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Margaret & Michael in Montréal

Richard Burnett
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Richard Burnett

Montreal really is an amazing city where many queer folks have launched their careers over the years. Look no further than two trailblazers, stand-up comic Margaret Cho, who returns to Montreal to headline at Just For Laughs, and football player Michael Sam who has signed a two-year deal with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

“I’m so excited to be returning to Montreal because Just For Laughs is my favourite festival,” Cho told me recently. “It’s where I got my big break in 1991, so I am returning with a great amount of joy.”
 
Cho headlines the Olympia Theatre on July 24. Expect a no-holds-barred show, much like her interviews. Nothing is sacred or off-limits. When I last spoke with Cho in Montreal back in 2006, she was married and told me she hadn’t “gone down on a woman in three years – since my hen night!”
 
After 11 years of marriage, the newly-single Cho (she recently divorced artist Al Ridenour) is just as frank today.
 
“It’s true that people grow apart,” Cho says. “The truth of relationships is you have to figure out how to manage that. Unfortunately we couldn’t. But we were together for a very long time. It’s heartbreaking I couldn’t sustain it and it has nothing to do with being polyamorous. That was always fine. It was the other factors that have to do with everybody’s individuality, freedom and their idea of what relationships are supposed to be like.”
 
The bisexual Cho has always identified as queer and been a very vocal supporter of LGBT issues. So she was thrilled with the trans cultural moment Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover ignited.
 
“The mainstream has really rallied around Caitlyn and the process of transitioning,” says Cho. “You couldn’t ask for a better situation in the way this social shift is happening. Other people can look to Jenner as an example: ‘It’s not too difficult for me to transition. If she can do this, I can do this.’ I think it’s beautiful and inspiring.”
 
Cho also believes openly-gay football player Michael Sam is a trailblazer. “It shows how far we’ve come when we’re talking about gay rights in sports. It’s a really big achievement that these ideas and changes have shifted outside the gay community.”
 
 Margaret cho
In 2014, of course, Sam famously became the first openly-gay football player in history to be drafted by a National Football League team. But after not being signed by an NFL franchise in 2015 — which many observers blame on homophobia —  the Montreal Alouettes signed Sam, making history once again, as the first openly-gay athlete in the CFL.
 
It’s fitting that yet another pioneering athlete will play in the same city where black-civil-rights icon Jackie Robinson broke pro baseball’s colour barrier, with the Montreal Royals in 1946. 
 
When asked about comparisons to Robinson, Sam told me, “I’m not trying to do anything historical, except help Montreal win some games. I have a responsibility to show respect for the game and handle myself the right way, carry myself the right way, so that future athletes gay or straight can be inspired by what I’m doing. I’ve been training and I’m ready to go.”
 
For decades, you could count the number of openly-gay North American professional athletes on one hand.
 
By 2011, just six gay male athletes from North America’s big four major leagues — the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the National Football League and Major League Baseball — had come out publicly: LA Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke (who died of AIDS in 1993), former MLB utility player Billy Bean, onetime NBA journeyman John Amaechi, and NFL players Roy Simmons, Esera Tuaolo and David Kopay. They all came out after retiring, except Burke, who was bullied out of pro baseball when he refused to go back into the closet.
 
Little has changed. While Jason Collins finished his NBA career with the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 shortly after coming out, that leaves just Robbie Rogers of Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy, and Michael Sam of the Alouettes.
 
But it all began with former NFL running back David Kopay — who was first offered a position with the Alouettes before he signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 1964 — when he publicly came out in 1975 during what can only be called pro sports’ Jurassic era.
 
Kopay then dropped a bomb on the NFL when his autobiography, The David Kopay Story, topped The New York Times bestseller list for several weeks in 1977.
 
Michael SamSome years ago when he was introduced to Billie Jean King, Kopay told her, “There were so many times I wished you could have come out to tell your truth.”
 
King replied, “But if it wasn’t for your book I don’t know if I would have gotten there.”
 
When I last caught up with Kopay a year ago and asked him about Michael Sam, he said, “I told Michael he can do it. Michael [was] the SEC defensive player of the year, and his former teammates supported and protected him after he came out. Michael also stood up for himself in a dysfunctional family. So I think he’s ready. He’s been through so much already; he looks at the closet and he doesn’t want that.”
 
Then when I sat down with Michael Sam on his very first day in Montreal – I was also his last interview of the day – I asked him about meeting Kopay.
 
“We met over a year ago at the home of my former publicist,” Michael said. “There were other folks there too, like Wade Davis [executive director of the You Can Play Project] and Billy Bean [now MLB’s first “Ambassador for Inclusion”]. But David Kopay was special. He was the first. The very first. For him to do what he did during that time period wasn’t safe.  We’re not just talking career-wise, we’re talking life. During the black civil rights era, folks were killed. Well, people killed gays too. So what David did during that time is historic and very powerful. He gave me encouragement, told me to keep my head held up high, never to give up even when there was a lot of talk —which there was. He said to always stay focused. And that’s what I’m doing here in Montreal.”
 
Margaret Cho headlines the Olympia Theatre on July 24. The 2015 edition of Just For Laughs runs from July 8-28. Info: hahaha.com.
 
The Montreal Alouettes kick-off their 2015 season against the Ottawa Redblacks at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium at McGill University on June 25. The Alouettes’ 18-game regular season winds down with a Montreal home game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on November 8. Info: montrealalouettes.com 
 
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://montrealgazette.com/tag/pop-tart 
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.