Comedian Margaret Cho talks about where she came from, reducing stigma in the LGBT community, and how she deals with the madness of today
San Francisco native Margaret Cho is no stranger to the comedy world, or to the gay community. The forty-six year old “Queen of all Media” has always been the Agent Provocateur of stand up. Conquering the worlds of film, television, books, music, and theater, she has never been one to shy away from difficult or ‘taboo’ topics.
As the “Patron Saint” for outsiders, Cho advocates for gay rights and bullying. From her activism to her stand up, she is honest, forthright, passionate, uproarious and always entertaining. Embarking on her latest tour this October, Cho continues to show the world that she will never back down. (Margaret Cho performs at the Theatre at Westbury on Thursday, October 8th.)
David Kilmnick: You’ve been an advocate fighting for change and equality for the LGBT community for as long as I can remember and I remember you talking about some of your friends from high school in some of your work. Can you share with us what led you to become a leader and speaking out for LGBT rights and the safety of LGBT youth?
Margaret Cho: Well I just grew up within the gay community in San Francisco. My parents bought a bookstore on Polk Street in the 70s and this was like an amazing time that is written all about in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and he actually did book signings at my parent’s bookstore. So it was a center for gay life, gay literary life in San Francisco for many years and so I grew up within that community and have always been aware of the politics and the very beginning of this incredible political movement.
So it was an important time historically to just witness everything, like before AIDS and after AIDS and the way that community dealt with it and so it was always a part of my life to be part of this very exciting movement.
DK: I think that the story you have told about your friends is very compelling. Would you mind sharing that?
MC: I had different people that I was hanging out with, like very exciting and thrilling individuals, people that aren’t here anymore. And there’s people that I was watching like Jerome Kozak, who was an amazing drag queen and artist, these are examples of people that I wanted to be like. I always had very crazy and wild friends and still I think when you lose some of your childhood to AIDS and you lose so much of your life, there’s like a ladder with a missing rung and you have to sort of make a bridge and tell stories of people you knew.
I think for me it was always maybe a thing that I got from people I grew up with and from my family and the people that were around my family and so I always want to be very – I don’t know – I guess to talk about how it was and what it’s like and now sort of share my own experience with younger people, too. I do work with the Larkin Street Youth Center, it’s a homeless shelter for LGBT youth and it’s a really important place. It’s also just a consciousness that I have around LGBT youth because I know that it’s hard, that it’s a very difficult place to be in if you feel alone, it’s about connecting with other people.
DK: I get asked this question a lot as CEO of LIGALY, people say isn’t the world much better today for LGBT youth than it was 23 years ago, what would you say to that? Is the world better for LGBT youth today?
MC: I think it’s different. I think it’s different kinds of struggles. I think the world is actually a lot bigger now, and smaller because of social media; you have this whole entity that we never really had to deal with as kids. We always had the communities that we were in and having to deal with that, but we never had to deal with the outside world, which is I think very hostile for anybody who is outside of the mainstream.
So, it’s a different world; I think there is a lot more consciousness around bullying and a language about it and an awareness, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. It still happens and maybe in a larger way than even we can comprehend if you can grow up with social media… I deal with social media as an adult, but as a kid, going into that world and being different and having to deal with homophobia on a very, very large scale, homophobia that is institutionalized which we all grew up with so that is something I can identify with, but then, beyond that, what is it like for LGBT youth to go online and have to deal with all of this stuff that is coming at them – whether it’s bullying or stories about another trans teen killing themselves, it’s just so much information now that they have to take in about how difficult it is to be gay. But then there’s also an amazing support network now, too. So I don’t know if it’s harder or what it’s like I just think it’s very different.
DK: Speaking of bullying, you’ve had to deal with bullying from producers and others in the entertainment industry related to your weight and culture. Can you share how you dealt with that, and within that, what is your message to LGBT youth who are still bullied in school today?
MC: Well, I think, I didn’t deal with any of the bullying that I endured well. When I was bullied in school, I always just endeavored to get out and as a result grew up way too quickly trying to become an adult and escape my peers. Then, when I was in show business, and I am still in show business, when I was younger I definitely dealt with people who had very strong opinions of my body and this is not just people I’m talking to, this is critics and newspaper articles and stuff just criticizing my weight and my looks and just having a sense of not really knowing where to go, I became very anorexia and bulimic, which is not the answer either.
And so now I just say take that pain and push it out into the world as opposed to internalizing it, which I mean is that you have to share it and somehow maybe come to terms with it without using it to harm yourself, which is my mistake, and is also sort of human nature to do that but we need to reject that and make something happen where we can stop the hurt and push it outward, I think it’s the best kind of thing. If you can just share it, it makes it a lot easier.
DK: And the way that you do it through laughter, through comedy, is great medicine, too, for many.
MC: I try. I think that’s one way of sharing the burden of the suffering that the world piles onto you — and if you share it, it makes that burden much lighter.
DK: You’re latest tour is called, “PsyCHO” or Pyscho.
MC: Yeah, it’s from the title “There’s no I in team, but there’s a CHO is psycho,” which is just all about dealing with the madness of the world by generating your own madness and putting it out there. I think that’s really like trying to find an answer to all these questions, because it’s also very crazy what we’re experiencing right now and I think it’s the 24-hour news cycle. I think maybe these things have always been happening but we just didn’t know about everything. Now we have more of an awareness of what is going on in the world and so it’s about trying to make sense of it by getting crazy yourself.
DK: You mentioned your parents earlier, and I know from following your career, the imitations of your mom in particular really tell a story. How have your parents inspired your material?
MC: Well, they were very, and they are still very, inspirational. They’re very funny people and they are very artistic and interesting and questioning and always very accepting of everything. I think our family was incredibly progressive in the way that my parents really wanted to be, in and around the gay community, even though they were kind of conservative Koreans and also pretty religious, but at the same time rejected the homophobia that’s actually very present in Korean culture and went actually inside to sort of being part of the gay community as sort of the first allies that I ever recognized and that’s really tremendous. So I owe a great gift to them, who shaped my worldview in that way, and also I’m proud of their achievement in overcoming the homophobia that is so much a part of the culture they come from.
DK: Speaking of the culture, we’re opening up a new community center, the Q Center, in a predominantly Korean community, what do you think would be a great strategy in working with Korean communities around LGBT issues, particularly youth and seniors?
MC: What’s important is to just have them acknowledged. The thing about it is that there’s so much invisibility about the gay community in Korea. They have a gay pride parade that people are afraid to take photographs at. I think that’s a big thing. I think it’s about really kind of calling people on what they’re not acknowledging and also understanding that in Korean culture there is a high degree of people being closeted, people being very, very afraid of expressing themselves and being honest about their sexuality.
Movie stars in Korea are still not coming out, and not that that’s that different in America, but at least there are gay films, gay stories that we want to tell and people willing to come forward. If you’re an out, gay celebrity you have a responsibility to be an activist and so many people are willing to take that on, but there are still people who are unwilling. In Korea, there’s just no language around that, it’s hard for people still.
I think anyone going into that community has to understand the level of silence and invisibility that gay people have within Korean culture.
DK: Many people have compared your comedic style to Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Do you think that’s accurate?
MC: Yeah! I love that! I love both of them and they are both very important to me as comedy mentors, just for their work. And I was actually pretty close to the Pryor family when Richard was really sick and dying and so I was able to really get to know this family. At that point, he couldn’t really speak anymore but I could really understand just the warmth and affection that he had for people like me and the people who worshiped him in comedy. It’s a real privilege to be able to do that and I was honored that the Carlin family asked me to participate when he was posthumously honored, he got the Mark Twain award after he died, so that was really tremendous too. I love both of them; I think they are both really tremendous influences in comedy and on me personally.
DK: One of the things people love about you is that you’re not afraid to tackle anything publically in your show, particularly around issues of stigma, and you’ve been up front and open about being in open relationships. First, how would you describe your relationship status today? And second, what is your advice for those who are in open relationships but are afraid to talk about it because of the stigma?
MC: Well, I’m currently not in an open relationship, but I have had many of them over time and that really has to do with my own desire to slow down everything with my body as I age and sexuality is something that just sort of becomes different and intimacy becomes different. When I was a little bit younger, it was really about wanting to be very open and communicative with anybody that I was around — and growing up around AIDS, really changed sexuality because it brought the focus into sex that was less about being fluid bonded with a person and more about expanding your idea about what your sexuality was.
From there we have BDSM, which is a very big community that I was involved with for a long time, I don’t really have any relationships in that fear anymore but they are still wonderful, wonderful memories that I have and a wonderful way to kind of look at sexuality as being an expansive, spiritual practice than it is about just connecting with just one person.
I think during the age of AIDS we were looking for different ways to make love and that is sort of what my own passions and feelings for what I want to do came from.
DK: Speaking of fluidity, the bisexual community faces challenges from the LG communities and the heterosexual communities, too. What do you say to people who think being bisexual is “just a phase” or people who say to just “choose a side?”
MC: I think there is an amount of distrust because it’s really this idea of you are refusing to be one or the other but for me it’s an honest summation of what I actually do believe or what I feel. I also think that bisexuality, for me, is a limiting term because I had different partners that were, in their own ways, they expressed their gender that was not binary, that was beyond male or female. And that gender isn’t necessarily two things, actually infinite, and I appreciate that.
So I think that bisexuality is a term that I use, but I know that it’s wrong, but I use it because I think that the bisexual community really is the neglected part of the LGBT, you know, the B is often silent. So, it’s a very kind of direct observation of how it feels, I want to represent the bisexual community if I can.
DK: After this tour, what other projects are on the horizon, will we be seeing you on reality shows?
MC: I don’t know. I have done some measure of that. I’m actually going into more of the behind the camera stuff, I’m transitioning into becoming more of a producer or writing. I think that there’s a lot of things that I’ve always wanted to do that I’m trying to push forward to now.
I have some music projects that are on the way; I have music videos that I’ve been making. I just made one with Leslie Jordan, and it’s really about looking at how we as the gay community can “mother,” it’s sort of this genderless thing, it’s like a mother figure is something we can all relate to and express no matter who we are and who we’re doing it to. So I just made these two music videos that are directly relating that and those’ll be out pretty soon.
I’m trying sort of do different kinds of social and political commentary and comedy with my music, and it’s still stand up what I do, but I like to diversify and do different things.
DK: Let me just say we are looking forward to you coming to Long Island, at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury. I’m sure you’ve been there before so you know you twirl around on the rotating stage.
MC: Yes, yes! It’s a very strange thing. I think when I do it they have to stop it because I get so dizzy. It’s really weird, but yeah I love that theater, I think it’s so fun.
By David Kilmnick, PhD. and Alexis Capitini
with contributions made by Adam Lombardi
Photos courtesy of Mary Taylor (feature photo courtesy of Pixievision)