Coming out is never easy.
The choice of how and when to unfold yourself and reveal such vulnerability for a world that, though improving, has historically been rather unkind to the LGBTQ+ community is a deeply personal one to make. For some, it still remains a matter of life and death. And that's to say nothing of its ongoing process, the way you have to make choices every day about disclosure as you encounter new people, weighing the pursuit of an authentic life against protecting your safety and sanity.
There's a reason some people never do it at all.
Now imagine doing all that in front of—quite literally—the entire world before even turning 18.
"I have never, ever, ever been this happy before and it feels really awesome," JoJo told her fans during an Instagram Live in January. "And now that the world gets to see this side of my life, it makes me really, really happy. Now that I got to share that with the world, it's awesome... I want people to know that there is so much love in the world and it is so incredible!"
In that same video, JoJo took the time to acknowledge to her followers (which, as of press time, hover close to 11 million) that coming out won't always look the same for everyone. "Right now what matters is that you guys know that no matter who you love, that it's OK and that it's awesome and that the world is there for you," she explained. "I know everyone's situation is different and it might be harder for some people and easier for some people to come out or [to] be themselves but I think coming out has this stigma around it—that it's this really, really, really scary thing, but it's not anymore."
She added, "There are so many accepting and loving people out there that it's OK. Of course, people are going to say it's not normal, but nothing is normal. Literally, not one thing about anybody is normal and it's OK not to be normal, it's OK to be a little different...And I think a lot of people are afraid of being different, and that's something we should never, ever be afraid of. That's something we should be proud of...I'm the happiest I've ever been, that's what matters."
Her announcement was met with support from the likes of Elton John, Lil Nas X and more celebs, but not everyone was so kind. As she told People in April, she made the mistake of scanning the comments after searching herself on Google. "I never should have done that. I was thinking that all the comments were going to be nice and supportive, and they weren't," JoJo said. "A lot of them were, 'I'm never buying your merch again. My daughter's never watching you again.' I couldn't sleep for three days."
It's hard to overstate just how much JoJo potentially stood to lose by rocking the boat with her public declaration of authenticity. Not only did she become the youngest celebrity to ever come out, but she was also among the most high-profile. A mogul-in-the-making, JoJo has amassed a view count in the billions on her YouTube channel, sold out international arenas, formed a lucrative partnership with Nickelodeon and launched merch lines at Target, Walmart and JCPenny that kept her and her trademark big bright bows front and center. Her popularity among the preteen and tween subsets is unparalleled.
JoJo was well aware of what was at stake. "I was like, 'Well, technically, that was a really big risk that I took posting that,'" she told Jimmy Fallon during a February appearance on The Tonight Show. "But if I lost everything I created because of being myself and because of loving who I want to love, I don't want it. That's not what I want if I can't love who I want to love. That's one of the most important things to me."
As she told People, "My thing is, I don't want people to watch my videos or buy my merchandise if they aren't going to support not only me, but the LGBTQ community."
When a celebrity comes out, you'll often hear the response, "Why does it matter?" Or "Can't you keep your personal life personal?" (Nevermind the fact that those same people will breathlessly read everything they can about the personal life of their favorite straight celebrities.)
But here's the thing: It does matter.
According to The Trevor Project's National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020, which represented the experiences of over 40,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 across the United States, over 80 percent said that celebrities who are LGBTQ positively impact how they feel about being LGBTQ. In that same survey, it was revealed that 40 percent of respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months, while 68 percent reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder in the past two weeks.
(It's also worth noting that more than half of the youth surveyed said that brands who support the LGBTQ community positively impact how they feel about being LGBTQ, making Nickelodeon's unabashed support of JoJo quite meaningful in its own right.)
As Tia Dole, PhD, chief clinical operations officer at The Trevor Project, said at the time of JoJo's coming out, "When LGBTQ+ young people are able to see themselves and their stories authentically represented, it can offer them perspective on how to cope with the real struggles they're facing, while also helping them envision a brighter future."
GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis was similarly effusive about the impact of JoJo's admission. "As one of the most influential young role models today, JoJo's story is a reminder for LGBTQ youth to love who they are and to find safe and welcoming environments to speak out," she tweeted.
In the months since, JoJo has gone public with her girlfriend, Kylie Prew, admitted to struggles with putting a label on sexuality (though she told People she likes "queer" and believes she is "technically" pansexual), and described herself as "the happiest human alive."
She's also grown more popular. Insider revealed that, in an April survey of over 1,000 people to find out which of over 75 influencers were most well-known and liked, JoJo was nearly 10 percent better known than an identical survey conducted the month prior to her coming out, with her favorability rating increasing by three percent and her unfavorability rating decreasing by seven percent.
The funny thing about coming out is that, yes, you do it for yourself so that you may live your life as authentically as possible, but you're also doing it to make it a little bit easier for the next person. Queer visibility has a halo effect like that.
Coming out can be downright terrifying and, sadly, come with some unfair consequences, but, as JoJo has proven, it can also become a superpower harnessed to make the world a softer and safer place for LGBTQ+ youth. It's an act of heroism wherein the hero not only saves others, but also saves themselves.
"Performing has always made me super happy," JoJo told People. "But for the first time, personally, I am like, whoa, happiness. I am so proud to be me."