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‘Fire Island’ star Bowen Yang on how LGBTQ spaces can be unwelcoming for queer Asians

“It’s a really tough place to navigate if you’re not a specific mold of a gay person,” Yang said.
Image: Matt Rogers, Bowen Yang and Tomas Matos
Matt Rogers, Bowen Yang and Tomas Matos in "Fire Island."Jeong Park / Searchlight Pictures

The Asian American queer rom-com “Fire Island” spotlights the power of queer Asian friendship — particularly in spaces that aren’t always inclusive of LGBTQ people of color.

Actors Bowen Yang and Margaret Cho, who star in “Fire Island,” said that the getaway in Long Island, New York, is meant to be an inviting hub of queer joy, but it's been criticized for its increasingly exclusive wealthy and white patronage. It's an undercurrent theme in the film, but they hope the rom-com, which premieres Friday on Hulu, can show just how important their queer Asian friendships are in allowing them to feel a sense of liberation that the island doesn’t always foster for all. 

“It’s a really tough place to navigate if you’re not a specific mold of a gay person,” Yang said. “And yet if you find that corner of the island that is for you and your people, then it’s the best.”

The film, a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” revolves around the enduring friendship between commitment-phobe Noah — played by Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the film — and his best friend, Howie, played by Yang, a hopeless romantic.

Their dispersed friends group reunites for an annual week of summer freedom and debauchery on the island. But the stakes feel particularly high on this trip, as it’s revealed that lesbian matriarch Erin, played by Margaret Cho, with whom the friends stay every year, is losing her vacation home. 

Margaret Cho in "Fire Island."
Margaret Cho in "Fire Island."Searchlight Pictures

For their final week at Erin’s home, Noah is determined to get Howie to lean into the hookup culture that the area invites. However, his plans are thrown into disarray when Howie falls for the good-natured, albeit a little dense, doctor Charlie, played by James Scully, almost as soon he sets foot on the island.

Howie’s growing interest in Charlie introduces a collision of class and race between their groups, as the new flame and his friends live in an opulent bachelor pad on the beach, a far cry from Erin’s cozy abode. 

Yang said many aspects of the movie don’t stray so far from what he and Booster, his real-life best friend, have experienced on the Island themselves, including the unwelcome feelings that some from marginalized groups have had to confront. Each year, Yang said, the island feels more “financially prohibitive” and presents an additional toll for many who find themselves having to wade through the economic strata. He described his early experiences on the island as feeling like “you’re going under water.” 

“It feels like you’re going somewhere a little noxious. And this isn’t to say that Fire Island itself is a hostile place,” Yang said. “It was originally established, at least in the queer parts of it, to be this safe haven. … Now, there is this pretty widespread notion that it is not what it was originally set up to be.”

Cho similarly noted that spaces like Fire Island, where hetero culture is in the minority, don’t always provide the shelter queer Asian Americans may be seeking, particularly as they search for a reprieve from homophobia within their own families and cultures or other corners of society. The film’s themes of feeling unease and of not being accepted by the people who are “supposed to accept you,” Cho said, felt so painfully familiar. 

“For me, coming from Korean culture, it’s an incredibly homophobic, incredibly patriarchal culture. And then to step into these queer spaces where we’re meant to feel safe, but you don’t. When you realize that there is a lot of sexism. There’s a lot of racism there. There’s a lot of their own version of homophobia,” Cho said. “Then you’re kind of feeling like we’re sort of othered even within these other communities. It’s a really isolating feeling.”

Image: Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster in "Fire Island."
Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster in "Fire Island." Jeong Park / Searchlight Pictures

It’s why, the actors say, they’ve leaned on their Asian queer friends as lifelines in those moments of isolation, much as Noah and Howie have come to do. Yang said many of the uncomfortable feelings he had on weekends in Fire Island felt validated because of Booster’s affirming presence. “Those early trips were always defined by me and Joel turning to each other and being like … are we the only ones experiencing this because we’re the Asian ones, or maybe we’re not the only people experiencing this?” Yang said. “It was a lot of, like, checking in with each other, getting on each other’s level and being, like, ‘wait, are you just as disoriented by this as I am?”

Cho said that because of a baseline understanding of the microaggressions Asians go through and the struggle with family many have weathered, exchanges with queer Asian friends need no added context or labor. There’s an ease to those bonds. 

“There’s a shorthand that you can go into as an Asian American that really speaks volumes, because we understand so much,” Cho said. “Whether it’s microaggressions from white supremacy, whether it’s our own sort of archetypes within our families, whether it’s the expectations that we’re growing up with constantly and the societal invisibility overall. These things are hard to explain.” 

The dynamics, Yang said, give birth to some of the strongest bonds, which are “always deeply, radically honest.” 

“There’s just this deep need to externalize these feelings that we’ve kept inside of us our whole lives,” he said. “I obviously have these frivolous, kooky, goofy moments with my queer Asian friends. But I also feel like there is this grounding force of us all, like, seeing, acknowledging the pain.”

The film’s director, Andrew Ahn, said the movie ultimately gets at the heart of how, for many, such friendships are central not only to the love they feel in their lives but also to their identities and sense of community. Ahn said that with that in mind and Booster’s writing at heart, he hopes to affect one specific audience. 

“I would love for many, many people to love and enjoy this film,” Ahn said. “The audience that I care the most about for this movie are queer Asian Americans. That was always my focus.”