Column: The LGBTQ+ community finds a new, family-friendly icon

%22JoJo+Siwa+performing+in+Cedar+Park%2C+Texas+%282019-09-18%29%22+by+RalphArvesen+is+licensed+with+CC+BY-NC+2.0.+To+view+a+copy+of+this+license%2C+visit+https%3A%2F%2Fcreativecommons.org%2Flicenses%2Fby-nc%2F2.0%2F

Courtesy Creative Commons

“JoJo Siwa performing in Cedar Park, Texas (2019-09-18)” by RalphArvesen is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Grace Comer, news staff

A new face has joined the A-list of queer celebrities – JoJo Siwa. Siwa inspired a flurry of discussion Jan. 20 when she posted a TikTok video lip-syncing to Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way.”

“No matter gay, straight, or bi, / Lesbian, transgendered life, / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to survive,” she sang. Her fans speculated if this was her way of coming out. 

She further elaborated on the situation in a Jan. 22 tweet to her millions of followers with a shirt her cousin bought her: “Best. Gay. Cousin. Ever.” She fully cleared up the situation on Instagram Live the next day. 

“I always believed that my person was just going to be my person,” Siwa said. “If that person happened to be a boy, great! And if that person happened to be a girl, great!” 

She has refrained from putting any further labels on her sexuality.

But who is she? Born Joelle Joanie Siwa, she found her start dancing on shows like “Dance Moms” and “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition.” She used this to kick-start her career as a YouTube personality, expanding onto other social media sites such as TikTok, as well as creating original songs and performing around the country. She is known for her energetic performances, kids’ songs and signature huge hair bows with her slicked-back ponytail. 

At just 17 years old, Siwa has several brand deals, including an accessory collection with Claire’s, glittery kids’ shoes and even a singing doll. As someone with a lively personality, anti-bullying messages and wholesome self-confidence, Siwa has quickly become a family-friendly favorite. This was followed by being signed for an animated show on the Nickelodeon channel, “The JoJo and BowBow Show Show.” 

Although her main audience is younger children, Siwa has always been popular among the queer community for her wholesome messaging and established herself as an ally of the community. She has collaborated with several LGBTQ+ YouTubers like James Charles and TikTok stars like the “Queer House.” In an interview with drag queens Izzy Uncut and Poppy, she was declared “a gay icon.”  

In fact, the nature of her primary audience is part of the reason that her coming out is so important. The queer community suffers from nearly nonexistent representation in media. While this has been improving in recent years, it is still lacking in children’s media in particular. 

Hypersexualization of the LGBTQ+ community often prevents them from appearing in kids’ movies and TV shows. Media portrayals of queer people as sexually deviant or promiscuous, with rare representations of romantic queer love, cause many to see the LGBTQ+ community as a mature topic, and not welcome in children’s shows. 

In the past, Disney has come under fire for something as minor as a lesbian couple appearing for a few seconds at the end of “Finding Dory.” Other children’s programming, such as Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe,” has been intensely scrutinized for including lesbian and bisexual characters. Nickelodeon themselves aired “Legend of Korra” in 2014, with a finale featuring two bisexual women holding hands romantically.  

In the face of potential parental backlash, Nickelodeon appears to be fully embracing Siwa’s announcement, posting a photo of Siwa on Instagram in a rainbow bow with the caption: “Never been more proud.” Having already established herself as family-friendly, Siwa will likely be a positive role model for questioning and queer youth.

In a culture that often demonizes and sexualizes the queer community, their existence in media is at best a tragic story of unrequited or forbidden love, and at worst, a token side character whose personality is nothing more than a stereotype. 

And this is all only in adult media – films and shows for young adults and children generally avoid the topic altogether. This can make it impossible for young queer people to find themselves represented in the media they consume and can prevent them from recognizing and embracing their identity until they are older. 

Siwa’s role as the lead actress in a show geared towards children may be able to provide some of that much-lacking representation. Although it is unclear whether the show will include LGBTQ+ characters, it can be hoped that the show will present Siwa as authentically herself. Additionally, an actor’s identities outside of their media portrayals can serve as representation, and Siwa’s family-friendly attitude can make her a role model for queer youth. 

While some responses to Siwa’s coming out were positive, others were negative. In fact, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed to Insider that Siwa’s house had been “swatted” following her coming out on Instagram Live. “Swatting” refers to calling the police to someone’s address and pretending that a violent crime is occurring, causing the police to surround their house. 

Swatting can be a fatal situation, with police ready to deal with a hostile attack while the victim is unaware of what is happening. It is commonly used to attack influencers and celebrities. Siwa said she believed that the swatting was done by the media to force her out of her house following her coming out. 

Some parents have already criticized her, leaving comments on her TikTok such as “My daughter will never watch you again.” Other criticism has been aimed towards Nickelodeon, with negative and homophobic comments on their Instagram post in support of Siwa. 

Despite some of the negative reactions, most responses have been overwhelmingly positive, including from fellow celebrities and the online LGBTQ+ community. Influencers like James Charles and Nikkie de Jager, or NikkieTutorials, commented messages of support on her original TikTok video. Celebrities including actor Ian McKellen and singer Todrick Hall have tweeted her their congratulations. 

Her fans have also left endless messages, congratulating her on her bravery and explaining how happy they are to see additional representation. Ultimately, Siwa’s coming out has established her as the new face of queer representation in the sphere of children’s media, which can be critical for children to understand, accept and celebrate themselves.