queer on their own terms and with as much support as possible. We're far from the point where coming out isn't a concept at all, so as long as it's still necessary, I want it to be as easy as possible. Because coming out can be stressful, and we don’t really know how difficult it may have been for Siwa or if she worried about sharing that part of herself with her family or how this news would impact her career.
Of course, Siwa is not even close to an average 17-year-old. She’s famous, wealthy, and white. And though she did take a risk in that she works as a children’s entertainer, Siwa in all likelihood won’t take a hit for coming out. But as much as things have changed, they haven’t changed for everyone. For many people, whether teens or adults, coming out is still not a safe thing to do.
In 2016, transgender artist and writer Vivek Shraya wrote for BuzzFeed about the pressure we put on LGBTQ people to come out, especially to their parents, in the pursuit of some phony concept of honesty. Not only is that damaging, it ignores that differing cultures, religions, and families can make coming out not just stressful, but a threat to one’s safety.
“What would happen if instead of asking trans and queer people if they have come out to their parents, we told them that they are loved, that parental acceptance is not paramount to living queerly, and that we have a rich history of building chosen families that allow each other to be seen fully and adored?” Shraya wrote.
So as much as Siwa is an example of a new era in coming out, we can’t see the way she did it, or the way peers her age have done it, as a blueprint. It’s just another option that some people will have safe access to, and I’m glad to see that those options are expanding.
Even for me, with Ellen as my guide, coming out wasn’t one big bandage to rip off. I’ve come out dozens of times since, to new people, to old people, to the internet, to coworkers, to my dentist when I say “girlfriend” during the awkward small talk. I’ve never really stopped coming out, and I suspect I never will unless I always wear a shirt my friend gave me with a cat on it that says “lesbians eat what?” But even then, I’m sure I’ll be asked about my boyfriend.
Still, even a millennial queer can learn new tricks. I’ve recently changed my pronouns, from she/her to she/they, after some soul searching and hours of therapy. I made a tweet about it, short and sweet. No label, no call to my parents, no screenshot of the Notes app, and with the knowledge (reinforced through said therapy) that I could take it back or change it whenever I wanted. And I have to say, it felt pretty good. ●