Margaret Cho taught me self love before it was trendy

Cho’s rare message helped Chosen Family's Tranna Wintour survive bullying and find community

Tranna Wintour · Posted: Jul 17, 2019 3:38 PM ET | Last Updated: July 17

The first time I saw Margaret Cho was late at night, on Bravo Canada, circa 2003. She was performing her second comedy special, Notorious C.H.O. I had never seen anything like it. For those of you who may not know, Margaret is an American comedian and actress. She was the first Asian-American to be the star of a network sitcom on All American Girl, and her comedy specials, I'm The One That I Want and Notorious C.H.O. were vital, groundbreaking successes.

Even though I'm a comedian, I've never loved stand-up comedy as a format. But what Margaret does on stage goes far beyond stand-up. That night in 2003, she completely held my attention for two hours. I watched her talk radically (and hysterically) about queer sexuality, addiction, grief, love, and, most importantly, self-acceptance. At the end of the special, Margaret presents a manifesto, imploring everyone to claim their own beauty. It was everything I needed to hear at that moment in my life: a revolutionary message of self-love no one else was supplying. From that moment on, I became a die-hard Margaret fan for life.

In one of Margaret's jokes, she lovingly imitates her two best friends in high school. Alan and Jeremy were tough teenage drag queens who were experienced with bullies.

"I hate this school; this is a f----d up school." She yelled in a rendition of her friend, "you know, I walk down the hallway, they be calling me names. They call me faggot. They call me a sissy. I said, 'oh yeah? You forgot I'm also a model and an actress, so f--- you too!"

That joke was such a valuable example of how I could take control when I was bullied and empower myself through humour.

For her entire career, Margaret has used comedy as a means to champion and empower marginalized minorities. In a world where messages of self-love for marginalized people are so rare, the act of loving yourself, the act of claiming your beauty, is an act of revolution. In sharing her vulnerability, in sharing her experiences with addiction, bullying, and sexual violence, and the story of her survival through it all, Margaret lets us all know that we can survive (and thrive) too.  

Her message made me realize that I did not need to receive external validation and acceptance; that acceptance was something I could—and had to—give myself. It wasn't an overnight transformation, but it was the beginning of my self-actualization.  

Margaret would understand

I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal in the 2000s, and like most LGBTQ teens growing up in the suburbs, I felt completely isolated. I remember looking at my high school years as a prison sentence. "Five years," I would tell myself "I just have to survive five years." (It's five years in Quebec, because Quebec always has to be different.)

I realize now that so much of my anguish and discomfort at that time was due to the fact that I was transgender but didn't fully know it yet. At the time, Will and Grace was a hit, and gay people—white, cis gay men in particular—were starting to be represented on mainstream, network television and in film, in ways they had never been before. But I rarely saw any trans characters in anything. And when I did, they were not positive representations. Based on the queer narratives in pop culture, I assumed that because I had a male body and was attracted to men, that I was gay. But being male never felt right to me.  

Even though I didn't fully understand myself and my own identity at that point in time, I knew from watching her specials, that no matter what I was, Margaret would understand. It may sound over-the-top, but knowing that there was at least one person out there who could understand my ambiguity and confusion made my teen years much more bearable. It also helped to see the 2,000 people at Margaret's shows, laughing, understanding, relating. It made me know for sure that there was a community for me, waiting on the other side of my five-year sentence.

Someday is today

Cut to 2019: I am a comedian myself now, something I never thought I'd be when I first watched Margaret on my TV in the suburbs. I am an out and proud trans woman. I co-host a CBC podcast called Chosen Family with my BFF, Thomas Leblanc. And a few weeks ago, something completely surreal happened: we spoke to Margaret Cho for the show.

We recorded the interview remotely, and when I heard Margaret's voice come through my headphones, I had to do everything in my power to keep my shit together. We had an amazing conversation, and it was everything I hoped it would be.

We talked about her childhood in San Francisco and her early days in stand-up. We talked about the sexual abuse she endured as a child and her relationship to her family. We spoke about ageing and losing friends. And we spoke about her days on the set of Face Off, eating pies with John Travolta. Margaret was an open book and I was blown away by her generosity.  

Listen to the full interview here:

When the interview ended, and Margaret's studio was disconnected, I felt like I had been hit by a ton of bricks and I started crying—what Oprah would call "an ugly cry."

The experience of talking to Margaret made me so emotional because my 14-year-old self could never have imagined that one day I'd actually get to talk to her. My 14-year-old self could also never have imagined one day becoming a self-actualized trans person, working as an artist. When I was a teenager, I genuinely did not believe that was a possibility. I didn't even know what the first step towards that would be. Looking back, I can see now that watching Margaret Cho was one of those first steps. I can see that Margaret's example as a powerful, radical, queer survivor has guided me, and that a part of who I am is because of all that I learned from her work.

That I got to talk to Margaret as my actualized self, as a peer and not only a fan, and that I got to thank her on behalf of my teen self? Well, that's one of those rare, full circle moments that really makes you believe all the corny clichés about dreams coming true.