Margaret Cho: On Topping Trans* Queer Political Correctness

 

“I refer to myself as gay, but I’m married to a man.”

                                                                                      – Margaret Cho

Margaret Cho. Photo: MargaretCho.com.
Margaret Cho. Photo: MargaretCho.com.

I’m the One That I Want: Can Queer and Trans* Folks Really Reclaim the Word “Tranny?”

Let me begin by saying I’m queer-identified. I have trans* family, but it’s impossible for me to speak for trans* people of experience. I can share concepts, however. Too, my general line of thought in terms of sexuality, gender identity or personhood is that no matter how often your definition changes, you “are” what you tell me that you are.

Along with Stephen Fry, I feel that language and politically correct linguistic constructs can at times become as bullying, domineering and “victimizing” as those who claim to be victimized by language. What with people being as individualized and fluid as language is, sometimes experience does indeed trump the words we use to describe and protect it.

All Margaret Cho Everything

Margaret Cho (“Drop Dead Diva,” “I’m The One That I Want”) is as scrappy as she is electric.

She’s “scrappy” because she’s taken so much guff, sharing her multiple talents on and off-screen (she acts, sings, directs, writes, designs clothes, and is a walking-tattooed work of art and standout standup comic, for starters). Cho’s speech can transition from elegant purrs to lioness’ growls without hesitation. She’s electric because she sings the body electric: she’s sensual, naughty, flirtatious, often bawdy and ultimately playful.

If you’ve seen her comedy flick “I’m The One That I Want,” the efforting in her journey to long-term success is palpable. You get the sense she’s had to claw her way all the way up to the glass ceiling, brace herself with her back up, and kick the glass away with a pair of steel-toed Doc Martens just to disappear the whole damn thing. As she unfolds her own narrative in this cathartic and she-larious comedy film, we discover that now she’s not even in the friggin’ building. So, damn a glass ceiling anyhow.

Cho doesn’t “play the queer card” or the race card. Rather, she is always and forever queering play. She is queering entertainment. When cameras roll as you share minute details of your open relationship on morning chat shows, segue seamlessly into outing fellow celebs, put the world on notice that you will happily eff anything that moves as you like/when you like (just like men do), and always leave ‘em laughing…if anything, you could say Cho plays “the laugh card.”

Yes. We’re laughing. But to what end?

Well, they don’t call it “gender wars” just because.

Margaret Cho’s comedic M.O. doesn’t feel like a manipulation. Rather, it’s a weapon.

As she’s currently promoting her latest comedy project The MOTHER Tour, thoughts and themes come to mind about Margaret Cho’s presence in the world.

Yes, We Recruit: She’s All About Her Funny Business

Cho is forever quotable (damn skippy, and Bitch Flicks knows it) and impossible to ignore.

Case in point: In Conan O’ Brien’s documentary Conan O’ Brien Can’t Stop, the uber-successful talk show host and fellow comedian makes it a point both to “ignore” and dismiss Margaret Cho. On film.

An ever-irrepressible social sharer and networker, Cho was waiting to have a little comedic kiki with O’Brien as he slunked away, cheating to camera as he let us know he had to ditch her because he didn’t “want to get Cho’d.”

This sarcastic film bit could have been classified as gag reel material if O’Brien hadn’t spent the rest of the film kiki’ing it up with cameos by Jim Carrey, John Hamm and Jon Stewart, along with his cast and crew. (He preferred to be Carrey’d Hamm’ed and Stewarted.)

No doubt, comedy is a cutthroat business: Cho and O’Brien still work together and socialize, but O’Brien’s production choice and life decision in his own docu-pic is a telling one. So-called avoidance and disgust is attraction’s twin. C’mon Conan, fess up! Fully-embodied and empowered women carry with them a transformative energy that cannot be controlled. People can often find that to be at-once infuriating and hot.

There’s Some Tranny Chasers Up In Here

“ A few words about ‘trannychasing.’ I am not a trannychaser. Ok, actually I am a trannychaser. No I am not. I am a trannycatcher! Just kidding!”

                                   – Margaret Cho

As a self-confessed “tranny chaser,” Margaret Cho’s taken a good amount of flak for expressing her trans* chasing feelings and affirmative desires without too much apology. It’s a tough concept to think about, as she’s done so much brilliant work and she’s really been out there on the road, touring with Ani  DiFranco and Lilith Fair, indie all the way for decades on end, fearlessly advocating for trans* and queer rights, feminist and race equality, and respect of her own in the entertainment industry.

Making Visibility Sexy

Margaret Cho and Ian Harvie
Ian Harvie and Margaret Cho – Promotional Photo by Kevin Neales

 

There’s no doubt Cho is sex positive (she’s on the Good Vibrations board, and her activist and fund-raising work is notable).

She is queer-identified and trans* inclusive: she directed the highly acclaimed “Young James Dean” video by Girlyman, featuring trans* peers and allies covering lyrics about coming up in the world as genderqueer.

Her comedy routines, filmic work, creative projects and writing boast a high trans* visibility ratio, including her clearing the floor for trans* folks, often guys, to speak and co-create with her. These men need to be mainstreamed, as success for trans* persons of experience is exceptionally important and more common than we’re led to believe. Trans* folks face harrowing odds when attempting to begin any new business or creative venture, even if that enterprise was something they’d become successful at and mastered pre-transition.

Margaret Cho big-ups trans* men regularly, and we don’t see this enough elsewhere in the world in terms of proactive, high profile allies doing so. Cho supports fellow trans* comics and entrepreneurs and leverages her celebrity to help folks earn a steady income who might not do so otherwise, or as quickly. She will tweet, promote, and help to encourage business ventures for others—often tirelessly so. Her podcasts likely do much more for her regular indie artist guests than other shows whose DJ isn’t a comedy diva who reigns supreme.

Community leaders and others have voiced concern about Cho’s humor and “tranny chaser” (or catcher) jokes and statements. Cho has formally explained her views, stating these are just jokes based on reverence and respect, and that people are taking things out of context—too seriously.

Writer/filmmaker Tobi Hill-Meyer states Cho is objectifying trans* men like cis gender men often do with  trans* women, fetishizing them and changing people into “things.”

Trans IS a legitimate gender” is one trans* man’s defense against such an idea, posited by Cho’s comedic peer and BFF, Ian Harvie. Harvie wrote, “ If you believe Transgender IS a legitimate gender, how can you argue that it’s wrong to eroticize Trans people? If you do not see Trans as a legitimate gender, then what’s wrong with you?! I’m Trans, I’m Butch, and identify as a Trans man, regardless of my given biological sex. I absolutely believe it’s okay to be attracted to, exoticize, fetishsize, and eroticize any and all Trans people. After all, a fetish is something that we desire or that turns us on.”

Too, RuPaul penned the song “Tranny Chaser” as a declaration of sexuality, desirability, and a playful take on the concept. “Do you wanna be me?” That’s how the song’s bridge begins.  Fully aware of the seduction in the words, RuPaul goes on, “That don’t make you gay. Or do you wanna [beep] me? That don’t make you gay….”

It’s hard to laser-focus down to one “right take” on topics like trans* and queer sexuality when so many folks in-community with so many different experiences feel empowered by erotic aspects of being queer or trans* as well as desired. Other bloggers and commenters have called Cho’s tranny chaser phraseology disgusting. Meanwhile, she is blowing heteronormative minds open simply by sharing these concepts, matter-of-factly and without shame. No one has accused RuPaul of anything similar.

Seemingly pointless rhetorical questions arise: is it better to be vilified or romanticized? Dehumanized, or eroticized? If we’re all “in on the desire,” is it wrong? Is there a happy medium that requires no context or linguistic boundaries and protections when you’re speaking to heterosexual or heteronormative folks?

Cho grew up in San Francisco, which could better explain matters somewhat. In the City (at least in most LGBT circles), you are what you say you are. Period. Middle America doesn’t quite resonate with such a mindset (yet?).

Issues of class and power can’t be ignored. Though they all had challenging beginnings in their careers, now relatively better-paid or well-paid performers Cho’s, Harvie’s and RuPaul’s experiences differ by definition from that of a queer or trans* man or woman who doesn’t have the same means or sense of empowerment to feel okay leading with sexuality or identity. Harassment is much more difficult, to say the least, when you don’t have financial or social resources to work your way out of it or away from it.

When these issues and conundrums arise, I consider them to be a gift: because they grant us the opportunity to be honest with ourselves about them, regardless of political correctness.

We have to name and claim the final word(s) about our experience. We have to find our own ways to survive and to thrive in the world.

~

“Bitch,” Please

In a previous Bitch Flicks Quote of the Day update, Margaret Cho waxes fantastic about the word “bitch.” Have a look: you don’t want to miss it.

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The first draft of this post appeared at Gay Agenda online.