May is Asian American and Pacific Islander ( AAPI ) Heritage Month, and one AAPI activist the LGBTQ community might want to look out for is Amazin LeThi.
LeThi, a Vietnam native who grew up in Australia, began bodybuilding at the age of six, and went on to compete professionally for 20 years. Now, she uses her platform as a global advocate for LGBTQ people and people affected by HIV/AIDS.
This summer, LeThi and her foundation, the Amazin LeThi Foundation, are embarking on their flagship global venture: a sports, education, leadership and mentoring program for LGBTQ youth and children affected by HIV/AIDS, which she plans to bring to Chicago as early as 2018.
As a Vietnamese child growing up in Australia, LeThi experienced "a terrible amount" of racism, she said. "For a very long period, I never had really anyone that believed in me, and I always was kind of told that I would never amount to much."
Those experiences led LeThi to bodybuilding. "Sport became my outlet," she said. It gave her the confidence she was missing, "and I think if it wasn't for bodybuilding, I would be in a different place" today.
Indeed, today, LeThi occupies a prominent place in national and international LGBTQ and AAPI circles. She attended the first White House Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights in 2014. Currently, she serves as an Athlete Ally and the Vietnam Relief Services global ambassador, and advises the New York Department of Education on Asian youth issues, including LGBTQ issues and issues of racism. In May 2016, LeThi was one of GLAAD's "7 Asian LGBT advocates to know this AAPI Heritage Month."
While LeThi's calling was bodybuilding, she believes all sports offer something valuable to young people trying to figure out where they fit in. "Sport is a way of finding yourself a community," she said, even if it's just for fun and not a professional pursuit. This is why sports are central to LeThi's work, including her new program.
The weeklong program, supported in part by the U.S. and Dutch embassies in Vietnam, will launch in Haiphong, Vietnam, in July. It will primarily serve LGBTQ youth and youth living with or affected by HIV/AIDStwo groups that LeThi said are the most marginalized in the Vietnamese community.
She described the program as a way to "fast track" youth to opportunities for employment and networking. The program will provide participants educational scholarships, as well as access to business leaders through site visits and workshops. As part of the leadership component, the older participants, who will range in age from 16 to 22, will lead workshops during which they teach skills to a younger group of participants, ranging from age 8 to 15.
In addition to athletic opportunities during the program, LeThi plans to have professional athletes share their stories with the youth. "So many athletes were lifted out of poverty through sports and became leaders and mentors" in their communities, she said. "We can use sports as a platform to lift these youth out of poverty."
She believes that the professional athletic community, with its far-reaching influence, can serve as an important base of support for LGBTQ youth. "It says so much if a professional athlete says 'I support this right,'" she said.
Above all, LeThi wants the program to "ignite that fire within the youth, [so] that there's a possibility and hope, and that their dreams are possible." She hopes that gaining connections to the professional community during the program will leave the youth with a base from which to build once the program ends.
LeThi has more in mind than just this summer's Haiphong launch. In 2018, she plans to expand the program nationally within Vietnam, and internationally to the United States, where her proposed initial sites are Atlanta and Chicago.
Logistically, the program may change. A week might no longer be sufficient in future iterations. Also, as LeThi acknowledged, a $1,000 educational scholarship in Vietnamwhich she said can cover an entire four-year college educationis much different from a $1,000 scholarship in the United States, which, in many cases, would cover a fraction of a semester of tuition.
LeThi also plans to expand the reach of the U.S. program beyond just AAPI youth, to include other homeless LGBTQ and underserved youth. Still, she aims to address the cultural stigmas that AAPI youth face, and the added challenges for LGBTQ AAPI youth.
Many Asian youth are held to high standards, said LeThi. People often think of these youth as excellent students who work hard and get good grades. But those people don't realize the inner struggles of AAPI youth, "because for many Asian youth, it's a very quiet journey that they suffer inside," she said. "It's an ask of them that's so unimaginable, that they can never reach."
The challenges multiply for those AAPI youth who identify as LGBTQ. "I think this is something that is not mentioned a lot," said LeThi, "particularly for Asian youth, of how they have to navigate this intersection of their sexual identity and their cultural identity."
For example, she said, many Vietnamese people came to the U.S. as refugees with specific expectations for their families. When their children go against those expectationsfor example, by coming out as gaythe parents often respond with disappointment. The pressure to adhere to certain standards can cause a great deal of shame for LGBTQ AAPI youth, she said.
As a Vietnamese person who spent her childhood in a foreign country, who struggled with homelessness as a young adult, and who also struggled with her sexualityshe prefers not to identify as any one thing, but if she had to, she would identify as "queer" or "label-less"LeThi identifies with all of these struggles.
The issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness in particular needs to be addressed, she said. If not, these homeless youth "become our lost generation."
"It's an epidemic that we have to address," said LeThi.
For more information on LeThi's work, readers can visit AmazinLethiFoundation.org .