In the small corner of Brooklyn that I reside in, it feels like everyone is queer. Okay, no, they're not—decidedly not, in fact—but New York does have more openly LGBTQ+ residents than any other state, and when you combine that with the fact that most of my best friends are former roommates from my hippie-ish liberal arts college, you end up with a cross-section of the population that looks a lot like a crowded party scene on The L Word: Generation Q. (Or, at least, it did before the pandemic; now we're all holed up in our bedrooms, texting each other gay memes.)
I only came out a few years ago, but it's kind of remarkable how quickly queerness shifted from "the new, exciting thing consuming all of my thoughts" to just, well...the norm. I know that's largely a function of my identity as a white, cis, straight-passing person who rarely has to worry about blatant acts of homophobia or structural discrimination, but it also feels like a milestone; I feel less like a "gayby," and more like a person surrounded by other people who just happen to think a lot about Boygenius.
All that said, when I found myself crying on my bedroom floor last week upon seeing 17-year-old dancer, singer, actress and YouTube phenom JoJo Siwa's coming-out tweet, it felt like my first day of Lesbianism 101 all over again. (No, this is not a real class they make you take, but many of us do flock to Autostraddle for a self-devised syllabus of sorts anyway.)
On the surface, Siwa and I have little in common except for our sexualities; she's an internationally famous child star, which makes her coming out an infinitely bigger deal than my group-texting my best friends at age 24 to say "lol btw i have a date with a girl tonight." Still, when I saw her publicly claiming her sexuality on Twitter, I felt a mix of pride, euphoria, and—confusingly—envy. To be honest, before last week, I wasn't entirely sure why Siwa was famous, although I knew she was adored by teens from all over; now, I'm embarrassingly aware of every fact about her life, from her Nebraska upbringing to her catapult into fame on the reality show Dance Moms.
I grew up primarily in New York City with liberal parents, which is to say there was no real reason for me not to come out until my twenties (especially compared to Siwa, who has built a brand off of the kind of glittery, bow-festooned femininity that is typically reserved for straight women). That said, have you tried existing in the world as a teenage lesbian lately? Movies, music, magazines, and pretty much every other form of media tend to assume you're a girl who likes boys, and while that's finally starting to change, I internalized those norms every time I paged through an issue of Teen People: "You will never be who we're writing for." I benefited from far more representation than queer and trans people of color tend to be afforded even now, but it still didn't feel like enough. Maybe it never does, but I desperately wish I'd had someone like Siwa to root for and see myself in when I was 17.
Siwa's forward-facing journey is nothing to romanticize, especially since she's already facing—with infinitely more grace than any 17-year-old should be expected to muster—blowback from homophobes. Still, I'm surprised by the depth of emotion I feel about her coming-out process. I can't stop thinking about what it would mean for a young queer girl in Nebraska—or New York, or anywhere at all—to see Siwa on TV and think, "I'm okay." (Or, thrillingly, maybe they won't care at all about Siwa's sexuality, and just admire her outfit. Can you imagine LGBTQ+ representation becoming such an entrenched part of teenage life that it starts to feel mundane?)
Siwa says she doesn't feel ready to put a label on her sexual identity, noting on Instagram Live that she chooses to "keep things in my life private until they are ready to be public." This level of maturity is commendable, especially considering the pressure many members of the LGBTQ+ feel to define themselves in unyielding terms in order to claim membership to the community. But it also demonstrates ably just how much power there is in embracing the infinite unknowns of our unique identities.
Siwa doesn't owe us a single thing, but as I approach my thirties, I'm deeply grateful to her anyway; watching her claim space for her queerness while simultaneously refusing to capitulate to the world's demands for constant disclosure makes me feel for the first time like any children I might be lucky enough to bring into the world could end up being encouraged to define themselves based on what feels right, rather than what's expected.