LGBTQ+ Pride and Power of Storytelling: Amazin LeThi Speaks

This Pride month, MQ is delighted to share an impactful interview with one of our wonderful ambassadors Amazin LeThi. Amazin is an international weight-lifter, an author, an athlete, a sports advocate and the only Asian LGBTQ athlete to hold multiple sports ambassador roles. She’s spoken with governments, worked with the White House, helped multiple sports organisations and continues to do so much to help people around the world. Amazin met MQ copywriter, Juliette Burton, for a heartfelt talk about growing up feeling different, the layers of mental ill health experienced through racism, sexism, lack of role models, the struggle of identity and how sport saved her life.

Although she’s dressed in camouflage and sitting on a sage green seat in a relaxed urban restaurant, Amazin LeThi to her credit does not blend in. And thank goodness for that. The champion weight-lifter appears positive in every stride, every hand placement and every moment of eye contact is decisive. Yet she’s sensitively aware and delicate in the detail of allowing for those around her, a vigilance that perhaps comes from her upbringing and history of mental health difficulties.

The very first topic of conversation is photos of her dog Lily whose beautiful face I am delighted to see on Amazin’s phone. Once bonded over a love of dogs and how wonderful they can be for our mental health, we begin our chat which, of course, must include why Amazin chose to be an ambassador for MQ Mental Health Research.

“I always wanted to get involved in a mental health organisation, particularly with my own struggles with my own mental health and my own journey. And knowing the difficulty particularly with the Asian community when sharing our stories. And the high rates of mental health difficulties within the Asian community.

“I thought if I put it out to the universe organically something will happen. And then I read about MQ and thought this is the perfect fit for me. Research and data is so important in mental health – if we don’t have that we’re unable to change policies and we’re unable to provide different services for communities. So that was really the start of my journey with MQ.”

Toxic Trauma and Childhood

Amazin’s own lived experience, growing up in Australia in Sydney, informs her passion for mental health and why it matters.

“When I was a child I experienced what I would say is ‘toxic trauma’.

“I grew up in an all-white background in Australia so that was so triggering for me – constantly looking so different and not seeing anyone that looked like me then suffering a tremendous amount of ongoing racism. And not having any safety support to manage that.

“Dealing with my mental health, not knowing that there was this crisis inside of me, suffering in silence and not having a word for what it was. I suffered with depression, anxiety, panic attacks. On top of that I was also struggling with my sexuality.

“From a very young age, maybe around the age of 5, I felt different inside but couldn’t put my finger on it. I saw no LGBTQ people in the media. There was not one Asian LGBTQ person around me or on TV so I literally thought I was the only Asian kid in the world that felt this difference inside. It was such a lonely and isolating experience.

“When people think of mental health they see it as one dimensional but it’s three dimensional. It depends if you’re a minority, if you’re a woman, and if you’re LGBTQ and it depends on your living situation, then the layers of your mental health change. If you were building a house of mental health distress then it’s a layer of distress and then another and another and another and it just feels like the world is caving in on you. I was still under 10 years old experiencing all of this.”

So during her formative years she was experiencing toxic trauma while her brain was forming, repressing her sexuality and not being shown the pathway towards exploring her natural identity. How would she define this “toxic trauma” for her?

“It was a multitude of my living situation, the community, how I was being made to feel as an Asian, as an immigrant who looked different. Then my sexuality on top of that.

I had such low self-worth, I hated myself, hated being Asian, being hated and not understanding why the world hated me. I internalised so much. I look back now knowing just how unhealthy it was for me to live without a support network.

“I was very suicidal as a child. Everything all at once – anorexia, depression, self-hatred. I was homeless for a while so I sunk even lower.

“I didn’t hear any stories about what I was going through so I was constantly wondering whether anyone else had ever been through anything similar. That’s one of the big issues in mental health is that we tend to suffer in silence so we don’t know if anyone else is experiencing the same difficulties.”

The Importance of Stories

In those early years, being an LGBTQ person and not having the words to describe it is an experience not unfamiliar to many. Some look back now and realise we gravitated towards certain influences as a way of subtly exploring our internal worlds, as Amazin alludes:

“I was a big fan of Sesame Street and I always watched Bert and Ernie and queried them, that they lived together. There was just something permitted there. It wasn’t a big deal.

“George Michael played a huge role for me because there was this flamboyant openness and something in the music at the time. I had no idea that he was gay but there was just something I could identify with.

“I didn’t have many friends as a kid so I went to the library a lot and I read a lot and learned about Walt Disney and Colonel Sanders – these people who had so much adversity but somehow lived through it and lived extraordinary lives.

“The only female person I saw as a role model at the time was Madonna. I was drawn by her sense of freedom. The message I heard was ‘I can be anyone I want, and I don’t care what the world says! I will dress the way I want and I will say what I want so unapologetically.’

“Even though they weren’t my story, I started to see stories of difference that I could escape to from the world that I was living in. It gave me small glimmers along the way of hope.

“… For me that’s why I found sport as a haven – the glimmers.”

The Haven and Challenges of Sport

Amazin, like many children, was seeking a sense of recognition and somewhere she could simply be.

“Like so many kids who feel different it’s the sense of community I was looking for, seeking a sense of belonging. I didn’t gain that sense in the community within which I lived. I started doing a lot of school sports, even though it was a very hostile environment because I was the only Asian kid but I loved it. It made me feel so good. I could see instantly how it uplifted my spirits and helped my mental health. I knew within sports I could thrive.”

It’s at this point something catches in Amazin’s voice. So far in chatting, she’s spoken proudly, confidently, with strength and conviction. It’s not until the topic of her home, her haven, her sports comes up that a slight vulnerability creeps.

Anyone who has enjoyed sport and exercise when dealing with the mental health symptoms will know there is a lot of evidence to support the vast improvement it can make to our well-being. Exercise can help with anxiety, stress and depression by affecting endorphins, mitochondria, neurotransmitters and many other changes that are all positive in managing our mental well-being.

For Amazin, her whole self transformed thanks to the power of exercise.

“I saw myself for the first time in sports. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without sports. Sports has become my survival mechanism when dealing with my mental health.”

“My energy shifted straight away. It was like a light bulb lit up inside of me. It affected my confidence, my self-worth, my mental health. It was like a drug. The more I did the better I felt. And also it helped me with my sexuality. I saw myself for the first time because I became confident for the first time. I could look at myself in the mirror and not feel ashamed or frightened or scared. I felt strong.”

But strength comes in different forms and Amazin realised there was yet another challenge to strengthen her resolve.

“I never saw any out athletes. I thought I’d never be able to achieve. It felt like 100 pounds backpack that I always carried that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to take off. That fear weighed on my mental health. The only athlete, a body builder, Bob Harris, who I knew of who came out, he lost all his sponsors at the time, the federation turned against him. So I saw very clearly what happened, at that time. So I continued to struggle with my sexuality.

“The issue with sports in society is that we have within them very stiff gender norms. That’s why we have issues around trans athlete inclusion. There’s always been this stereotype that women who play sports are lesbian anyway so it’s so much more acceptable. You look at the American women’s soccer team and half of them are gay and no one seems to care! Whereas the male dominated soccer is seen as a very macho sport so it’s very difficult for men to come out. We’ve had so few male football players who’ve come out. That’s where the difference lies.”

So while it’s still difficult for people in the LGBTQ community to come out in their sports, for Amazin that was where she fell in love with life and fell into her own strengthened sense of self. And yet there was still more challenges to face.

“I fell into body building. I found a pair of dumbbells lying around the house and I started using them. I realised how much I loved weight training. I started going to the gym at the age of 7. I had no idea what I was doing there but I knew I loved it.

“You would probably think at that age kids should be playing with other kids, not weight training with adult men! The gym was full of cis-gender straight white men, very much an adult environment.

“I was suddenly thrown from racism in the schoolyard to misogyny and sexism in the gym.”

“That was very difficult again for my mental health to be told misogynistic and sexist comments to my face. I was a kid! I didn’t know how to respond. So I just ignored it because I really loved the gym.”

“Looking back I could see that to {the adult men in the gym} I was invading their space. I think they thought the more we do it at some point we will break this girl and she will never come back. But I kept coming back! I think they realised after a while that this was a tough one!”

Amazin’s eyes light up with glee and a cheeky giggle. The purity of her childhood love of the gym, in her hometown of Sydney, let loose her truest authentic self. The experience transformed not only her own view of herself but also the sexism of grown men. Just one 7 year old girl against the patriarchy, lifting one massive weight over her head after another.

Reflections on Seeing Yourself

Training did mean Amazin had to face arguable her biggest competition and strongest protection; her own mental well-being. Seeing oneself is such a difficult concept for some of us more than others.

“I suffered a terrible amount of racism so I hated being Asian, I hated looking in the mirror and seeing my Asian face. I suffered from anorexia, bulimia and I used to scrub myself to scrub away the Asian then look in the mirror and go ‘ooh! Still Asian!’ My self confidence and self worth were zero.

“Participation in sport made my mind stronger and my body physically stronger. I had to stand up for myself in the gym, so it gave me more confidence to look in the mirror and be happy that I saw an Asian person looking back at me. I was proud of how far I’d come and what I’d created.”

“And let’s not forget, this was all before I was 10 years old! It was pivotal for me because this was me raising myself in the way that I had wanted to be raised.

“I learned about good nutrition and what would happen if I didn’t look after myself. Within the body building community there was again this power of storytelling. There were these stories in these magazines about athletes who’d gone through terrible tragedies and how sports saved them, They’d started to look after themselves and how if they didn’t look after themselves, if they didn’t eat right, didn’t exercise properly, didn’t look after their mental health, the repercussions of that. That helped me a lot. That helped me survive.”

The Governator Terminates An Old Era…

Yet another powerful story of difference shifted this young child from a weightlifter to a competitor and activist.

“I always credit the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger for why I started competing. It was the first moment I heard story of a body builder who was very different, who looked differently, sounded different, spoke differently, came from a small town but made a huge impact through sports.

“I then realised for the first time that I could celebrate my difference. That there would be a point in the world where my difference was celebrated and that I could use the platform of sports to impact the world positively through what I’ve gone through personally.”

And Amazin has certainly done that. She has competed internationally and is now an author as well as an athlete, she has been a sports advocate, the only Asian LGBTQ athlete to hold multiple sports ambassador roles, she’s spoken with governments, she’s worked with the White House, she’s helped multiple sports organisations and continues to do so much to help people around the world.

…And Amazin Ushers In A New Era

“As a kid I didn’t even know what activism is but as an adult I had a very basic goal. In 2019 I went to Qu’tar and sat with governments and embassies and told them I had one simple goal which was to share my story and that someone would listen, and then listen enough to reconsider policies that they’re making, to think about the community that they’re in and how they could make that community better.

“I want my work to mean it becomes easier for the next kid. This is the power of storytelling.”

“Even with that in mind, finding body building was the high of my career. Simply finding it saved my life. It became a lifelong DNA within me that has become my survival mechanism. When I have my mental health moments I go back to the mind of an athlete. Sport helps me get through those really difficult times.

“Sometimes I still do experience depression or anxiety or panic attacks. There are certain things I experience that trigger an emotional flashback and I just can’t cope with that moment. Or if I know I’m going to a certain event or with certain people or if it’s going to look a certain way that will give me an emotional flashback that I need to prime myself emotionally for that.

“I’ve gone through so many different episodes in life but I feel I’ve been able to pull myself out and I credit that to a lifetime of sports. I don’t think I would be here today sharing my story with you or have got through the lows in my life without having sports and learning that mindset of an athlete. Athletes see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Amazin LeThi is many things and meaningful is indeed one of them. Our thanks to her for sparing her time to speak with us, to tell her powerful story and to show us all a light at the end of a tunnel.

Find out more about Amazin LeThi on her website.

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