The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang features the most openly out LGBTQ athletes in history with more than 10 athletes from all over the world competing. However, never in history has there been an openly out Asian athlete named as part of this group. Athlete Ally ambassador Amazin LeThi — who is a former natural competitive bodybuilder and founder of the Amazin LeThi Foundation — is using her athletic platform to share her own story in the hope it will inspire other Asian athletes to come out.
With only one known openly out Asian athlete at the Paralympics (Theresa Goh) – Singapore’s first out athlete and Asian American ice hockey player Julie Chu at the Winter Olympics. Why do Asian athletes still struggle with being openly out in sports?
In the Asian Pacific Islander community coming out in sports presents very unique challenges that extend beyond the athletic field when you’re part of the stereotype invisible model minority community. To be an openly out Olympic rainbow Asian athlete means coming out to your family and community and the intersection of sexuality and cultural identity in a conformist society weighs heavily on rainbow Asian people in this process. The fear is that being open about your sexuality or gender identity/expression will shame or dishonour your family with great disappointment that you’ve not lived up to the expectation your family has of you. The history of the one child policy hasn’t helped our community either because that leads to even greater pressure to conform and the concern that parents have of who is going to look after them when they are elderly if their children don’t have grand-children along with what will their community think of them if people find out their child is part of the rainbow community.
As it is quite common that when an Asian person plays sport they maybe one of one on the athletic field they tend to face bullying and racism and if you are from the rainbow community on top of that it’s a double whammy of racism and homophobia and or transphobia you have to deal with. This double layered issue that rainbow Asian athletes have to face push many further into the closet which takes a great toll on one’s mental health causing further isolation, depression and even suicide.
Here are some staggering statistics within the Asian community that we are dealing with. Korea has the 2nd highest suicide rate in the world. Asian American Pacific Islander youth are bullied the most out of all ethnic groups and rainbow Asian youth report they are bullied at least twice a month by white rainbow youth. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for Asian-Americans aged 15-24 year-olds. Many Asian American Pacific Islanders are immigrants who live between their western American world and their life they have within the Asian community so on-top of everything one also has to navigate living in dual identities.
To support rainbow Asian athletes to be openly out in sports we need to address all these intersectionalities along with making sure we continue to cultivate inclusive, safe and nurturing athletic environments where rainbow athletes can thrive by being their authentic self.
Why do you see sports as an important catalyst to make a difference in the fight for equality? Nelson Mandela says it so well: ‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair’
Professional athletes have a very unique platform like high profile celebrities particularly in the time we are in right now with the power of social media. Many have hundreds of thousands of followers if not millions and there is power in that to shift society by athletes speaking out in support of rainbow sports equality as fans listen to the opinions of their athletic heroes.
When a professional athlete comes out this transcends beyond the athletic community as sports is a slice of life as it can shift society from tolerance to acceptance and transform the lives of those still struggling with their sexuality or gender identity/expression by presenting a positive mirror image of yourself. This is why I constantly use sports as my platform to accelerate rainbow sports equality in the Asian Pacific Islander community.
A lot of the LGBTQ work you do is global in nature. Can you share any lessons you’ve learned about working extensively around the world? The struggle that rainbow people face globally is universal but the context is local to any particular country. As a global advocate I’m in a very unique position because I travel extensively up to 10 – 15 countries a year which gives me an overall prospective of what is going on with the rainbow movement within different communities and how we can learn from other countries with their progression in rainbow equality. What I’ve learnt by working in developing countries particularly my own country – Vietnam where the movement is still in its infancy compared to the west is that it’s important to empower local advocates and rainbow youth and their allies so it becomes their movement and it has to happen organically from the ground up. One must always take into account tradition, cultural considerations and what type of government and public mindset you are currently working with.
You were part of the British Council #FiveFilms4Freedom world’s first LGBTQ digital festival USA tour in 2017 and spoke on their panel ‘Love is a Human Right’. How can film play an important role in LGBTQ sports equality? Film plays a vital role in rainbow sports equality because the representation of rainbow athletes and characters through film and television helps the audience understand the role sexuality, gender identity/expression plays in our identities, our cultural history, our sports institutions, and our everyday lives.
When I was a child in sports it would have meant the world to me to turn on TV or go to the cinema and see the portrayal of rainbow athletes showcasing our struggles and triumphs. Sports is a slice of life and in every corner of society there are rainbow people and your sexuality or gender identity/expression has nothing to do with your ability to be an athlete as seen with openly out athletes at the Winter Olympics such as Gus Kenworthy, Eric Radford, Adam Rippon, Belle Brockhoff and Ireen Wüst.
In 2017 over summer in Vietnam you launched the first LGBTQ sports and education program for youth. Tell us about it! With the support of the US and Dutch embassy and title corporate partner Dragon Capital and support from other companies such as SSESteel, KPMG, Baker McKenzie, Nike Vietnam, Irish Embassy, UNAIDS, Israeli Gay Youth, Ushers New Look and Animals Asia I launched the first leadership sports and education program in the country that brought together rainbow youth and kids living with HIV. The aim of the program is to empower and inspire its participants through sports and education to create future leaders and mentors, transform lives, and help build stronger communities within these marginalized groups and for society as a whole. I’m also creating a fast track to further education and career development in the sports and business sector with this program because to end rainbow youth homelessness and one of the main ways to shift society from tolerance to acceptance of the rainbow community is to make sure that rainbow people have a clear path to employment where they can be hired into leadership roles in the sports and business sector. This program is going to form part of a very unique school program that will connect rainbow youth in Vietnam with rainbow youth and their allies in the USA and other parts of the world.
This is the program that I always wanted to be part of as a child where my passion for sports would allow me to celebrate who I am in an inclusive, safe and nurturing environment.
As an Athlete Ally Ambassador, what motivates you to continue the great work you’re doing? My drive for always being a voice with action to accelerate rainbow sports equality is from my own personal experience as an athlete and former competitive natural bodybuilder and how I was made to feel by being bullied and with racist, homophobic and sexist slurs. I used to be the only Asian athlete on the athletic field and that can be very isolating particularly when you are being bullied. Homophobic and transphobic behavior is common in sports, especially in locker room talk. I never had any rainbow Asian role models to look up to when I was growing up and could not feel comfortable coming out at all. So when I think about what keeps me motivated I think of me when I was a child and a teenager because if we are able to take off our mask and be visible and be our authentic self then you instantly present a mirror image to any rainbow youth in sports who is trying to figure out who they are and are feeling insecure about their sexuality, gender identity or expression that it does get better because they can finally see a reflection of themselves looking back at them through your story.
I don’t want any youth to go through what I went through and if I can be that positive role model for any rainbow Asian youth then I should use this amazing platform Athlete Ally has given me as one of their global ambassadors.
What message would you like to send to Asian LGBTQ youth today who are still struggling to be openly out as athletes? I suffered a tremendous amount of discrimination and bullying as a child and into my teenage years, I’ve experienced homelessness, poverty and depression that lead to contemplating suicide. I understand what it feels like to be marginalized and what many rainbow youth are going through because I have experienced it myself. By sharing my story I want to inspire rainbow youth in sports and help them achieve their full potential in life.
Living authentically as an openly out rainbow athlete allows me to harness the support of my peers and allies and helps create a safe athletic environment for all. I want my example to provide a positive message for any API (Asian Pacific Islander) athlete that wants to come out in sports.