When it was announced that Jackie Evancho had agreed to perform at the inauguration of Donald Trump there were three primary reactions:
1) How could she? How could any self-respecting entertainer perform there?
2) Finally! An entertainer with the courage to stick it to the rest of the Hollywood elite!
3) Who is Jackie Evancho?
Well thanks to the controversy that has engulfed Evancho—and every performer whose name has surfaced in connection with Trump’s inaugural—most Americans will soon know who Jackie Evancho is. But if we’re lucky, not only will more Americans learn her name. Hopefully more will learn to follow the lead of her and her family in demonstrating grace even in the face of stinging criticism, for the sake of your country.
When it was revealed that Evancho, best known for being a runner-up on America’s Got Talent, had agreed to perform at Trump’s inauguration, the condemnation, as well as jokes, ran wild. The cynical reactions can be summarized as this: The Trump camp is so desperate for celebrities to perform that after being rejected by most performers with any real career to speak of in Hollywood, and even Nashville, they settled on a reality show star. And said “star” was so desperate that she said yes to elevate her profile—regardless of the political implications, including the outrage and disappointment of those from disenfranchised groups who are horrified by the potential impact of a Trump presidency on their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Only it turns out that the cynics didn’t have the whole picture.
For starters—while she may not be considered “A-list” to those who think Kim Kardashian is, Evancho has performed at Carnegie Hall, had multiple PBS concert specials, in addition to platinum- and gold-selling albums. She doesn’t exactly need Donald Trump (or the controversy caused by her association with his inauguration) to boost her career. (Although in typical humble Trump fashion he claims he already has. He took credit for causing her album sales to “skyrocket” after her performance for his big day was announced, a claim that has been challenged by various outlets.)
But what the cynics really get wrong is the idea that any person who would associate with Trump’s presidency in any way would have to be someone who lacks empathy for those whom his policies might harm. As we recently learned, in the case of the Evancho family, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Jackie’s sister Juliet is transgender. Her family is currently suing their school district to allow her to use the women’s bathroom. Bathroom battles have emerged as a flashpoint in the culture wars. While there is a lingering question mark regarding the extent of Trump’s so-called evolution as a cultural conservative, the conservative bona fides of his vice-president, Mike Pence, are well documented. Following President Obama’s directive that school districts allow transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity, Pence, who has not traditionally supported LGBT rights, said, “The federal government has no business getting involved in issues of this nature.”
Additionally, given the enthusiasm that greeted Trump’s list of likely judicial nominees in conservative corners, it is highly unlikely his nominees will advance LGBT rights. But Evancho is performing at his inauguration anyway, and doing so with the support of Juliet (who will not be attending).
Both Jackie and Juliet have faced a torrent of criticism and abuse —from all sides, conservative and liberal—thanks to the media firestorm that has engulfed their family since Jackie’s upcoming performance was announced.
But I think we all owe the Evancho family a debt of gratitude.
The last election not only came close to tearing our country apart, but many families. I personally know of families in which people stopped speaking to each other and avoided heading home for the holidays. The thinking seems to be “If you can’t agree with my politics, you don’t respect them. If you don’t respect them, you don’t respect me.” But the Evancho family is proving that that is the easy way out. Not speaking to someone, acting as if their politics are wrong and therefore their point of view is irrelevant, may make your existence more pleasant in the short term, but it does very little to change hearts and minds—or votes—in the long-term.
Supporters of same-sex marriage have noted that one of the most effective methods for actually changing minds on that issue was simply talking to people. That’s hard to do if…you’re not speaking to someone. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, for instance, evolved on same-sex marriage thanks to his gay son. There are countless stories like that one, including elected officials and others moved by LGBT family members, co-workers and neighbors. But that never would have happened if they all stopped speaking because they didn’t agree on one issue, as significant as that issue may be.
Evancho said that her performance is not political but “for her country.” If anything, she and her sister, two teenagers, are showing they have more courage, class and political insight than many adults.
Just think about how much more civil and productive our political discourse would be if more of us, our politicians included, engaged with each other the Evancho way and put our country before our politics. Even when it means having conversations we may not want to have, with people we may not want to have them with.