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Fame, for better or worse, almost always comes with a platform, and in the case of Margaret Cho, it’s been one that promotes acceptance. Ever since she first graced the comedy stages of her native San Francisco or appeared on ABC in a sitcom featuring a Korean-American family, she’s been unafraid to broach topics that make others uncomfortable — like LGBTQ rights, sexual assault and racism — and then swiftly release the tensions of those subjects with laughs. Coupled with her comedy, Cho has worked as an activist in many fields, taking on problems like homelessness and anti-bullying, and stood firm in the face of controversy. That boldness is exactly why Mark Erwin-McCormick, the Director of Development and Advancement at Detroit’s Ruth Ellis Center, said she was chosen to receive a Ruth Ellis Legacy Award this year.
“The thing with Margaret is that she’s been so incredibly outspoken about LGBTQ equity, and not just for the LGBT community as a whole, but with emphasis on LGBTQ youth for sure,” Erwin-McCormick said. “And she wasn’t doing it when it was popular to do so, or when other people were doing it. Margaret has been talking about this for decades.”
Cho will be receiving the award at the annual REC VOICES Gala, on Thursday, Sept. 27, alongside guests Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost of The Ally Coalition, Billy Porter and Zeke Thomas.
In advance of the awards, Cho spoke with BTL about what pushes her to be an activist, what it’s like to be bisexual in the public eye and how to make sense of our divisive political climate.
Activism and your comedy seem to have always been intertwined. Why did you choose to focus on arguably difficult topics in your stand-up?
Well, it comes from the environment I grew up in. It was all about Harvey Milk and the way that the world was changing. We were looking to equal rights as something that could be possible, that could be an actual experience and lived, and so this was a very big deal. And I think I’ve always been influenced by that and growing up around that and really feeling like we could have equal rights and that we could have a fair world, that that was a really incredible thing to witness. I’ve always been around activism, it’s always been a part of my life. Even starting up young as a comedian and doing shows and it was always a part of life.
How was it growing up with your parents owning an LGBTQ bookstore? That must have been an amazing pocket of acceptance and an influence, too.
Yeah, it was really incredible. Also, I come from, like, what would be considered a pretty conservative background with my family and how, you know, they’re very Korean [laughs]. So, a very strange place to grow up in a gay bookstore, for a Korean family to be in. It was so highly unusual, and it was really a testament of my father’s vision, of what he wanted. He wanted to have a place in the gay community and this was in the ‘70s. That was incredibly forward-thinking, and, to me, outrageous. I think about it now and it’s really amazing. You know, he’s great that way. So, my family has always been very much and it’s really powerful.
You have a bit in which your mother tells you about your dad punching his gay friend because he didn’t know how to react to him coming out, something that he later regrets. It’s a funny way to send a good message, but it was also true. Is that how you try to shape most of your comedy, by injecting a clear message within the humor?
That’s what it always was about. It was funny because it was true, and it was just stuff that was normal to me and it just made sense to me, you know? I have gay friends, I have a life that I am queer in and around and so these elements, it — I don’t know. I just was talking about my life and all of the things in it and the fact that it happened to be gay was just the truth.
In another interview you mentioned from a young age, 6 or 7, you had an understanding that you were different than your peers. Did your family owning a gay bookstore provide insulation from the outside world, or did it impact you negatively?
It made it a safe space to be who I was. Everything was acceptable. There wasn’t any sense of it being weird. Being gay, or all that was totally normal, but being bi that was really obvious, that was something that like, nobody could understand. The gay people that worked for my father they didn’t get bi, they didn’t understand bisexuality. And then the straight people didn’t really get bi. So, bisexuality because this weird thing of, “Is that a thing? Is that even real?” I still kind of think that that kind of exists too, that that kind of mentality around bisexuality exists, “Oh, is that real? Or is that actually bisexual?” It was kind of like before people came out they would say they were bi. So, it’s this idea that you’re not actually coming out and you’re only coming out to a point and as opposed to bisexual actual existence that’s real and valid. I think that’s something that I think we’re still coming up against. Or they feel like, “Oh, you’re going to go back to who you were.” On both sides, straight or gay, and, like, that’s a weird kind of a thing, too, that there’s a going back [laughs]. We’re just not trustworthy, that’s kind of what the message is.
If you could talk to a younger version of yourself grappling with their sexuality in their adolescence, what advice would you give them?
I think it’s just knowing that everything is going to be OK. It’s like what you are is actually valid and you don’t have to be afraid to embrace that. And it’s OK to be different. It’s OK to be different even when everyone else is supposed to be different, too, they’re supposed to be, like, even from you. So, in the greater gay community, we still have that feeling of we’re not really gay [laughs] you can be.
Do you think it’s the responsibility of people like you, who have a platform, who are “outsiders” in the mainstream, to be visible? To talk about those things that make them different?
Well, I don’t know. I just think it’s fun and easy, you know, and I just like to. But, I don’t feel like there’s any sense of responsibility to serve your identity politically. You know, people just kind of do what they do. I have fun with it, talking about it in my work and playing around with it, but it’s also fine to not as well.
Having this opportunity to accept an award from the Ruth Ellis Center for your activism, does that give you hope for the future, even in a divisive political time?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It does give me hope for the future in the way that resistance has become a really big part of how we cope and I love that. It just gives you a lot of hope. I think it’s a really important thing and now we have a chance to go back to what gay pride was about before, which was about equal rights and not so much just a big party, it was about activism before. So, now we’re returning to that which is really great.
You’ve worked for a variety of causes over the years. How did you go about choosing your causes, was it just a focus on something that was at the forefront at the time?
Yeah. I think whatever that feels like it needs attention. Whether it’s, like, working with gay homeless youth or something that feels very urgent, that feels really good to do. It’s intuitive and it’s something that feels like, ‘I just need to do this.’
When you’re writing comedy now, are you finding inspiration in the fact that many people are starting to take on political causes?
Yeah. I think it’s inspiring, too, to see other people and what they do and see how fired up people are on social media and that’s great, you know? I think that we can look to the world and see it’s really awesome in the way that we’re learning how to do this. We’re learning how to take it all to heart and to survive it.
Is there a certain issue that you’re really paying attention to right now in which you feel people could get more involved?
I think really the #MeToo movement is something that has really spoken to me also. You know? Just talking about what’s happened and naming abusers and then not allowing it to happen anymore. And this is something that is a very important thing, and I love that it’s happening.
When you were coming up as a comedian in your early years, did you even think something like the #MeToo movement was a possibility?
No. I just never thought anything like this could happen. So, it’s really inspiring and real joy to witness it every day and it’s really awesome.
What would you say to someone who wants to get involved in a cause they care about but is feeling defeated by the current political situation?
I think it’s just stay hopeful. Stay positive. It’s easy to get bogged down with negativity and get really angry and scared and now is a time to stay fighting. We have to stay really focused and not despair which also can be very easy.