*Content warning: this article deals with homophobia, racism, substance abuse and sexual assault.*
Margaret Cho has never been afraid to go there.
The comedian, actor, musician, advocate, entrepreneur and artist weaves her lived experiences into every facet of her content – and why shouldn’t she? Straight comedians often write jokes about their sexual experiences. White actors frequently star in sitcoms about their family lives. Musicians and podcast hosts whose identities aren’t pathologized are routinely raw and open about their personal struggles. Cho does exactly what her peers have been hailed for since the dawn of the entertainment industry – but that’s precisely why it’s significant.
See, some people start non-profit organizations to advocate for queer people. Others organize marches. Others still write dense theoretical books to contextualize current conditions. And, while those acts are all beneficial and necessary, Margaret Cho fights for queer people simply by being out loud.
To exist authentically is a form of protest when you’re a member of a marginalized group. The world violently does everything in its power to make you strive for straightness, cisness, whiteness, maleness, thinness and ability. So, not being all – or any – of those things is a kind of rebellion. In the words of self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde,
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
When Cho speaks casually and candidly, as she often does, about what she has experienced at the intersection of bisexuality, Korean-ness and survivorship of sexual assault and substance abuse, she allows those with similar stories to recognize themselves in a world that tells them they don’t – or shouldn’t – exist. Cho jokes, “When you get a new girlfriend – isn’t it so fun? – you’ve got to go to the sex store and buy a new dildo to celebrate your love,” and, suddenly, some queer kid in the Toronto suburbs feels seen for possibly the first time.
It’s powerful – and hilarious.
So, in honour of Pride Month and in anticipation of Cho’s appearance at our first ever Real Talks: Pride edition, here are some ways Margaret Cho advocates for the queer community:
She’s boldly bisexual
Bisexuality is a unique identity in its own right. But, Cho is all too familiar with the misconception that it’s an indecisive halfway point between gayness and straightness. In a 2018 interview with the Huffington Post, she said,
“Nobody has ever really accepted that I’m truly bisexual. Nobody has ever allowed it. It’s still very much a point of argument between anybody that I’ve been with. People just don’t accept it.”
Cho speaks frankly about dating people across the gender spectrum to defy this erasure. “Maybe ‘pansexual‘ is technically the more correct term,” she told the Huffington Post, “but I like ‘bisexual’ because it’s kind of ’70s. There’s something very chic about that word and I guess that’s probably the right one for me.”
And, speaking of the ’70s, Cho is no rookie when it comes to repping her bisexuality – she’s been doing it since before the public sphere had the vocabulary to describe it. She told YouTube channel VladTV, “…being bisexual, there wasn’t a lot out there for me to, sort of, recognize or be reflected back. Like, I didn’t know what it was, really. And, so, I just accepted it.”
It takes resilience to be queer. It took even more in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Margaret Cho has always been brilliant enough to live her bi-ness with pride – even when no one fully understood it.
She’s blunt about anti-Asian racism
“The idea that there isn’t racism against Asian Americans is absolutely untrue,” Cho told TODAY earlier this year. “…That alone kind of constitutes most of the main conversation. The invisibility is the worst, so every conversation is really about that. It’s, like, just people not being aware, and especially white people not being aware.”
Margaret Cho is bisexual and Korean-American – and neither of those identities exist in a vacuum. Anti-Asian racism – and the denial of it – is shamefully hyper-present in the queer community.
Moreover, violence against Asian people has surged since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cho, who was openly queer throughout the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, has said the parallels are striking.
“People were using AIDS as an excuse to act out on their homophobic rage,” she explained. “The disease and the pandemic, which AIDS was and as coronavirus is now, they have nothing to do with these groups of people. They want to use their hatred as a way to communicate their fear and it’s really scary, but it’s something that we’ve seen before.”
Cho claims space in the public eye as her entire self; she incorporates her heritage into her material and is forthright about the racism she’s experienced. Season two of her podcast, called Mortal Minority, subverts the harmful “model minority” myth by examining “…the repetitive nature of hate crimes and how they’re not new, even if they seem new, because they’re presented as shocking and new by the news.”
Through actions like these, Cho creates space for others who are both queer and Asian. Specifically, she’s expressed admiration for stars like Bowen Yang, Robin Tran and BD Wong.
Their come ups are, in part, her advocacy in action.
She’s truthful about her troubles
Substance abuse and sexual assault disproportionately affect queer people. And, that’s not because of their queerness; it’s because of the material oppression queer people face and the way their identities are exoticized. Despite these higher rates, though, the queer community often sweeps these issues under the rug.
Not Margaret Cho.
“…it’s a removal of you caring, but you still feel the pain, you still feel the anguish. Only the choice of whether or not to care about it is removed chemically,” said Cho about opiates in a recent interview with The Guardian.
The entertainer also discussed her experience with childhood sexual abuse on Jameela Jamil‘s podcast, I Weigh. “…when you’re growing up in the ’80s, sexualizing young girls…was such a normalized thing,” she said. “It was in, like, movies…and it was in, like, all sorts of magazines and advertisements. You would see it constantly, everywhere…even though it felt wrong, it was totally normalized.”
Cho speaks about these traumas with an offhanded intimacy; they’re part of her story – but they don’t define her. And, this type of transparency is critical in stripping the shame surrounding sexual and substance abuse.
Every time Cho discusses how addiction and assault have affected her, some queer person somewhere may be inspired to do the same. That’s advocacy.
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She’s bringing her expertise to you
If you’re as moved by Cho as we are, you can personally experience her knowledge and hilarity at IGNITE’s first ever Pride-focused Real Talks!
On Thursday, June 24, Cho will join Canada’s Drag Race winner Priyanka and YouTube sensation Bretman Rock to talk queerness, comedy and community in an online event for the books. You’ll be served the inside scoop on working in entertainment and what it’s like to be queer in the public eye.
Snag your tickets for our Pride Real Talks through Eventbrite. And, remember: learning from prominent queer people is advocacy.
Advocacy starts at home. Check out how Humber alum Dr. Jill Andrew stands up for Black and queer people in Toronto.
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