Breaking boundaries in body-building since the age of just 6, we talked to LGBTQ+ advocate and bodybuilding legend, Amazin LêThi. She gave us her scoop on coming out in competitive sports, Asian LGBTQ+ representation, and experiencing homelessness in her youth.
Maddie: Hi Amazin! I have researched about you myself, but for the sake of anybody who’s reading, could you just maybe tell us a bit about yourself in your own words?
A: Sure. Oh, gosh. Where do I start? I am an LGBTQ advocate, keynote speaker, athlete and cultural change leader, advising governments, Fortune 500 companies and global organizations around how they can look through the lens of sports to champion equality. I’m also the first Asian LGBTQ athlete to simultaneously hold six LGBTQ sports ambassador roles in different parts of the world.
M: How do you find the time to do all the things you do? It must be exhausting to try and fit it all in!
A: I just think about what it was like for me when I was a kid that I never saw an Asian person in the media. I never heard my story, never heard of an LGBTQ either in the media. I thought I was the only LGBTQ Asian kid in the world. So I think about how important it is for me to be in these spaces, in these rooms. At times people have said to me, you’re the first Asian LGBTQ person that we’ve spoken to about these issues, and I thought, wow, imagine if I wasn’t in that room and no one would hear my story and our struggles. And that’s why I do what I do, and I love it as well.
M: Who did you look to as a role model, if there wasn’t anybody that you could see that that you felt you really resonated with?
I think as a kid, it’s hard to imagine in your head who you can become, and what your future looks like when you just never see anyone that looks like you. Through reading the bodybuilding magazines and reading about Arnold Schwarzenegger, for the first time, I saw myself, I saw how I could make an impact in the world with that difference and through sports. I read of his difficulties, people didn’t really accept him at first, and it was like a parallel to my own struggles and my own journey, that he was just very different to people. A different name, a strange accent, physically looked very different, came from a far away place. But he used his difference to celebrate himself and as a platform for others to celebrate that difference. And he did it all through sports.
On top of that, if he had been an Asian person or an LGBTQ person, it would resonated even more. You know, it’s a revolutionary act when you see yourself for the first time. And what that means an instance for you and how it can change your life moving forward.
M: How did it feel for you the first time you met anybody else who was Asian and LGBTQ+ in sport?
A: It took me until my adult years that I finally met and now I actually pretty much know all of them. I collected everyone. [chuckles] They’re on my speed dial because there are so few in this world. And the work that I do cross paths with all of them. And I tend to do projects every single year, particularly around Asian History Month and Pride Month. Even as an adult, it still resonates with me that I’m connected to the community. I think about that loneliness that I had as a kid, thinking that I was the only kid like me in the world. And I’d like to think that, you know, there are many kids that don’t have that now because they can see themselves.
M: You started bodybuilding when you were six, which I was kind of amazed when I first found out. How did you end up doing it to begin with?
It’s a really unusual path for an Asian girl. I was bullied lots as a kid, went into sports to find a sense of community, and I literally fell into bodybuilding. I just had a dumbbell lying around the house and I just started exercising with that one dumbbell. And I had no idea what I was doing, I can remember to this day I did one hundred dumbbell curls, sit ups and push ups, and that was my routine. And then I just started going to a local gym down the road. I just loved it because it was something that I could do on my own, something that I chose. It was the one sport that really started giving me the confidence to believe in myself, and I was able to see myself for the first time.
I always was very competitive as a kid and I wanted the feeling of what it would be like to compete. But I had no idea how homophobic the sport was: very masculine, very straight. Sport has very rigid gender norms anyway, but particularly in bodybuilding, because it just has such an issue with women that have muscles but still want to be feminine as well. I learned very quickly by being in the gym in the community and reading the magazines that I could never be out in sports. So I never saw that as a possibility, I just kind of wiped it from my head that I would ever be out.
M: So what made you change your mind about that? Was that like a moment where you went actually, I could do this? Or was there someone who inspired you?
I came into my own in terms of being myself after I stopped competing. And I think that’s the case for so many athletes, particularly Asian athletes and other athletes of ethnic minority groups. One of the athletes did come out, which was groundbreaking, and then he was completely shunned and lost all his sponsors. So I never saw that as a possibility.
I think really I decided to become who I am now just through my own journey. I realized that I had to share my story, I had to be authentic and I had to be myself. The wave of LGBTQ athletes coming out and being active in terms of activism, that’s a very new thing. For some people, it takes their entire life and they can never achieve it. For me, it was just this need of wanting to also be happy as well.
M: Homelessness is also a very important topic for you. From my own knowledge of looking into this, about a quarter of homeless youth in the UK are LGBTQ+, which is a huge percentage. Would you be happy to share a little bit about your experiences of homelessness, particularly as a queer person?
I experienced homelessness as a young adult for a number of years, in and out of different shelters. That feeling of worthlessness when you’re living on the margins of society and how people just kind of look at you and just kind of brush you off… Your homelessness is a temporary situation, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have dreams and hopes for your life. But people can’t see that when they just say you pass on the streets. It was probably my darkest time, you know, suffering from severe mental health issues, living in poverty. But I still had these big dreams and hopes and I was able to pull myself out. A lifetime of sports became my survival mechanism. It gave me these unique skills that helped me in very difficult situations.
It definitely has given me a tremendous sense of compassion and drive for homeless LGBTQ youth because we’re so marginalized as a community, and then we become homeless, another marginalization after that. It’s a global epidemic. Of course we need to fight for anti-discrimination laws and people want marriage equality, but the epidemic of homelessness is like the last frontier that we still haven’t got a grasp on. So I do a lot of work to be able to support those youth and obviously sharing my own story as well.
M: Speaking of sharing your story, do you have any advice to any Asian teens who are growing up finding their identity from what you’ve learned in your own life so far?
I think if you’re feeling alone in the world, it’s important to have a support network. Maybe that’s going online and finding Asian LGBTQ support networks through different social media platforms, hearing stories through social media. In terms of TV shows, I think of the L Word, I think of Black Lightning.
It can be difficult coming out to your parents and that family unit, and particularly for Asian people because of shame and failure, which are used so much to make us conform and push us into a box. PFLAG is a fantastic organization, because we also have to have a support network for the parents, so parents can meet other parents that have LGBTQ kids. I think those are some great steps for Asian LGBTQ people in terms of finding themselves,
M: Finally, what are you up to in the next year, as the pandemic starts easing (fingers crossed)?
A: A lot of my work now, over the next year, is as an ambassador for Copenhagen 2021. It’s actually the first time that a country has been able to get World Pride and the Euro Games at the same time, so I’ll be on different panel discussions there that people can come along to. Leading up to 2022, I’m the Pride House ambassador for the Commonwealth Games, and the activation over the next year will be leading up to Hong Kong Gay Games. And obviously we have the postponed Tokyo 2020 too. For the first time we have had so many major sports events in Asia, and so we can have these conversations around being Asian and LGBTQ, talking about how we can champion equality in different parts of the world. It’s a really exciting time.
Given Amazin’s up to so many amazin(g) things, we couldn’t leave you without giving you a round-up of some places where you can find more about her work. As well as her website and the social channels below, you can hear more about her past work with the It Gets Better Project here on YouTube.And just like Amazin recommended, go and watch Black Lightning. We are thoroughly in love with Grace Choi.
Interviewed by Maddie Jones