IRL Besties Jonathan Van Ness & Margaret Cho Tell Us Their Best Pride Stories
It’s the Tuesday after Memorial Day, and Margaret Cho and Jonathan Van Ness are finishing each other’s sentences over an egg scramble (Van Ness) and a warm chicken breast salad (Cho). The pair have known each other for years now, after Cho fell in love with Van Ness on Gay Of Thrones and reached out to him immediately. Now Cho, comedy legend, doesn’t let anyone else cut or style her hair, which has led to plenty of shenanigans, like the time Cho corrected his twerking form. Refinery29 gathered them here for lunch at The Abbey in West Hollywood – a gay landmark – to celebrate and discuss Pride in 2018. Though it’s come to be defined by parades and glitter, day drinking and leather, Pride is more than a party. It’s a time to celebrate how far we’ve come in terms of LGBTQ+ rights and visibility, and set some intentions on how far we’ve yet to go.
For Van Ness, there is just no other way of being; the planets, the stars, every queer celestial body were in perfect alignment the day he was born. “I've just always been super-duper-dupergay. I was in like velvet evening gowns by the time I was like 4 and Kristi Yamaguchi posters were on my wall,” Van Ness, 31, says. “Oh! And also this deaf Miss America. I was really obsessed with her, Miss Alabama. She was a ballet dancer and she felt the vibrations through the floor. She was my other idol.”
“Oh, I loved her!” says Cho, 49. “She's so —”
“Fabulous,” Van Ness says. “I love that you remember her. I love you so much it hurts deeply.”
From there, our discussion spanned from the power of Sex and The City to why the B in LGBTQ+ needs a “Meghan Markle” moment.
R29 What was it like for each of you growing up? How were things similar or different for you as members of the LGBT community, coming up at different times?
Cho It was so different. I grew up around gay people because my parents owned a gay bookstore in San Francisco, so I was around like very 70’s queer, which is so different it’s just trippy. It was a beautiful time, but it was also a time when people were really fighting for their lives. Being gay, you had to be almost an outlaw at that point.
Van Ness How old were you?
Cho When Harvey Milk was assassinated I was 10. My family didn’t allow me to go to the candlelight vigil, because it was too sad. They were so devastated. It was such a devastating time. And then after that it was even worse because AIDS happened. And then people also don’t recognize that crystal meth happened also, which was the second part of this plague. So it was almost like AIDS took out a whole generation and then crystal meth took out another generation. So we’re actually operating missing two rungs of the gay ladder.
Van Ness Yeah. I think another thing that people don’t realize about that timeis that Ronald Reagan did not mention AIDS by name until ’87. Because I was born in ’87, I think that is lost on so many people in my generation and younger than me, the severity of what our LGBTQ brothers and sisters fought for ahead of us — it was really like life and death.
Cho Right, this was around when you were born. What I remember very clearly is seeing guys healthy, seeing them look a little sick, seeing them in a wheelchair, seeing them with a breathing apparatus, and then not seeing them. There was just this horrible sense that we were fading away and it was really terrifying. The government was not acknowledging it and not helping. But the beautiful thing was that this gave birth to this pure activism, which was very angry. This was ACT UP’s time.
They were very devoted to the government acknowledging AIDS. Because of them everybody started to get a handle on AIDS, how we think about it and how to talk about it. It was very tumultuous, around that time when you were born and into the 90s.
Van Ness Obviously the scar tissue from all of that is still very present. It very much informs how we interact with each other as a community now, because when something like that happens in your community, that pain is there for a long time.
Cho But it showed us how to be political. So from that we have gay marriage
Van Ness Which is gorge.
Cho Which is so gorge.
R29 Jonathan, you grew up in the midwest in a small town, Quincy, Illinois. You’ve been open about how bullied you were. How did you deal with that?
Van Ness If you are young and queer in a place like San Francisco, it’s a little bit more obvious what you do. But for me, there was just one gay bar, called Irene’s Cabaret, that people used to sit in front of to make sure that no one was going in or out. Literally, there were vigilantes that would sit across the alley from it and just wait. It was not a safe place to just be. It was never really an organic place for gay men to create community, even though the owner was and is an amazing person. But there also just weren’t a lot of people who were living out for a young person to look to.
So, yes, it was very lonely. I think about those times when I hear about high rates of suicide and depression with young LGBTQ kids. That’s real to me: just not having any evidence that it could get cuter for you. Like is this all there is?
R29 When did you come out?
Van Ness Mine was kind of anticlimactic in that I just started responding yes to kids’ taunts and constant questions about it by the time I was like 10. I was in the 5th grade. And it was always like, are you gay? But it was much meaner. It wasn’t a nice question. But I started saying yes. I'm not a good actor. I can't do a straight lisp. I just can't. I've never been able.
Cho For me it was more complicated. My family really doesn’t understand because they understand gay, they understand straight, but nobody understands bi. You're looked at with a sort of suspicion — and that happens to bi women and bi men, too. Lesbians don’t want to be with you because they don’t want to be with a straight girl.
Van Ness Or like a really toxic idiot guy would be like, ew, you're with ladies?
Cho Or worse, they want it. They like it because it’s a fetishized thing — so you're just not taken seriously ever.
Van Ness I feel like B [in LGBTQ+] still has a lot of trouble.
Cho Yeah, B is still waiting on her come-up.
Van Ness She needs a Meghan Markle moment. Like we need a bisexual person to marry a prince.
Cho I’ve had to come out so many times. One time I came out to David Cross for like 17 hours. We were driving across the country. I was 19 and I just wouldn’t stop coming out to him.
Van Ness Wait, what? How?
Cho It was like we got in the car and I wouldn’t stop coming out to him for 17 hours. I say, I'm gay. And he's like, I know. And I'm like, no, but you don’t know. And then it was 17 hours later. I think he got to a payphone and had to call somebody for help. ‘She won't stop coming out! I don’t know what to do’. Finally, he's like, ‘It’s okay to be gay, just stop coming out.’
But sometimes that happens. Sometimes when you're young and you're figuring it out, you can't stop coming out. And then I realized that I liked dick and then I was like, “Uh-oh, I've gotta come out again.” Everybody was just like, ‘Oh, no.’
R29 So your relationship to your identity changed over time? How do you feel about it now?
Cho Today, I probably identify most the Q [queer.] Kids now have so many more letters. You’ve got the Q, the I, the A, there are all these different things now. I love that there's so many kids defining themselves and starting organizations at their schools to accommodate that and giving space to their identity. It’s amazing.
R29 Who is the LGBTQ+ person inspiring you most right now?
Van Ness Oh, I am so hankering for a strong actress governess. Also, Emma Gonzalez is everything. All of the Parkland kids, really. Outside of the fact that they’re leading by example and taking this tragedy that they all went through and really turning it into something to create effective change, what’s really impressed me is how they have been maligned publicly by these gross Twitter people. And yet, the way that they’ve responded has been so graceful.
Cho You see the future. It’s so bright with these kids.
R29 We talked about the LGBTQ+ community’s political awakening, and how that led to marriage equality. But pop culture also created so much visibility and space for progress. As pop culture figures yourself, what were some moments that meant a lot to you?
Cho Ellen is a big one. I think Will & Grace was huge. But also Sex and the City, always.
R29 What part of Sex and the City?
Van Ness All of it.
Cho Sex and the City is the exact same thing as Golden Girls. It’s just different play pieces, but it’s the same game.
Van Ness But it also moved the conversation forward for women being able to be powerful and be confident in their sexuality in a way that like – I don’t feel like we got to see that much before that.
Cho It really redefined family structure and how our relationships are now. Queer Eye is great too in that way because it marries the ideas of traditional masculinity with people who have lost the plot, guys who just are not being fathered properly, and now they're getting fathered by five gay guys. That’s really ironic, but it is really about fathering. That’s what I love about Queer Eye – you're parenting guys who have just lost their connection with the Divine Father. We always talk about the Divine Mother. We forget the Divine Father.
R29 Do you feel that Jonathan? Has Queer Eye allowed you (via social media) to connect with younger queer youth?
Van Ness It definitely has. Just the idea that my being who I am has made people, both younger than me and older than me, feel more comfortable about the space that they take up … that is something I never saw coming. It’s very, very moving.
But also, when people are so effusive about how my role in Queer Eye makes them feel, it really opened my eyes to the amount of repression we still have. Because that’s just Monday to me, that’s not me doing anything different than I would normally do it. And just by virtue of me existing as I am, that is so cathartic to people? I'm like, man, like y’all needed to put some glitter on and go have fun a little bit.
R29 Margaret, what about you? Has anybody ever reached out on Twitter or wherever that you can think of that really stood out to you?
Cho Oh, so many people. And then even before social media, so many different people have reached out and been able to forge relationships with gayness, whether it’s a gay parent or a gay child who was able to go to their straight parent with my work and go, let’s share this together, and ease into the conversation about who I am.
Van Ness This is why visibility is so important. Before Blockbuster died (RIP, she had her moment), I grew up in this town of 30,000 people on the Mississippi River, right? Notorious C.H.O. was like the only thing I ever straight up shoplifted. I'm so sorry — I fucked you out of your royalties — but my mom wouldn’t get it for me! I think I saw a special that you did on Comedy Central. And I remember feeling, oh my God. I had never seen someone talk about sexuality like that. Finally, there was someone who I could see elements of myself in. Not that I was a bisexual Asian woman, but I was like, ‘oh, she makes things that I'm really scared of seem like it might be totally okay.’ And then I was just obsessed with her forever. This is really meta, but that’s an exact reason why visibility is important. Because I had no one to look to at all.
R29 Do you have any favorite Pride stories?
Van Ness Here's a cute story. Pride 2010, you were driving down the Pride parade in the convertible. I was on the sidelines, but I've always been obsessed with you, obviously. And I was beside myself because that was the first time I ever saw you in real life. And you were in this convertible and I had a really big gulp margarita, like a really, really, really, really big one. And I was jumping up and down spilling it on myself. And we totally made eye contact. You were like, aww, like you sloppy mid-length wavy-haired queen. (I was growing my hair out.) That’s what your eyes said, but with love.
Cho Cute. I love that.
Van Ness It was so cute. And then I went and model-walked in front of the protesters. One of them took a swipe at me and this cop was like, ‘Can you stop like antagonizing the people who hate gays?’ And I was like, ‘You're right.’ I was also twerking and stuff. So I really was antagonizing them.
Cho Early adopter of the twerking, 2010.
Van Ness I've gotten a lot of stronger at it since then. My lower back mobility has gotten a lot better — Wait, why do you keep intertwining yourself into the stories of my past? You taught me that too! This one morning at Fashion Police at like five in the morning you were like, no, girl, it’s not like that. You have to disconnect the muscles in your lower back and be like –
Cho You have to let it swing. I learned to twerk from a woman named Altercation at a Big Freedia show in 2006. My favorite Pride is San Francisco because there's all the different gays. The Trans March is first and then the Dyke March and then the Gay Pride and then the big parade. I love it. I love all the different ways pride is expressed. And I go to Prides all over the world. It’s so fun.
Van Ness What's the most random, smallest Pride you ever went to?
Cho The smallest? Oh, probably St. Louis Pride. St. Louis Pride was really cute. I smoked pot on the stage there.
Van Ness You were lucky you didn’t get arrested! They don’t like that there.
Cho The audience liked it.
Van Ness They loved it.