Like many LGBTQIA+ Asians raised in a conservative household, Bowen Yang — the first Chinese American and third openly gay male cast member of “Saturday Night Live” — has struggled to come out to his parents.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, the 29-year-old comedian shared sensitive memories from his teenage years, such as submitting himself to conversion therapy to appease his family.
Yang’s father grew up in a hut made of mud and straw in rural China. While his parents did not know how to read and write, he managed to attend a university.
Yang’s mother, on the other hand, worked as a gynecologist in China. She stopped working for a while to raise her children.
Before Yang was born, his parents moved to Brisbane, Australia. They then moved to Canada and lived there until Yang was 9 years old when they settled in Aurora, a suburb of Denver.
According to Yang, his family learned of his sexuality when he was 17, right after discovering his lewd conversations with someone on AOL Instant Messenger. It was the first time he got dragged out of the closet.
“They just sat me down and yelled at me and said, ‘We don’t understand this. Where we come from, this doesn’t happen,’” he recalled, according to the Times.
“I’d only seen my father cry when my grandpa died and now he’s sobbing in front of me every day at dinner,” he added. “And I’m thinking, ‘How do I make this right?’ This is the worst thing you can do as a child of immigrants. It’s just like you don’t want your parents to suffer this much over you.”
Yang’s father then managed to book him for eight sessions of conversion therapy under a specialist in Colorado Springs.
To appease his parents, Yang agreed to undergo treatment, but it did not take long before he realized it was all pseudoscience.
“The first few sessions were talk therapy, which I liked, and then it veers off into this place of, ‘Let’s go through a sensory description of how you were feeling when you’ve been attracted to men,’” he told the Times.
“And then the counselor would go through the circular reasoning thing of, ‘Well, weren’t you feeling uncomfortable a little bit when you saw that boy you liked?’ And I was like, ‘Not really.’ He goes, ‘How did your chest feel?’ And I was like, ‘Maybe I was slouching a little bit.’ And he goes, ‘See? That all stems from shame.’ It was just crazy. Explain the gay away with pseudoscience.”
Conversion therapy, sometimes known as reparative therapy, has long been debunked by multiple medical, scientific and government organizations around the world.
In May 2019, the World Health Organization removed “gender identity disorder” from its official manual of diagnoses — a victory for transgender rights and others forced into such therapies to “correct” their identities.
Later that month, Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado signed a bill that banned the use of conversion therapy on minors and made its advertising a deceptive trade practice under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. A second bill signed into law allowed transgender Coloradans to update their birth certificates without having to prove surgical reassignment, the Denver Post reported.
After his therapy ended, Yang attended New York University. He continued to try to be straight but to no apparent avail.
Eventually, he decided to come out to his parents for a second time — and stood firm for his identity.
“I just got to this place of standing firm and being like, ‘This is sort of a fixed point, you guys. I can’t really do anything about this. So either you meet me here or you don’t meet me.’”
Yang has no plans to force his parents to accept him. He understands that they are coming from a culture that values masculinity, the preservation of family line and “keeping certain things holy and sacred.”
“Both my parents are doing a lot of work to just try to understand and I can’t rush them,” he told the Times. “I can’t resent them for not arriving at any place sooner than they’re able to get there.”
His parents could be getting there. Last fall, together with his sister, they attended his first “SNL” show as a cast member.