In recent years, social media has not only become a platform for people to express themselves but also become a place where people of color and people of different sexual orientations have been able to speak up and be seen.
For Michael Pham, it has done just that. Gaining over 11k followers on TikTok and joining a dance team in college, Michael has been able to express himself for one of the first times in his life.
Michael, a sophomore at Penn State, majoring in sociology and criminology, grew up in a Vietnamese-American home in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. Growing up, he saw the way his traditional and conservative parents reacted to his older brother coming out as gay and doing drag — leading him to keep the fact that he was also gay to himself for years. “It subconsciously scared me to come out,” Michael says.
When he was in high school, Michael also had the same fear of not being accepted. People assumed he was gay, but he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin so he ended up putting up walls and letting people see him the way he wanted to be seen, rather than who he actually was.
“When you have a guilt or something on you that you have to get off your chest and it’s eating you up inside, you finally come clean. That’s how I felt,” Michael says. “But coming out isn’t like coming clean. You didn’t commit a crime or do a horrible thing, but that’s how I felt.”
Once he finally got to college, things changed. Michael finally felt like he had found a place where he could be himself. His hip-hop dance team at Penn State, Urban Dance Troupe, was a huge part of that. The first time Michael came out officially was to his team.
When he was in high school, there weren’t many opportunities for Michael to dance, so most days he would learn dances from YouTube videos in his room. Dance is a sense of identity for him and even though there wasn’t a dance team for him to join in high school, he still performed in the drama club and the talent shows that his school had.
After joining Urban Dance Troupe his freshman year, Michael felt like he had gained more confidence than ever before. Then when TikTok came around and dance videos started becoming more popular, Michael knew he had found another outlet to express himself creatively.
Originally, Michael had downloaded TikTok as a joke, like almost everyone else who has the app now. He didn’t expect to “blow up,” or have as many followers as he does, but that all came from him having the confidence to post dance videos and even create dances of his own.
While he doesn’t consider himself a “creator,” he has still accumulated a very large follower count on TikTok, which he mainly attributes to a dance he came up with during the summer of 2020. The dance he created then caught the attention of bigger creators like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae.
Once his dance videos started gaining popularity, he found that more and more kids would recognize him. Most of the time it would be while he was working and younger kids would freak out, saying that they recognized him from their “for you page.”
The things that people used to make fun of Michael for are now being praised by the people who watch his videos. Things that he didn’t see in himself before, he now knew people saw and loved him for it. “It gave me a platform to speak up,” Michael says.
He also loves the idea of what TikTok can do and has done for the millions of people that decided to start creating not only dance videos but almost every kind of video imaginable.
“So many people’s lives have changed because of TikTok. Like people in bad situations have blown up from a video and gotten funding or awareness and stuff like that, which I think is amazing,” Michael says.
But it’s not all nice comments and likes on social media. After gaining a following, Michael also found himself growing more self-conscious and worried about how he looked on camera.
“It’s a good thing to be more self-aware — like knowing what you’re saying, the things you’re doing and the consequences of them. But, I became more insecure about the way I presented myself and the way I looked on camera,” Michael says. “My videos stopped being just for fun and more about the content I was creating.”
While making TikTok dances is a way for Michael to make a name for himself, he also strongly values people being their authentic selves. “I really value being yourself, because if you act a certain way, it’s not gonna make you happy,” Michael says. “If you live your life trying to please other people, you’re just gonna end up hurting yourself in the end.”
After he graduates, Michael hopes to attend law school and start making a difference in the larger community. For him, people doing good things for others should be what is normal in our society, but since it’s not, he wants to be someone that brings good into people’s lives. “There are so many people at a disadvantage that I feel I could be helping later on,” Michael says.
Since he has come out and has finally had the chance to express himself through dance and social media, Michael has gone from putting up walls to advocating for being yourself. He knows that not everyone has the same story as him and there are some who aren’t given any support, but hopefully his story will help at least one person and make a difference in their lives.
“There are people out there who love you just for being you.”