Update: On Saturday morning Jennifer Holliday released a letter addressed to the LGBT community announcing that she will no longer be performing at the inauguration concert, apologizing for what she called a "lapse of judgment." She cites this article in her letter, saying that after she read it she realized that "my only choice must now be to stand with the LGBT Community and to state unequivocally that I WILL NOT PERFORM FOR THE WELCOME CONCERT OR FOR ANY OF THE INAUGURATION FESTIVITIES!"
Jennifer Holliday’s career is marked by survival. It’s why she’s an icon. Specifically, it’s why she’s a gay icon.
The Dreamgirls Tony- and Grammy-winner, who just wrapped a run in The Color Purple on Broadway, was announced Friday as part of the entertainment lineup for Donald Trump’s inauguration, a booking that has famously been passed on by a laughably long list of performers, either in protest of the professed values of the president-elect or in fear of how supporting him at that venue might alienate fans.
Holliday will join country singer Toby Keith, rock band 3 Doors Down, and actor Jon Voight for a Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial that will be broadcast live the day before Inauguration Day, January 19. As was previously announced, teenage America’s Got Talent alum Jackie Evancho will perform the National Anthem.
There’s no separating the booking of any of these stars from the fact that performing at the inauguration—any inauguration, sure, but especially this one—is a political act. In the case of Holliday, it is an act that seems to defy everything her most passionate supporters stand for, and even issues she herself has supported throughout her career.
In an age defined by reactionary histrionics and emotional melisma—two things that, if you’ve ever seen Holliday belt, you’d imagine she’d be very much behind—we won’t mince words. For the gay community that has bolstered Holliday’s, in her own words, embattled and difficult career and cheered on her recent successes, the news feels like a betrayal. It is heartbreaking.
Holliday is most famous for originating the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls on Broadway in 1981.
Her titanic performance, delivered at age 21, gained her the kind of a national acclaim and fame that is only rarely afforded a Broadway performer. Jennifer Hudson’s towering, Oscar-winning turn as Effie in the Dreamgirls film is a mere hint at the achievement Holliday managed in the role; she had to accomplish that level of performance live eight times a week.
Holliday won a Tony for her work, and a recorded version of the signature ballad, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned her the first of two Grammy Awards.
As written, it shouldn’t be a mystery that the role of Effie White and the song “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” were internalized, rallied, and championed by the gay community, particularly at that time in the ‘80s.
Effie is a woman battling body image and self-confidence issues, the stifling of dreams, erasure of her accomplishments, the silencing of her talents and her rage, and the desire to be loved and appreciated. “And I’m Telling You…” is catharsis by song. It is anger, frustration, obstinance, and freedom all exploding through Holliday’s shattering voice. The character’s arc is one of perseverance over injustice, and survival—without omitting the pain and struggle endured on the way.
Life imitated art for much of Holliday’s career following Dreamgirls. She struggled with her weight and depression, and to find her footing in a difficult and cruel industry. There were highs and lows, and then erasure again when the Dreamgirls film was made and she wasn’t asked to be involved with it.
Her fans—and yes, again, I’m specifically highlighting her gay fans—found harsh injustice in that and, too, a certain joy in her successes in later years, most recently in her barn-burning, take-me-to-church phenomenal performance in The Color Purple. How fitting, too, that the musical, which just closed, was such an affecting portrait of survival, forgiveness, and owning your existence.
All of these connections to the gay community are threads that Holliday herself is very much aware of, as proven in a fantastic interview she gave in 2014 to the website Pride Source.
She discussed the heartbreak of having her breakout in the theatre community come at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the friends that she lost, and the pride she took in being a beacon of “empowerment” for the community.
“I think when you go through a certain tragedy with people, you're closer to them,” she said. “I became more so associated with the gay community because my music, I think, is the kind that pulls you through. A lot of people say to me, 'Your album got me through this particular time when I was just coming out.'"
The fact that Effie resonates strongly with the gay community wasn’t lost on her, either.
“The gay community has seen themselves as outcasts, as freaks and as something to be ashamed of,” she said, adding that they associate with Effie because nobody loved her.
She even flat-out says she would not have a career at this point if it weren’t for the gay community. “They're the ones who carried the legacy of Dreamgirls way beyond with impersonations and pageants, so it lived in the gay community for many, many years. Otherwise it would not be a movie. It wouldn't have been anything if it had not been for the gay community.”
And on the topic of survival, she’s similarly blunt about the fact that it’s the gay community that, at the lowest points in her career, allowed her to still work, make money, and live. More than that, she said, they allowed her to keep her dignity.
“For myself, I used to be able to work with the gay clubs without a record and not work anywhere else,” she said. “I would go on at 3 or 4 in the morning and they allowed me to hold onto my dignity, and that's what I wanted for them so much—to be able to have their dignity, because they loved me so much.”
Dignity is an interesting word to think about in light of Friday’s news that Holliday’s next big gig will be at the inauguration of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
As writer Nico Lang noted in the Los Angeles Times, Trump has appeared compassionate to the LGBT community, saying in a 60 Minutes interview that he has no intention to put in motion the overturning of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality. But that’s not where LGBT rights end.
Among the executive orders that are on the chopping block when he gets into office are ones that hold crucial protections for LGBT workers, including one that states federal contractors can’t be fired on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
He has supported provisions that would make it legal to deny services to LGBT individuals based on religious beliefs. Protections for trans students are in danger. He also surrounds himself with politicians and leaders who vocally oppose LGBT rights, the most glaring of which is Mike Pence.
In addition to the rights and services Pence has tried to deny LGBT people and his opposition to allocating funding for H.I.V./AIDS patients, there is his support of gay “conversion therapy,” which is the act of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
It is certainly true that the values of an entertainer, the community she is professionally a part of—the theatre community—and her fans, specifically the gay community, do not have to align. Holliday does not owe gay fans a political opinion. It’s her right to perform at the inauguration, and it’s her right to allow that performance to stand for any or all of the values the president-elect stands for.
This isn’t a criticism of Holliday taking the gig. It is a personal and shared reaction to it by a group dismayed and disheartened about what that act means. It’s a crack in what had been a fierce and Teflon attachment to a performer, a role, what it represented, and the strength that it gave.