Amazin LeThi on inclusive spaces in sport

A female tennis player being carried on a feather plumed litter.

With the Tokyo Olympics postponed, the queer elite-level athlete and activist urges that now is the perfect moment to reassess LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports

By Amelia Abraham  Above image: Billie Jean King (Getty)   Thursday 6 August, 2020    Short read

Athlete and LGBTQ+ sports campaigner Amazin LeThi has dedicated her life to talking about queer inclusion in sports and making the industry a more inclusive space. Previously an elite-level weightlifter, she now works with governments and charities on getting more people like her – she is queer and Asian – into clubs and competitions. With the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, she explains to Amelia Abraham, author of Queer Intentions, that now is the perfect moment to stop and reflect on how to improve the world of sports, so that everyone gets a fair shot.
A bodybuilder and a trophy.
Amazin LeThi (courtesy of Amazin LeThi)

How did you discover your love for sport? 

‘I was born in Vietnam, but grew up in Sydney, in an all-White background. I was always looked at as different, bullied as a child and suffered terrible amounts of racism. I was also confused about my sexuality – I rarely saw an Asian person on TV, let alone an Asian LGBTQ+ person, so I felt like the only one. I went into sports because I was looking for a sense of self and community.

‘As a child I did a lot of team sports, but came up against racism again – this idea that Asian people are slow, geeky, and not designed for sports. But I loved it, so I persevered. I fell into weightlifting and bodybuilding; I just saw some dumbbells lying around the house and I picked them up. Every single day I’d do 100 dumbbell curls, push-ups and sit-ups, and just started to see my body transform. I felt stronger and more confident. I began weightlifting competitively as a teenager, and decided then that I was going to use my platform in sports to talk about making it more equal.’

What are some of your biggest achievements surrounding your activism?

‘A couple of years ago, I became the first out Asian athlete to be part of LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, which promotes inclusion in sports. In March this year, I became the first Asian LGBTQ+ athlete to be honoured at the Brooklyn Nets Pride Night with the Game Ball Delivery in New York. I do a lot of work on a governmental level around using sport as a platform for equality, and raising awareness about the difficulties that Asian LGBTQ+ athletes face, from school level to professional level. 

‘With the Tokyo Olympics 2021 and the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022, most major sports events coming up will be in Asia. So, it’s time to have conversations around sports equality through the Asian lens. And we need to discuss the challenges and barriers that Asian athletes face in sports, as well as the difficulties of coming out as an LGBTQ+ Asian in sports – where there’s that double layer of discrimination.’

What are some of the biggest issues in terms of LGBTQ+ people’s inclusion in sport?

‘A lot of LGBTQ+ sportspeople tend to come out after they retire, which sends a message that you can never be out in sports or shows that they didn’t feel comfortable to. It costs so much money to be a competitive full-time athlete, and so often athletes rely on sponsorship deals. If you are coming from a place where there’s a hostile environment towards queer people – particularly Asia, Africa or the Middle East – you might not be able to come out without losing sponsorship. 

‘Sport can also have very toxic gender norms – something I learned through the bodybuilding community. Trans women in sports face a terrible amount of body policing and discrimination. But I think the coverage is always focused on trans women and we rarely ever hear about the experience of trans men. And when it comes to nonbinary people, where do they fit within sports defined by men’s or women’s teams? We are in a different time now. People identify outside the binary and sport has to catch up.’
A tennis player competing.
An athlete lifting large weights.
A golfer chipping out of a sand bunker.
A female footballer celebrating a goal with her teammates.
A motion blurred image of a runner.
Above, clockwise from top left: Renee Richards, Laurel Hubbard, Caster Semenya, Megan Rapinoe, Tadd Fujikawa (Getty)

Yes, trans, intersex and nonbinary people are often excluded from sports competitions, or met with controversy. Intersex runner Caster Semenya and trans weightlifter Laurel Hubbard being maybe the most prominent examples. Can you explain more as to why this is? 

‘There is just so much transphobia within the sports community around this idea that trans and intersex people somehow have the edge and it wouldn’t be fair. There’s no scientific evidence that trans women are better in sports. And if they were, you would see more teams with trans athletes and more trans people competing. In Connecticut, a cisgender (not trans) female athlete who filed a lawsuit against two trans athletes for having an unfair advantage, actually beat one of them a few days later, debunking her own argument. A trans athlete friend of mine recently put it well. She said, “Maybe we should stop asking what advantage trans people have in sports and start asking what disadvantages trans people have in sports?”’

I recently found out about an amazing trans tennis player from the 1970s called Renée Richards who fought to play in the women’s team at the 1976 US Open. Who are some of your LGBTQ+ sports heroes, past and present? 

‘Billie Jean King. She really paved the way for women in terms of gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. And now she’s in her seventies, she’s still doing that! Megan Rapinoe, too – she’s done so much for women in sports, and Jason Collins, as a former professional basketball player and also a Black athlete. When I look to the Asian community, we just haven’t had that many out athletes in sports. But Japanese-American golfer, Tadd Fujikawa, came out in 2018 in an Instagram post and received so much support. It was really quite extraordinary for golf, which is quite a conservative sport. I feel very inspired by him, because I never thought I would see an Asian athlete come out, still maintain his professional career and be so celebrated in sports.’ 

The 2020 Olympics had planned to add more mixed team events – do you see this as a positive?

‘I think mixed team sports are the way forward, because then it makes it more inclusive for everyone. Sports is a slice of life. In life, genders mix, and it can include nonbinary people, too.’ 

How can changing sports at a grass-roots or local club level lead to bigger change in the future? 

‘We have to make sure that sport is accessible to kids from all communities and a wealth of backgrounds. That means the city funding community sports groups and events, and schools creating after-school programmes. We also need to educate coaches about unconscious bias in their teaching and recruiting, as well as making sure that we create programmes to encourage coaches from different racial backgrounds. It means so much if you’re an Asian or Black kid to see someone that looks like you coaching your team. Also, if you have a problem, they might be more likely to understand. 

‘There are things we can do higher up, too. We need sports media to portray LGBTQ+ people in sports and people from different racial groups, so as not to perpetuate a stereotype that sports are for a certain type of person. We must look at Olympic-level and Commonwealth-level inclusion policies around gender. And then there is fan behaviour. West Ham has decided to impose bans on homophobic fans, and the Premier League is set to implement a blanket ban on racism. This is so important, because if you’re an LGBTQ+ kid, or a kid from a racial minority hearing homophobic or racist language, you’ll think ‘there’s no way I want to become a professional athlete’. Overall, we have to look at sports very holistically to make sure everyone gets a seat at the table.’; @amazinlethi

Amelia Abraham is the author of Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture
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