“Baba, I’m so excited I could cry, but I don’t want to mess up my makeup!” That was my six -year-old daughter from the backseat of our car on the way to see her very first concert: a stadium show in Hershey, PA, featuring her idol, 18-year-old dancer, singer and social media star JoJo Siwa.
As we belted out the hits like “Dance Through The Day,” “Only Getting Better” and “Nobody Can Change Me!” in our glitter eye shadow, the excitement was palpable, and not just for my daughter. As a 40-something queer, non-binary parent of two elementary school age kids, I was almost as thrilled to be heading to the D.R.E.A.M. tour to see not just JoJo Siwa, the entertainer, but JoJo Siwa, newly minted LGBTQ+ star.
Siwa first became famous for her stint on the show “Dance Moms” back in 2015, and since then has built a sequined pop kingdom of YouTube videos, branded apparel, TV appearances, dance performances, and truly infectious songs. A teenage triple-threat entertainer/influencer/entrepreneur, TIME named her one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
In 2021, JoJo Siwa flipped the script on what many believed to be her carefully curated lifestyle brand by announcing she was a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Since then, Siwa has doubled down on her messages of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance in her songs, her social media messaging, and even her actions, making history in 2021 by dancing as part of the first same-sex couple in the U.S. version of “Dancing with The Stars”, Season 30. Never before had a pop star with a largely elementary school age fanbase come out publicly and to her 54 million fans who follow her across TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, JoJo’s coming out was a very big deal.
There was another level of true joy for me, to be sharing this moment as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, with my daughter, who is the proud product of two loving same-sex parents, watching a tween idol exude confidence and authenticity about her differences and how they make her—and everyone else—special.
Sitting in the audience of that packed stadium filled with elementary and middle schoolers, glittered outfits and bedazzled bows shining under the concert lights, I couldn’t help but feel the buzz of anticipation and excitement washing over me.
Was it just cool to be in a crowd, sharing the electric experience of a live performance? Yes. To share it with my young daughter, who was in total disbelief this was even HAPPENING and she would actually see JoJo IN PERSON? Even better. But to take it a step further, there was another level of true joy for me, to be sharing this moment as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, with my daughter, who is the proud product of two loving same-sex parents, watching a tween idol exude confidence and authenticity about her differences and how they make her—and everyone else—special.
In contrast to my daughter, the seven-year-old me would have never been able to even dream of a moment like this. Growing up in the ‘80s, I had always felt different and often seemed different, to my family, friends, and the world around me. But it was a difference that had no name. Back then, being gay was something that no one ever talked about—and when they did, it certainly wasn’t over a catchy tune, filled with positivity and validation.
There wasn’t a tween idol like JoJo Siwa to look up to. There weren’t even queer adults offered as potential role models. What remained was a lot of uncertainty and insecurity, which, when left alone in the dark closet to fester, grows into shame and fear. Siwa’s positive and unapologetic embracing of her identity sent a clear message to her fans: – living authentically is a path to true happiness.
On March 8, 2022, JoJo posted a video on her TikTok account from a recent stop on her D.R.E.A.M. Tour. In the clip, she sidles up to her red, white, and blue glitzed piano, ready for the “audience heart to heart”— – a chance to share her general messages of authenticity and about being true to yourself. That night, Siwa’s message took a more personal tone, taking her own authenticity and identity a step further.
“I never know how I want to start this speech, but tonight someone actually gave me inspiration and it’s somebody in here, and I saw it on Twitter.” Siwa began. “This person tweeted, and they said, ‘Hey JoJo, I’m coming to you’re show tonight, please don’t say you’re gay.’ So I’m going to take their advice and I’m not gonna say it, instead I’m gonna do something else.”
At this moment, Siwa leaps to the front of the stage and pulls from the audience a giant rainbow pride flag with her likeness plastered over the colors, front and center, signature bow and all. After holding it triumphantly atop the piano as the crowd goes wild, she wraps it around like a security blanket before taking a seat back at the keys.
“You know, it might be your hair, it might be the color of your skin, it might be who you love,” she continues. “But I want to remind you all, that thing that is different about you is what makes you special. Here’s what I want you to take home… I want you to wake up tomorrow, and I want you to be a little bit more proud of yourself, and want you to love yourself just a little bit more. And I also want all of you to celebrate others just a little bit more.” In the clip first posted on Tiktok by concert-goer Briana Spradley, Siwa goes even further to say, “Being gay isn’t weird. This rainbow pride flag represents love, and this rainbow pride flag represents equality, and this represents being yourself.”
Whew, is someone cutting onions in here or is it just me?
That video was a culmination of everything I hope to share with my 1st and 4th grader. It is everything I wanted to convey about me, about our family, about our place in the world.
The video was captured by a fan at the recent Columbia, South Carolina show, the day before Siwa headed to Florida —the same state that just passed what is being called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, legislation aimed at alienating young LGBTQ+ children and prosecuting the teachers, administratorives, and parents who support them.
To put it into perspective, laws like this could prevent my two children from talking about their parents, from having my wife and me show up to support them at school functions, from proudly sharing our family with their elementary school classmates. It would divide them from their peers, creating “otherness”. It would lead to the same feelings of shame and fear that I once felt.
The effects are even more compounded for LGBTQ+ children, who now feel even more marginalized, scared, and alone, during a formative time where they are most vulnerable and in need of support. For transgender children, bills like this and the anti-trans legislation in Texas, along with the erasure of LGBTQ+ books in school and public libraries, put their very existence into danger.
All the more reason that, small as it may seem, acts of defiance like JoJo’s are even more important to her young fans, their families, and the watching world. These days, we need every bit of encouragement, love, and validation we can get.
At our Hershey, PA show, taking in a boundless JoJo leaping around the stage, an endless well of energy and enthusiasm, as she belted out lyrics like “my life I choose who to be… won’t hide, I am who you see… no, nobody can change me,” was more emotional than I care to admit.
In the days since the concert, I’ve thought about what JoJo Siwa means for her young fans—and what an out-and-proud role model would have meant for the adolescent me.
For one, it would have made my identity tangible, instead of a scary abstract. I would be a person, not a stigma. I could have pointed to someone like JoJo Siwa and told my parents, “Do you see her? She’s like me. She loves herself and is proud of herself and I can be that way too.” We could have viewed her videos together, listened to her songs together, even cheered on her “Dancing With The Stars” performances as a family. It may have opened a door for dialogue and understanding, and even acceptance. I maybe wouldn’t have had to carry the burden of shame and secrecy for the next 15 years, not having a clear path to sharing my authenticity with those closest to me. I wonder what kind of person that may have made me and how that experience, that freedom, would have changed me?
Even though my own kids are ready for me to stop gushing about the impact on queer visibility so they can hear the rest of “Hightop Shoes,” I do know that the overall message isn’t lost on them. They may not realize it when they’re lip synching to “Boomerang” around the living room, but JoJo Siwa helps reinforce our own sense of pride—and that’s something worth singing and dancing about.