Margaret Cho got an especially early start celebrating Pride.
Thanks to a childhood spent in the middle of San Francisco’s gayest neighborhood -- growing up in her parents' gay book store, no less -- the outspoken comedian was partaking in the city’s annual bash recognizing the LGBTQ community before she was even a teen. Now, nearly four decades later, she attends Prides around the world each year, often serving as grand marshal and “riding in cars driven by old, very butch diesel dyke types who want to show off their custom cars.”
In honor of Pride Month, HuffPost recently phoned Cho to chat about her earliest Pride memories, why she thinks the controversial corporate takeover of some events might not be such a bad thing and the challenges she continues to face as a bisexual.
When and how did you first realize that you were queer? Is there one particular moment or experience that stands out to you?
I think it was something that I just kind of knew — that there was something different in the sense of not belonging — and not really understanding why. It was this feeling of “I don’t get everything.” And there was this distrust of the other girls around me. They made me feel like there was something about me that was kind of off and that they didn’t trust me. There would be graffiti on the walls about me and rumors that I had tried to kiss a girl — things that had never happened but that still confirmed for me that there was something different about me. I was really almost at war with my peers — but it was a silent war. Every kid feels awkward as it is but it was magnified for me and in some ways, I knew those other kids were right about me and that was scary too.
How old were you then?
It probably started when I was about 7 and it continued through high school until I really just started to reject all that school was. At first it was very upsetting and really scary — I felt really alone. Then I realized that I could just hang out with the freaks! [Laughs] I finally just asked myself, why am I trying to belong where I’m just not welcome? After being very hurt by people calling me a “dyke” and that kind of thing, I thought, That’s fine! You can call me that because I am one! [Laughs] But it takes a little bit of time to really go, “I’m not going to be hurt by what is true.”
I love what you said earlier about knowing somewhere inside of you that the other kids were right about who you really were and that being “scary.” When did you actually come out? When did you actually say the words, “I’m queer” or “I’m bisexual” or however you phrased it?
I think I didn’t say it out loud until I was 18 or 19. And at that time, I thought I was a dyke. I thought I was a lesbian. And then I realized, “No, I’m actually attracted to men as well.” So then it became something really confusing for me. My family had a gay bookstore, they were in the gay community, they were working in and around the gay community, so they really were aware of gay people and lesbians but they didn’t understand bisexuality. It’s still a sensitive issue for many people in my life. They really don’t get bisexuality. I’ve had this suspicion with every partner that I’ve ever had [that they didn’t get it]. I’ve never been with another bisexual person. I’ve only been with either straight or gay people, so, it’s a very suspicious place. 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.
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.
We’ve come a long way in terms of how people conceptualize and talk about bisexuality. Many people who may have once identified as bisexual are now using the term pansexuality instead because they feel it more fully describes who they are. What are your thoughts on the subject?
I don’t know. I don’t know using “bisexual” is right because that indicates that there’s only two genders, and I don’t believe that. I’ve been with people all across the spectrum of gender and who have all kinds of different expressions of gender, so it’s so hard to say. Maybe “pansexual” is technically the more correct term but I like “bisexual” because it’s kind of ’70s. [Laughs] There’s something very chic about that word and I guess that’s probably the right one for me.
When and where did you attend your very first Pride celebration?
It must have been in San Francisco in 1977 or 1978. It was not what it is today — it was much smaller but it was still very exciting. My memories of my first Pride aren’t that clear. I have clearer memories of later on in the ’80s and of course early ’90s when people were outraged about the government’s treatment of people with HIV and AIDS and Pride was hugely political. I was an adult by then so my participation was obviously at a much more advanced stage.
Because your family owned a gay bookstore in The Castro, was Pride something that you all celebrated together every year?
It was very practical. It was like, “Oh, we’re going to need to get a lot of shifts covered.” [Laughs] That was mostly my family’s attitude. It was celebrated within the structure of the bookstore but it was more that people were going to be gone and doing other things and so we had to prepare for that. The biggest thing I remember was the vigil for Harvey Milk after he was killed and my family didn’t want me to go. They thought it would be too sad. They were like, “You’re not going to be able to go because we think it’s too sad and it’s a terrible, terrible thing and we don’t want you to be scared about what happened or thinking about what happened to him.” I was probably about nine when he was killed and so I think my family was very conscious of it being too much ― too overwhelming ― to be a part of my life. I think that’s sad — I wish I could have been there. But even though I wasn’t, I still remember realizing that we’re living in this incredibly violent world and that someone could be killed because they were gay — that was just an awful, awful thing.
What’s your relationship with Pride like now?
I love it. I’m active in Pride in a number of ways, whether I’m performing or just going and hanging out or riding in cars driven by old, very butch diesel dyke types who want to show off their custom cars. [Laughs]. That’s the ideal for me — you want to be in one of those convertibles and have a lovely chauffeur. I’ve done Pride in so many different countries. I think the big queer Mardi Gras in Sydney, Australia, is the biggest Pride I’ve ever been to. I’ve been grand marshal at San Francisco’s Pride several times. That’s a huge one because there’s the Take Back The Night March and the Trans March and so there are quite a few events that go along with Pride that are really exciting.
How do you feel about LGBTQ folks who think Pride isn’t necessary anymore?
It’s really anybody’s right to decide what they want to do. That’s the luxury — that you don’t have to do it. I come from this period of time where it was absolutely essential — Pride saved lives. We didn’t exist in mainstream society then and now you can just hide from Pride if you want and that in and of itself is a statement about how far we’ve come. It’s a choice. I love it. For me, it’s just fun and I get to hang out with my friends and experience other countries and other ways of celebrating Pride. I love that involvement.
More generally speaking, what are your thoughts about the infighting that’s constantly happening in the queer community?
I think it’s always going to be there and that’s also what’s great about the community. We have varying levels of infighting and community — it’s always different. That’s where you’re getting to really embrace the intersectionality of it all. We’ve traditionally looked at Pride as being a very white male movement and of course there’s now so much more involved in thinking about Pride. Before we didn’t acknowledge the trans community. We still don’t really acknowledge the bisexual community. But now there’s more of looking towards a sense of unity and diversity and I think that’s really important.
How do you feel about how corporate some Pride celebrations have become? Lea DeLaria recently told me, “Unless the float from Citibank and the float from Starbucks says ‘Fuck Trump!’ then we don’t need them there.” Do you agree?
What’s good about it is that you’re having sponsorships and you’re looking at these big corporate entities having LGBT organizations within their structures. I think that’s really positive. When you’ve got a company like Altoids spending money on go-go boys and free mints for a float [laughs] as well as the money that comes with it, I think that’s a good thing. When you have a presence in the gift bag that shows the support of a particular corporation, that’s a good thing. I love free stuff! [Laughs] And I love when companies have queer organizations as part of their infrastructure because that’s really encouraging for their employees.
Finally, the LGBTQ community has always grappled with misogyny. Do you think things have gotten better in recent years?
I think it’s gotten better. I just worked with Taylor Mac and he had this amazing show where he was going through decades of queer culture and showing the unity we’ve seen between men and women and trans people in the queer community — it was such a different experience towards queerness, [and] I feel [that represents] the future. I believe there will be more of a sense of unity and appreciation of each other— in the past so many people embraced separatist ideals and now we’re realizing that we can’t go forward unless we’re together. Things are changing and I really love that.
For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 different cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.