It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written a blog. If I went into all the reasons for that, it would fill a blog in itself. However, when I recently spoke to survivor, athlete, cultural advisor and advocate for underrepresented groups Amazin LeThi, it became clear that her story needed to be shared.
I’m going to hand the floor over to her words, because what strikes me most acutely is how little I can relate to the raging discrimination she’s suffered throughout her life; first in the form of racism, then sexism and finally as part of the LGBTQ community. I shared my honest perspective with her when we spoke – I simply can’t understand why people choose to be so intolerant and cruel towards one another.
Despite the serious impacts of bullying and stigmatisation on Amazin’s mental health, she has found an inner resilience which has allowed her to rise above her persecution and turn her energy to making a positive difference for others. She now campaigns for a world that’s more welcoming, understanding and inclusive. We should all want that. I know I do.
Here’s her story:
I’m a transracial Asian adoptee who spent my formative years as a child growing up in Australia. Asians were just coming into the country and the government publicly acknowledged that they did not want Australia to be ‘Asianised’ or ‘invaded’ by the Asian community. I physically looked different, so I encountered daily racism and discrimination and I couldn’t hide from it. I would see racist slurs on buildings, and nobody would paint over them. Apparently if they had it would be back again the next day, so everyone just ignored it like it was part of normal life.
On my way home from school, I had to go through a tunnel. It was that or go over a busy highway. White kids would hide at the end of the tunnel. As I turned the corner, groups of them would jump out at me. The Asian kids at school who had Asian parents had come over from Asia for their parents work and stuck together. I never fitted into any community.
At school, the racism and bullying led me into sports, in search of a sense of self, spirit and community. I had very low self-worth. I was the only Asian person playing sports and again was bullied terribly by my teammates and other teams. And my coach. There was so much unconscious bias towards Asian people in sport, I would regularly hear we’re geeky, we’re slow, we’re nerdy, we’re not ‘designed’ for it.
There are small poignant moments amongst it all that define who I am today. One day, my teacher made me stand up in front of my classmates. There must have been about 30 kids there. The teacher gestured to me and said: “This is what failure looks like.” Everyone laughed at me. I remember standing there thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have no support anywhere, not in the kids, not in the teachers, not in sport.” I sat down trying not to cry. Then the teacher threw the blackboard eraser at me. I just remember just sitting there as it hit me on the head.
I never wanted to feel that humiliated again and I never want another child to experience what I went through.
I fell into bodybuilding really young. Unbelievably, I was six when I started lifting. You can’t even get into the gym now at that age. I started going to the gym down the road when I was seven or eight. The owner was a local and didn’t care that I had no money. It became the place that would babysit me. The feeling of being excluded wasn’t over though. I went from being bullied by other children, to suddenly being a female Asian kid in an all-white-male, adult-dominated environment. I got a snapshot of how sexist and misogynistic bodybuilding and traditionally masculine sports can be, particularly in their locker room talk.
As a child, you don’t know how to respond. They dismissed me. They would talk about me while I was literally standing there. I decided to ignore what they were saying, because I really enjoyed the bodybuilding and the way it made me feel. I told myself it gave me an edge, learning what I could withstand. I didn’t meet another LGBTQ person until my late teens. I was living alone in limbo land without anyone who believed in me. I spent a lot of time in the gym reception looking at the health, fitness and bodybuilding magazines, but never saw anyone who looked like me or who I could relate. The closest I came was Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He was the only person I could latch on to as a kind of role model because he had a strange accent, a funny name and came from a faraway country. He looked different and he used bodybuilding as a platform to elevate himself. As the only Asian female bodybuilder at the time, people enjoyed watching me, but I was treated like a novelty. The time hadn’t yet come for me to be able to have my own voice, but I didn’t forget the lesson I learnt from Schwarzenegger. At that age, I didn’t really know about community work, but I noticed how he used sport to say the things that he felt passionately about.
Unfortunately, some of the things I was passionate about weren’t topics you could openly discuss. I learned quickly that bodybuilding was toxic in its gender norms, that you couldn’t be anything other than what the sport chose to promote. In terms of being LGBTQ, you could never come out. I 100% believed it would never be possible to be an openly LGBTQ person in sports. When one bodybuilder did come out, he lost his sponsorship, and everything fell apart for him. A strong message was openly sent out to the bodybuilding community that LGBTQ people were not the image they wanted. I struggled with that but pushed it to the side of my head. There was no point wasting time on something I didn’t believe I could impact.
The bodybuilding community has always been heteronormative. It’s really only in the last year that we’ve started to see LGBTQ powerlifters. There was even a transgender bodybuilder who came out and was featured in the bodybuilding press, but we’re talking 2019 and bodybuilding has been around since the 1960s. There are many other sports like female soccer where you’ve never seen so many LGBTQ female players, but even then, it’s difficult for Asian athletes to come out because if we reach professional level, there’s often only of one of us and we’re usually already victims of racism. We certainly don’t feel welcomed or celebrated.
Also, there’s a fear within the Asian community because of cultural pressure. Shame and failure are used in our community to push us further into the closet and to make us into ‘perfect’ people. We’re the only community with the phrase ‘invisible model minority race’. As soon as I’m born, I’m invisible, and I’m pitted against all other minority racial groups – that leads to high rates of mental health issues.
I left Australia in my late teens and moved to Europe. The trauma from my childhood was like a ticking time bomb within me. Many people are a paycheck away from poverty, and one person away from falling into the wrong crowd, especially in their late teens when they’re still trying to find themselves. I ended up in a bad crowd.
They gave me a sense of community, but we were partying 24/7, doing drugs, drinking alcohol and I spiraled out of control. I was homeless for a number of years, in and out of different shelters, suicidal, with severe mental health issues including depression and heavily in debt. I hit rock bottom, wondering what had become of my life. One time I remember begging on the street feeling demoralised and worthless because of how people looked at me and what they think of you when you’re on the margins of society.
At one point, I literally cried for three days in a shelter. I thought back to that moment as a kid, when I was made to stand up in front of my class to represent the face of failure. I realised that if I sank any further, I’d have fulfilled that teacher’s slur, so somehow, I needed to pull myself out of this.
Sport became my survival mechanism. Rebuilding my life was probably the hardest thing I ever did, and I had a mental breakdown doing it. It took me years to recover, but I’ve become a more resilient person for it. The person I am today, and the advocacy work I do, is due to my tough personal journey.
In 2014, I became the first Asian Athlete Ally for a US-based organisation that challenges homophobia and transphobia in sports. Then at the end of last year, I became the first Asian Stonewall UK Asian Sports Champion. I use those two platforms to campaign for LGBTQ equality in sports which is one of the last frontiers for athletes, as is acknowledging the barriers that face Asian sportspeople internationally.
I work with governments all over the world including with the UK government on Tokyo 2021 and Beijing 2022 Olympics. I have conversations around how to use sport as a platform for equality, how to understand the challenges to progression that Asian athletes face and how more safe and nurturing environments can be cultivated. Even in countries like the US, Canada and Australia where you have high rates of Asian people within the population, we aren’t comparatively represented in professional sports.
I’m now training to compete in shooting. Like bodybuilding, shooting is a white, male-dominated sport and I don’t believe that there are any other openly out athletes. Across sports in the last Olympics, they said there had never been so many LGBTQ athletes. They needed to say there had never been so many white, LGBTQ athletes. It’s getting better, but it’s easy to become complacent in terms of seeing something and not taking a step back and asking yourself if everyone is at the table.
I learnt a lot from chatting to Amazin, but that last statement is one that will stick with me. Is everyone who should be at the table? It’s easy to promote yourself when you feel welcome and your success is celebrated. It’s much harder to find the inner strength to keep stepping up to the plate when you feel excluded and unwanted.
It takes a brave, tenacious individual to strive onwards despite their own suffering. That Amazin was prepared to share her story provides others with the role model she always lacked, removing the sense of isolation that comes with discrimination. It reminds me how important it is for each of us to play our part in making the world a better place, both in our explicit actions, and in our choice not to be complicit in reinforcing a damaging status quo.
Katie Traxton is an ESA Board Director and Chief Communications Officer at Formula E. She was previously Managing Partner at WeAreFearless, ESA’s Pan-Europe Sponsorship Agency of the Year.