Margaret Cho's message to drag show haters: "Take equal rights like a man"

On "Salon Talks," the queer icon addresses male comics, being a crazy cat lady and her hopes for "Fire Island 2"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 4, 2023 3:30PM (EST)

Margaret Cho (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Margaret Cho (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Comedian Margaret Cho describes her occupation as "a strangely naked art form." "To me," she says, "it's very hard for anybody to be funny, especially in the scope of stand-up comedy."

But now, after four decades sharing the highs and lows of her life on stage — and six since the last time she toured — the Emmy- and Grammy Award-nominated performer is back on the road with a "Live & Livid" show she promises was "tailor-made for these insane times." 

Cho joined me on "Salon Talks" for a candid conversation about surviving our current "storm of fear," the power of drag, and the one silver dress she had to share with Karen Kilgariff and Janeane Garofolo. Watch it here, or read our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

This is your first tour in six years. It's called "Live and Livid." There's a lot to be livid about. Tell me about this tour and what you wanted to bring to it this time.

For me, it's a return to live performance. I've taken a lot of time to just be safe. The pandemic was so much longer than we all anticipated, but it really took a lot of the ability to perform live, to go see live shows, which I do all the time. It's sort of a reset, but I feel like now I'm just so grateful to be going out there. 

At a time where trans rights, gay rights, women's rights, Asian hate crimes are at such a huge high, it's a very challenging time to even look for reasons to feel good about what's happening in the world. And then on top of that, climate change, of course. It's a storm of hatred. It's a storm of fear. But I think the way to combat that is with humor, which is a healing force. It's the force of optimism really. Most importantly, it's a way to be able to get together and celebrate the fact that we can be together. 

You recently signed an open letter to the New York Times about their anti-trans coverage. These are issues that you have been involved with and been vocal about for the four decades of your career. It's such a unique moment in history. 

"Male comedians have this love affair with being right about everything."

It is a unique moment because we've really seen the rise of Christian extremism that is so disgusting. It's a really painful realization that as a progressive, I've really let my guard down. I let my guard down so much over the last 50 years of being a progressive assuming that things were going to be fair, that democracy worked in a fair way, that equality was a given. And all of these things just seem to be taken away little by little.

They chip away at it little by little, and then suddenly we have these things like the "Don't Say Gay" bill. To me, it's such a strange thing to be against. Why are you against progress? Why are you against teaching children real American history? What we can learn from critical race theory really has more to do with the resilience of the idea of equality and the resilience of the idea of democracy. We're losing all this in this presumed fear of white erasure, which I think we need to change. We need to move forward. We need to have inclusion. We need to have the idea of intersectionality all across everything. This weird theological bent to politics has become very upsetting.

It's white fragility, but it's also straight fragility. It's also masculine fragility.

I know, they're supposed to be strong. If you're going to be a man, take it like a man. Take it like a man. Take equal rights like a man.

What are they so threatened about? We're looking at these things like actual agendas against drag reading hours

"It's a really painful realization that as a progressive, I've really let my guard down."

There's so many things wrong with it. First of all, you're traumatizing children. You're bringing firearms to children's events, in the weird deluded idea that you're protecting the children, and this is all in this spirit of protecting children. Literally traumatizing children for reading. So you would rather us not have education? We should not have literature? It goes with the banning of books. It goes with this idea that somehow drag queens are in any way harmful to children. If we want to look at what's harmful to children let's look at the Catholic Church. Let's look at these institutions that have protected predators for centuries. It's pretty clear who the predators are. It's not drag queens; it's not trans people. Yet we're doing so much to fight this hypocrisy and this bizarre delusion that we're not actually able to change what's wrong. 

The thing I think about the drag reading hours that strikes me so deeply, Margaret, is that it's also anti-joy. It's anti-fun. Going out on tour and doing this after so many years, is there apprehension? Is there fear? You talk about hate crimes. I know you've said there have been times where you have felt afraid to leave your house because of the rise in anti-Asian violence. 

I have legitimate fear, but that doesn't mean that you can't go out there and do what's right. I have legitimate fears as an older Asian American woman. I'm a prime target for any of this kind of bigotry, any of these hate crimes happening. But I still have to be out there. Being queer and being progressive, being a feminist, all these things are really more important to me to protect than my own anxiety. I don't want to nurture my own personal anxiety and let the sort of things that are happening keep going. I think they should be afraid. They should be afraid for spouting these hateful views.

"It's pretty clear who the predators are. It's not drag queens; it's not trans people."

Drag is really where, as the queer community, we celebrate our joy and our victory. It's a very calculated effort to dismantle our humanity by taking away the things that we love the most, things that are so treasured, like drag, because it's where we have been able to laugh at mainstream society and become superior in that joy and laughter to find a way to lift ourselves up. Drag, camp, trans lives, all these places are where we celebrate our wins in a very deep, profound way. To have those under attack, it's alarming.

You seem to really embrace the role of role model and mentor to younger people coming up, especially when it comes to anti-bullying and identity. What are you learning from them?

Oh, I'm a student, really. I'm a student of all the things that young people are doing. Gen Z are the generation that's going to save our planet and they're doing amazing. If you look at Greta Thunberg and you look at young influencers on TikTok, they're just so incredible. The way that they are identity-forward. They are proud. They are all very, so much about embracing the nuance and embracing the nuance of identity in a way that's broad and specific. I'm really a student of all of these people who really have grown up with the internet. They've grown up with the activism on the internet, and they know so much more than I could even hope to know about. I have lived experience, but I don't have the specific experience of having technology there from the beginning, and so they're really inspiring to me.

You have talked a lot about bisexuality and the fight for bisexual identity and the ways in which bisexuals have been sometimes marginalized, both in the gay community and in the straight community. Where do you see yourself now, and where do you see yourself evolving in your own identity?

I think bisexuality is a limiting term because it's also really just that there may only be two genders. It puts us in a binary, which I think it's not exactly right, but it's a word that we have. I just appreciate so much the idea of neopronouns and how we're embracing them. That's, to me, a real step forward in identity. Let's get more nuanced about how we use words within the scope of identity. 

"Why is spinster somehow negative? I really think it's great."

That's why the right really fight. "My preferred pronouns are USA." Those are not pronouns, that is an acronym! You cannot take articles of language and make them into things that they are not just because you want to prove a point about your patriotism. They're just trying to take away the idea that we can be nuanced about our identity. Within that nuance, there is so much strength and power, so I really appreciate that.

My own identity actually has been really altered by menopause. So now I feel like more of an ace, which is new. Asexual, a polyamorous asexual, which I think is really to be the perfect thing to be. I love this idea of crazy cat lady as archetype, and it shouldn't have to be a negative thing. Why is spinster somehow negative? I really think it's great. We are able to step into our own power and not have to negotiate our life with anybody else. That's, to me, the greatest happiness.

One of your big role models and influences was Joan Rivers. I know she said something to you about how comedians get to grow older. You get to evolve, and the world lets you change and lets you age in a way that it doesn't necessarily for everybody else. I wonder if that's just true for women? I look at some of the older male comedians and I don't see them embracing it in quite the same way.

I don't know. I think it's hard because male comedians always are trying to prove themselves as being, "We're not just funny, we're also virile. We're also powerful. We're also smart, and we are also right." Male comedians have this love affair with being right about everything. It's a really strange thing. You cannot bring in any idea of debate with them because they want to have the final word. I sort of feel more fluid with my opinions in general. Of course, I'm never going to ever be a pro-life tradwife. I know that. But everything else, I can somehow negotiate another opinion in general. I also can admit when I'm wrong, but a lot of male comedians have had problems with that. Also, with aging, they get very defensive about things, I think. So it's tough.

For a woman in comedy, being able to step back from being judged and assessed purely on how sexy you are or how much someone wants to go to bed with you is freeing. It gives you a place to be listened to, maybe.

Yeah, and it also gives you a space of just being free of all that, to not have to wonder whether I'm presenting femininity in a way that's consumable as femininity. It's a weird thing. Women in comedy have always been saddled with the idea of femininity as a kind of negative. In general, if you presented more masculine, there was an idea where people would just assume that you were funnier, oddly.

I don't know why it has to be so gendered because funny is funny. To me, it's very hard for anybody to be funny, especially in the scope of stand-up comedy. It's quite a strangely naked art form. It's hard to even figure out how to do that without putting all of the gendered meaning on top of the archetype of who we're supposed to be.

You came up as a comedian in San Francisco, when it was ground zero of a crisis that was particularly targeting the queer community. How has that impacted you going through your life, as you look at your activism and the role it has played throughout your career?

"What I learned is that everything is good for art."

Well, I think one of the reasons why I'm so fiercely protective of drag is because drag is really the way that we were able to heal from the AIDS pandemic, which was like our first pandemic. Drag was a way that we could make sense of our tragedy and find the hope to laugh again, even if it was in very dark, humorous ways. We would have to embrace that gallows humor because we were surrounded by death daily, multiple times daily. And so, drag is such a fiercely important part of our culture because it gives us the means to survive. It's a powerful tool. Humor is a powerful tool for awakening and for healing.

You have been so open about trauma, rehab, substance abuse and mental health issues. Are there things that you look back at now and you say, "I wouldn't talk about them that way," or "I would talk about them differently?"

What I learned is that everything is good for art. All of those subjects, even though they're difficult, they are really good for connecting with others on a very human level. I think we're all very vulnerable to different kinds of pain, and so when you can take that pain and turn it into something that is really funny and really tragic in the way that it's funny, I feel like it's incredibly cathartic. I don't think that those kinds of things are anything that I would regret. 

I regret some of the outfits, but then I might like them again. So I'm not really sure. I remember one time when, in the '90s, we were doing television shows and myself, Janeane Garofalo and Karen Kilgariff, we could only afford to buy one dress, so we split it. We each wore it, we had our own twist on it. It was like some kind of weird silver silk moiré. I wouldn't wear some of the dresses, but then of course, I'll go back and I'll say, I like it.

Trauma doesn't go away. How do you deal with those dark days now?

I have had a long-time problem with depression, which now is really alleviated because I have a very strong meditation practice, which takes about, oh gosh, it takes a long time. There's a lot that I do to maintain my mental health. I think there's a lot of wonderful drug therapies out there, but I don't do any of that because I have so many problems in that area. Now I have a very strong meditation practice. I have hundreds of houseplants. Some are dying.  My cactus garden is flourishing, however, but everything else is kind of a little bit tricky.

I have many cats. I have a dog who's actually right at my lumbar right now. She's my lumbar cushion. She's the best. I have an enormously satisfying artistic life, so I just spend my days creating, and making a big pot of bolognese in the kitchen. I've been able to train my cats not to use one side of the counter. They have the rest of the counter, but I have one little sliver. I can do my cooking, and they will not go there, so I use that little sliver of counter as my base for creating. I do a lot of creating and cooking. They know, because I cook for them. 

"Drag is such a fiercely important part of our culture because it gives us the means to survive."

I can't let you go without asking you about "Fire Island."  You wanted to do this movie before you even saw a script.

Oh, yeah. As soon as I saw that Joel Kim Booster had written it, that Bowen Yang was a star and that Andrew Ahn was directing, I was like, "I'm in this. I don't know if you know, but I'm in this film." I just strong-armed my way into the movie. The part that I played was originally written for a man and as luck would have it, it just kind of worked out and I loved making it. Hopefully, we get to do a sequel or a prequel or you make a whole cinematic universe.

 I've heard that the next dream is to get Marisa Tomei on board.

She must. She's so fabulous. And yeah, I think it would just be a really special film. I would love to incorporate all of the places that we go as queers, whether that is like Fire Island, Provincetown, Byron Bay, Whistler, BC, Palm Springs — there's so many great locations for that idea of the queer paradise.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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