Juliet Evancho is finally at peace with her body.
The 18-year-old Pittsburgh native recently became one of the faces of the transgender rights movement after younger sister Jackie Evancho — a classical crossover singer who placed second on America’s Got Talent in 2010 — performed the national anthem at President Donald Trump‘s inauguration on Jan. 20. But Juliet wasn’t in the Capital Mall crowd for the controversial appearance. She was in Philadelphia, undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
“Everyone on social media was like, ‘She doesn’t support her sister because she’s singing for Trump,'” Juliet says in the new issue of PEOPLE. “But we were together with each other in spirit.”
The Evancho girls recently opened up exclusively to PEOPLE about standing up to Trump and becoming unlikely young activists.
Born ‘in the Wrong Body’
Jackie and Juliet have shared a tight-knit bond since childhood.
“Whenever we’d play make-believe, I never wanted to be a boy. Sometimes I’d make Jackie be a boy,” Juliet, who was born Jacob, recalls. “She let me be myself.”
Not that finding herself was easy. Juliet struggled for years with her gender identity, first wondering if she was bi or gay before she and her mom Lisa, 50, began researching transgender people online. At age 13, Juliet began to understand why she didn’t feel comfortable in her skin.
“My mom loves to internet shop, and she was able to find me clothes, she found me shoes. At the time my hair was short, so she got me a wig. Basically it was only at my house that I was able to be really me,” says Juliet, who, after her mom, first came out to Jackie.
“It was like, ‘I’m here to support you no matter what. Whatever you are, I will believe you, support you, whatever you need,'” Jackie — whose new album Two Hearts drops Friday — remembers. “I’d kind of already known that she was different — just different as in not completely comfortable with herself, not the full extent of who she is.”
Still, Jackie says she was concerned for her sister.
“I cried because I was worried for her,” she adds, “because I know how ugly the world can be.”
In addition to coming out to dad Michael, 47, Juliet began going to therapy. And at her 17th birthday party, she shared her secret with her extended family. Five months later, in October 2015, she walked the red carpet in a glittering gown alongside Jackie at a gala in New York City, where she came out publicly in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE.
Fighting for Her Rights — and Taking on Trump
Juliet continued to transition with the support of her family — Michael, Lisa, Jackie, brother Zachary, 14, and sister Rachel, 13 — but her community hasn’t been as accepting. The teenager says she’s been bullied in school, where classmates have thrown everything from trash to hard candy at her. And the harassment hasn’t just been directed at Juliet but her siblings as well.
“I’ve had people call me really bad names. And my brother and sisters, we all hear really mean things,” says Juliet.
Then, last October, Juliet and two other trans students filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Pine-Richland School District after being barred from using the bathrooms of their choice.
“It wasn’t an issue until March of that school year. I had been using the women’s restroom without any repercussions for a really long time. All of a sudden, parents had issues with it, and it was being talked about at the board meetings for our school,” Juliet says. “So when I heard that they were talking about not letting us use the bathroom that we identify with, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. What am I going to do? It’s just going to single me out even more.'”
In February, a judge granted a preliminary injunction allowing trans students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
Jackie, who faced backlash for agreeing to perform at the controversial Inaugural, says, “I [performed] because it’s always been about the honor and not about the politics. I try my best to stay out of politics.” But when Trump took action that could harm her sister, she felt compelled to speak up — “because at that point, something had changed that was going to affect a cause that I believe in. It was going to affect my sister, who I truly love, and people that I know. It was just natural instinct. I had to do something about it.”
The White House said the President would “welcome” a meeting with the Evanchos but has yet to confirm an appointment.
‘I’m Finally Me‘
Having undergone sex reassignment surgery and breast augmentation in January, Juliet is a new woman.
“Now I get to be myself,” Juliet says, pondering her post-op life. “When I realized was being transgender was, when I was able to identify with that, I was like, ‘I want to be myself.’ Even when I dreamed when I was little, I was always a girl.
“It’s a dream come true,” she adds of getting the procedure. “Before, there were times where I would literally just break down in tears because I thought, ‘I’m going to be 23 years old, and I’m not going to be myself. I’m going to miss my glory days being myself.’ My parents asked me if I wanted to get the surgery and scheduled it, and when I realized that it was going to happen … I’m an emotional person, so I broke down in tears again. Now, when I look in the mirror, it’s just me: I don’t have to worry about ‘this doesn’t look right’ or ‘this doesn’t match.’ I’m finally me. If I’m looking in the mirror, if I’m taking a shower, everything is just finally complete.”
Juliet’s family have noticed a positive change in her since the surgery.
Says Jackie: “She’s just a lot more confident, and that’s really great to see because confidence is so rare nowadays. I’m so happy for her to have that. This is when she can really start to live, and I’m just so happy that she has that now.”
Dad Michael says he and wife Lisa were hesitant going into the surgery — but only because of the medical risks involved.
“My concern was making sure she got off the operating table,” he says. “I really didn’t have concerns as to whether or not she was making the right decision because she has been in therapy for years. You have doctors and therapists that put their careers on the line to sign off on these type of surgeries. I knew that we had taken all the right stpes and that Juliet is truly transgender; she’s truly in the wrong body.”
Now on the mend, “She smiles a lot more,” Michael says of Juliet. “She’s now happy with who she is. She’s finally been made whole.”
A New ‘Normal’
Comfortable in her body, Juliet’s life is that of a typical teenage girl. During their March 18 PEOPLE photo shoot, she and Jackie playfully bickered in between snaps, gossiping about high school drama, swiping through Snapchat and Instagram, bemoaning the reports that the viral “Cash Me Outside” girl shopping for a reality show — and exchanged barbs over an allegedly stolen accessory!
Such babble is standard in the Evancho household these days.
“Nothing has really changed between us, between our family relationships. She’s pretty much the same exact person,” says Jackie. “Except for the fact that we can actually shop together for the same kind of clothing!”
“We can borrow each other’s clothes … and argue about borrowing each other’s clothes without asking,” cracks Juliet.
Confirms Jackie: “We’re constantly fighting about clothes!”
Indeed, “We’re pretty normal, actually,” the singer adds. “We go to the mall, hang out with our favorite people, play video games, watch Netflix — mostly shopping.”
And then there’s dating. Both sisters have boyfriends, and Juliet’s has been with her for over a year, supporting her through her SRS surgery.
“I’ve been dating my boyfriend now for almost a year and a half. He was there before I fully transitioned. He was there fighting the bathroom rights with me. He actually came with me to Philadelphia for my surgery, and he ran out and got me whatever I wanted. He was a trouper,” Juliet says of her young beau. “He stood there strong, and he still supports me to this day. I couldn’t ask for anyone better.”
Here to ‘Slay’ — and Inspire
Finally fulfilled in her gender identity and personal life, Juliet is focusing on her future. Currently on medical leave from school, she studies at home with a tutor and will graduate this spring. In addition to pursuing a modeling career — “I didn’t really have the courage before, because I wasn’t myself; now I’m like, ‘Let’s go slay the runway!'” — she plans to continue to use her voice to advocate for equal rights.
“You see a lot of situations where [trans youth] will even be disowned by their families, and they don’t have the necessary lifestyle to be their true selves. And it’s so heartbreaking knowing that transgender teens are at a higher suicide rate,” she says. “I wish that I could just gather everyone up and keep them all safe. A big goal for me is hopefully being able to open a sanctuary or something for trans youth, so they can come and feel safe, and if need be, live there for a while until they’re able to get on their own feet. I just want to make everyone feel safe.”
- For more on Jackie and Juliet Evancho’s Fight for Trans Rights, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
Adds dad Michael: “My wife and I are extremely proud of the fact that Jackie chooses to share her gift with the world and that Juliet is brave enough to stand up for who she is, and, through her experiences, possibly be able to help others.”
And Juliet is eager to do just that.
“Getting the messages that we get like, ‘Oh, you’re so inspiring. You’ve helped me come out to my family’ or ‘You’ve saved us from being in a dark place’ from Jackie’s music — just hearing those type of things help us keep going, knowing that we’re doing something right,” she says.