Bowen Yang became the first Chinese American "Saturday Night Live" cast member in the show’s 45-year-long history when the show promoted him from writer to on-air cast member in September 2019. He also become the show's third openly gay male and fourth-ever cast member of Asian descent.
Since then, the Emmy-nominated comedian and actor has frequently lent his talents to elevate LGBTQ visibility on the show and his platform on the show to speak out against anti-Asian hate.
In a new campaign with Absolut ahead of Pride Month, the star is hoping to continue championing inclusion by helping the brand shine a light on the alarming trend of permanent closures of LGBTQ bars and restaurants across the country.
“Belonging is hard to find anywhere,” Yang told TODAY Food. “And that’s what this campaign is about. These LGBTQ spaces are so vital and have to be protected. It’s a designated space to go where you can feel you’re a part of something.”
He added, “And there aren’t that many places for that many marginalized groups of people.”
According to recent studies conducted by sociologist Dr. Greggor Mattson, LGBTQ bar listings have declined by 15.2% between 2019 and spring 2021, on the heels of a 14.4% decline between 2017 and 2019. Additionally, only 34% of small business owners have succession plans, less than 24% in the bar and restaurant industry.
While these bar closures have been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to Mattson’s research, several factors have driven this steady decline, including gentrification, technology and a lack of the succession planning.
As part of its Out & Open campaign, Absolut is partnering with and donating to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce to make succession planning trainings and education more accessible to LGBTQ business owners.
Out & Open features an audio-visual series, led by photographer Bronson Farr, bringing to life real stories from inside the walls of these LGBTQ spaces. In the series, LGBTQ storytellers, including Yang, highlight the poignant role these places have played in their lives.
In an open letter on the website, Yang reflects on Eastern Bloc, a legendary gay bar that was located in New York City’s East Village for 12 years before being bought by actor Alan Cumming and re-launched as Club Cumming.
"LGBTQ bars are monuments to our past, venues for the present, and gateways to our future," he writes in the open letter.
For every listen to an Out & Open story, Absolut will increase its $175,000 donation to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce by an additional $1 up to $200,000.
“The queer community stands to lose everything if these spaces continue to close,” Joel, a queer minister, shares in his audio-visual story. “I think that they provide us with one of the only safe places to truly gather together safely, without the fear of other people’s judgment or action against us.”
“To be queer is to fight,” HIV activist Dmitry shares in their audiovisual story. “To be queer is to love. To be queer is to protest, is to shout. You know? And I think that queer spaces are just the perfect place and platform for that social justice.”
Yang says, while technology and social media apps have allowed LGBTQ individuals to connect with others, there’s no substitute for LGBTQ nightlife.
“I think in a pandemic landscape, we need that shared spatial connection more than ever,” Yang told TODAY. “The horizon of possibilities is endless. You listen to a new song. You connect with people like you. You’re safe to be yourself. You try a new thing. There’s no ceiling.”
Yang continues to be part of LGBTQ history this year. This fall, he’s set to star in the Judd Apatow-produced “Bros,” the first gay romantic comedy to be released by a major film studio. Then, in June, he’ll appear in Hulu’s gay rom-com “Fire Island.”