By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
She’s a comedian, an actress, an activist, a musician, a burlesque performer, a bellydancer, a Christian, and a kinky, bisexual, polyamorous woman of color. With her current tour, Margaret Cho claims a new title — mother figure. In advance of her upcoming show at the Schnitz, Cho talked with PQ about war, the media, spirituality, and the ways that pain transforms us.
PQ: So, Margaret … Syria. Do you think the U.S. should get involved in the conflict?
MC: It’s scary and crazy. I know a lot of people who are active duty in the military, and it’s a tough thing to know the actual reality of people who’d be deployed in the conflict and the life-or-death impact it’d have on their families for them to go deal with it. I think that the news doesn’t handle the reality of it, either. The news handles things like Miley Cyrus twerking way more than they handle atrocity, and the actuality of life and death. It’s all just so difficult to grasp.
PQ: The information is just so hard to come by with it, too. Like you said, so much of the media bandwidth is taken up by pseudo-events like Miley Cyrus twerking as opposed to real engagement with this.
MC: The way that you receive news now is dependent on how far you’re willing to scroll down on the page. So often, we’re only willing to go to the first page, and as a result we only see what’s trending and what folks are tweeting about — which is not necessarily what’s really happening. Plus, I think the Miley Cyrus twerking stories gave a very weird explanation of what twerking is! It doesn’t quite explore this idea that it’s an appropriation of African-American women’s bodies and music. It’s very layered.
PQ: The media’s handling of these to issues kind of makes sense in that regard, because rather than looking at something so horrifying that it makes your breath catch in your throat, something like Miley Cyrus twerking is a lot simpler. It’s certainly an emotional issue, but it doesn’t make your heart stop the way a looming global war would.
MC: What’s really freaking me out is the way that Russia still keeps Pussy Riot in prison, that they have all these human rights violations against LGBTQ citizens, and yet we as a global community are still basically okay with them hosting the Olympics. The good thing about it is that we get folks like Wentworth Miller and Dan Savage mobilizing to get boycotts going and to make a statement, but it’s all horrible. There’s always darkness and light in everything.
PQ: And we can’t forget Tilda Swinton! She’s been so fantastic in regards to the LGBTQ situation in Russia, and also in regards of bisexual, queer, polyamorous visibility in general. For you, as someone who’s been out for many years as being both bi and poly, how do you find the visibility of your lifestyles has changed over the last decade?
MC: People are always shocked when they realize it. Bisexuality and queerness in general for women is a little less shocking to people nowadays — a lot of very famous women have come out as bisexual, and I think it’s because it’s somehow safer for women to be bi than for men. Polyamory is still very hard for folks to understand. I get a lot of practical questions — like, “Where does the sex come in? What do you do when your partner is having sex?” To me, that’s a more prurient curiosity, and it hasn’t gone away.
PQ: A lot of members of your fanbase have spent their entire adult life in wartime. From your viewpoint, how has living under wartime on one hand, and this sort of new paradigm in terms of how we can love and be out on the other, impacted the younger generation of your fanbase?
MC: There are so many people who have grown up under this war. I think of 9/11 — we’re always in the shadow of it now. It’s given an urgency to relationships, and made people realize that love is important. Younger kids, and queer kids in general, are way more active and politicized; you can see this from the huge proliferation of queer organizations in high schools. They’ve also added a lot more letters to LGBT — there are now allies, and questioning, intersex, and more. In a sense, the umbrella of the queer community got larger. I think this is a symptom of living in a time of high stress.
PQ: So much queer political work right now has to do with marriage equality. How do you see marriage equality and polyamory interacting?
MC: I think marriage equality is fundamentally about becoming politically equal with heterosexuals — it’s less about the actuality of how we have relationships, and more about how we’re viewed by the government and whether we have equal rights. Polyamory is more about a personal quest in relationship, and that could be heterosexual, homosexual, or both. Marriage equality is a civil rights crusade, and polyamory is a personal revolution. It’s different, but similar.
PQ: Switching gears — you’re performing in Portland soon! Have you spent much time in Portland?
MC: Yes! It’s an amazing city. I’ve spent a lot of time there, especially in the last year. It’s freezing cold there! It’s beautiful, but it’s harsh — the weather is harsh, and when the sun finally bursts through the clouds, it’s such a revelation. A lot of the culture is shoved inside by the climate, focused on things like what people are going to eat, how perfect the food can be, how organic it can be. Indoors, people focus on internal pleasures — eating, drinking, beer, coffee. People have to deal with the rain somehow!
PQ: Thinking about indoor pleasures — another big one here is sex!
MC: In terms of openness, it’s a lot more polyamorous and queer a city than most other places I’ve seen. There’s a lot more specificity, too — people enjoying particular pleasures and really going for them.
PQ: Do you think you’d ever relocate here?
MC: I might! Lately, I’ve been going there twice a month for about three or four days at a time. After a while of doing that, you get to know a place pretty well.
PQ: What’s distinctive about your “Mother” tour?
MC: This show is really about the ways we parent in the gay community. Now that I’ve reached the awesome age of being the “Grand Dame” of my friends, I’m referred to as a mother figure by so many gay people! It’s also about my own mother, but centrally it’s about being in that mothering position.… It’s important that we do parent ourselves and parent each other, especially in the queer community where many of us have experienced abandonment from our “bio-families” because of our queerness. As a result, we’re all looking for mother figures. This is especially true for gay men, for whom it’s been a historical thing — you can follow the timeline from Joan Crawford, to Judy Garland, to Madonna, to Lady Gaga. They’re all looked at as mother figures, and have all thrived in that role.
PQ: From a Jungian perspective, it’s interesting that for gay men, it’s almost like the adoption of an internal powerful female figure, something to identify with to create a sense of balance in life. I imagine that with your bellydance and burlesque background, you must interact with that archetypical energy quite a bit.
MC: Definitely! Both forms are very deeply connected to that motherly energy — the earth mother, the goddess. It’s a very comforting and natural role. For gay men, there’s also often that sort of perceived myth of eternal boyhood, the social need to be young and to value youth.
PQ: Do you feel a sort of responsibility in your position to encourage those “eternal boys” to become men? How would you do that?
MC: Oh yeah! It’s a little bit of scolding, a little bit of encouragement to be proud and active, and a lot about having fun and enjoying life. Trying to give them a semblance of wisdom and hope.
PQ: I understand that you’re a former Sunday School teacher and that you still identify as Christian. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Jesus?
MC: I think Jesus is a very good teacher. Really, he’s such a power bottom! Jesus was all about taking other people’s pain and absorbing it, and making himself stronger because of it — absorbing all the negativity from your persecutors and taking it on for someone else. He is not at all about guilt. A lot of Christianity has been distorted by anti-gay stuff that doesn’t even exist in the Bible at all. I think of Christ, at face value, is very much a power bottom. That’s a really good thing to be!
PQ: On the subject of taking in pain and transforming it, you’re quite the tattoo enthusiast.
MC: I’m over 70 percent covered in tattoos. There is a lot of transformative feeling in tattooing — it’s quite tribal and sacred to get your skin opened. It feels very ritualistic.
PQ: How has that transformed your relationship with pain?
MC: I think you learn that the more that something hurts, the more gratifying it is. That’s something that’s repeated in all manner of places — psychological and emotional transformations. Even BDSM! The way that people go into “sub space,” and discover that the more intense the pain is, the more intense the endorphin high they receive from it is. It’s also in the transformation to becoming an adult — the more painful that the metamorphosis is, the greater the change will be.
Margaret Cho will perform at 8 p.m. on Nov. 15 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (1111 SE Broadway, Portland). For more information and tickets, go to MargaretCho.com.