Saturday Night Live cast member Bowen Yang revealed in a candid interview with The New York Times that he briefly attended "gay conversion" therapy as a teenager in Colorado.
Yang, who made history last fall when he became the first gay person of full Asian descent to join the NBC show, shared his experience of coming out to his parents and how it ultimately led to attending conversion therapy sessions to appease them.
After his parents discovered Bowen was having “lewd conversation with someone” on AOL Instant Messenger, he tells the Times they “sat me down and yelled at me and said, ‘We don’t understand this. Where we come from, this doesn’t happen.’”
“I’d only seen my father cry when my grandpa died and now he’s sobbing in front of me every day at dinner,” Yang said of when his dad discovered he was gay. “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.”
Soon after the experience, Bowen’s father arranged for eight sessions of conversion therapy at a facility in nearby Colorado Springs.
“It was a cultural thing for them, this cultural value around masculinity, around keeping the family line going, keeping certain things holy and sacred,” he said. “It was me wanting to meet them halfway but realizing it had to be pretty absolute. It was an either-or thing. There was not that much middle ground.”
“I allowed myself the thought experiment of: ‘What if this could work?’” Yang remembered thinking. “Even though as I read up on it, I was just like, ‘Oh, wait, this is all completely crackers.’ At the first session, he asks me, ‘Would you like this to be Christ centered or a secular sort of experience?’ And I was like, ‘I guess non-religious.’ But even for him to ask that question means that there was this kind of religious agenda behind it anyway.”
He continued, “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.’ 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.”
After finishing the sessions, Yang ended up going to New York University to join his sister, who was already a student there. Though his father’s intent was for his sister to “chaperone” him, Yang would eventually find the LGBTQ community he desperately needed.
“I went to the gayest undergrad in the country,” he said to the Times. “I spent freshman year trying straightness on for size and failing miserably. I sort of tricked myself into having a crush on a girl but it was just kind of a weird, weird, weird pit stop. Then I would look at a boy and be like, ‘Oh, I want to talk to him.’”
Eventually, the comedian had to make a firm stand with his family.
“I had this second coming out with them while I was in college and went through this whole flare-up again with them, where they couldn’t accept it,” he said. “And then eventually, 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.’”
He added, “It never got to the point of, ‘I won’t come home again.’ I was just like, I’m not going to argue with them. Like my dad every now and then will be like, ‘So, when are you going to meet a girl?’ And I’ll just calmly be like, ‘Dad, it’s not going to happen.’ I mean, it’s OK."
These days, Yang's family has been incredibly supportive of his career (his parents and sister came to his first SNL show as a cast member to support him). Still, he admits, there's more work to do.
"Both my parents are doing a lot of work to just try to understand and I can’t rush them," he said. "I can’t resent them for not arriving at any place sooner than they’re able to get there.”