Amazin LeThi on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected LGBTQ+ Asians

Amazin Lethi, HIV/AIDS activist, pic credit: Alina Oswald.

“There was always racism in the community, but I’ve never seen it like this before, this is widespread global racism on an epidemic proportion.”

The coronavirus pandemic has been changing the world as we know it. People have been cooped up inside for weeks and events that were planned are being cancelled. It has also made the world a more dangerous place for Asian people. The Home Affairs Select Committee was recently told that anti-Asian hate crimes in the UK have increased by 21% during the pandemic, with police believing there has been a threefold increase in the first months of 2020 when compared to last year.

Racism is rightfully at the forefront of many peoples’ minds at the moment, given the circumstances in America and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. And one person affected by this uptake in anti-Asian racism is sportswoman and LGBTQ+ Asian advocate Amazin LêThị, who told GAY TIMES, in a recent socially distanced interview, that she’d had people shout ‘Stop eating cats and dogs’ at her, as she was simply walking down the street. “There was always racism in the community, but I’ve never seen it like this before, this is widespread global racism on an epidemic proportion,” she explains to us.

And it’s world leaders like Tr*mp who have been instrumental in instigating this new wave of hate, constantly referring to the virus as the ‘Chinese virus’ or even the ‘Kung-Fu virus’ and Amazin explains that this has helped people feel “more comfortable in being racist” adding: “I think when you have leadership in the US that is instigating racism and xenophobia it normalises it.”

Elsewhere, Amazin explains to us how she was planning on launching the UK’s first Asian Pride later in the year, and how important it is to represent the world’s most populous community. “I think back to when I was younger and struggling with my sexuality, when you see that first LGBTQ+ person who looks like you and shares your story, you realise the feeling you have inside isn’t singular, but part of a larger community,” she says, explaining the necessity in holding such an event.

We’ve seen coronavirus used as an excuse for racism against Asian communities, how has it been affecting LGBTQ+ Asians?

The Asian community has always been seen as an invisible, model minority race, and I think particularly in the UK, we don’t have a voice at all. There was always racism in the community, but I’ve never seen it like this before, this is widespread global racism on an epidemic proportion. We’ve had over 300 [hate crime] cases in the UK, in the US they have the FBI involved, special hotlines people can call, they now have a tracking system. Kamala Harris passed a resolution in not being allowed to say the ‘Chinese virus’, the ‘Kung-Fu virus’, the ‘Wuhan virus’ because it instigates hate. It’s very detrimental when you equate a virus with an ethnicity because a virus doesn’t have an ethnicity, it doesn’t choose Asian people over white people, over Black people, it doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone, but just to target Asian people, they’re not China, they’re not a country or the government, and you’re blaming a random Asian person in the street for COVID-19, it’s ridiculous. When we think about bullying, it’s so much about the bully not the person who’s being bullied, and I think with this coronavirus racism, it says so much about the person instigating it, and it has nothing to do with the random Asian person you decided to punch in the face or kick in the head or target with slurs. Definitely with Asian LGBTQ+ people, it’s very much a triple whammy of being LGBTQ+, being trapped at home with people and family members that don’t accept you, or isolated at home with your family overseas. We have to look at the lasting effects of what happens after we open up, the solutions of how to unify as community, particularly as the LGBTQ+ community. We need to look differently and act differently when we come out of lockdown, as at some point we’ll have a vaccine and the virus will go away, but the racism will stay. Asian people are somewhat slightly protected because of the shutdown, but when it starts opening up, people have been cooped up for weeks, they need to release that outlet somewhere.

Do you think that these anti-Asian sentiments had been bubbling away under the surface for a while before coming out now?

There’s always been racism to ethnic groups, I’ve experienced racism all my life as an Asian person. I feel that people now feel more comfortable in being racist, and I think when you have leadership in the US that is instigating racism and xenophobia it normalises it. You look at societies that are anti-LGBTQ+ like in Russia and Poland, when you have leadership that is anti-LGBTQ+ or against an ethnic group, it begins to normalise it; people might have thought it beforehand, but now they feel comfortable on acting and saying it. There’s always been an otherism when you’re Asian, we’ve never been seen as part of the community, and that also comes from the LGBTQ+ community, our voice is small there compared to other communities. During Pride month, we’re not seen as visibly as other communities, even though we’re the fastest-growing and the most populous in the world. And you see that in terms of LGBTQ+ representation in film and TV, Asian people only make up 1% of lead Hollywood roles. If you can’t see us, you don’t think of us, and in our community it’s difficult to come out, so there are so few out Asian LGBTQ+ people to share their stories and be seen by the masses.

Going forward, what will be the best ways to address this?

Government, but they need to take strong leadership over this. It’s the same thing with anti-LGBTQ+ violence and rhetoric, strong leadership has to come from the leaders of the country, the mayors of the city calling out racism and violent xenophobia towards different communities. Also community leaders need to speak up, I’m a community leader, it’s important that I speak up and share my story, and it’s important for others. Working with local communities on the ground and allyship are needed. Asian people, we can speak in our silos and have all these panel discussions and conversations, but we need allies from other communities and other leaders to talk about the solutions, whether that’s implementing hate crime laws, calling it out publicly, having a tracking system and data. If you’re going to have hate crime bills, or find a solution from your city or state or country, you need to track the data. On an individual level, it’s being an ally and advocate for when we’re not in the room, so you confront them when they’re racist and I’m not in the room. Getting to know other communities will also help, this pandemic and the racism toward the Asian community that’s spread globally has shown how little we know about the Asian community. I’ve had people shouting at me across the street ‘Stop eating cats and dogs’ it’s horrible and stupid rhetoric coming out of nowhere. Educating yourself about the Asian community, because if people stopped and thought about their friendship circles and workplace circles, you’d find an Asian person in that circle. A lot of them may be second-generation and never gone to their country of birth, and if they had it’d be holiday, and if you asked them what they ate it’d be like ‘KFC, McDonald’s, pasta’ cats and dogs would be the last thing on that list! Storytelling is such a part of that, and the same goes for the LGBTQ+ community, there’s this fear towards us if you don’t know that person, and I think it’s also the same in this anti-transness, but when you get to know someone, you realise they’re just like me, different but the same.

As someone who’s been in America, how do you find Trump’s handling of the situation?

I spend the majority of my time in the US, and as we can see there’s no leadership at the top. When a leader questions at White House briefings if we should inject detergent… that will go down in history as the worst thing. Not even a five-year-old would think of saying that! The best leaders of this have been women, the First Minister in Scotland, the New Zealand Prime Minister. Some people might say ‘It’s a smaller country, she can manage it’ but at the same time, she had just as much information as every Western leader, but she leads for her people and she thinks with her head of ‘What should I do right now?’ There’s been poor leadership in the UK, and this pandemic has shown around the world who has strong leadership and who as a leader can think about their people and lead their country out of the worst situation. We couldn’t have had a worst situation than this pandemic, and it shows who is a leader and who’s not, and who acts quickly for their country and people, and who flounders through it and doesn’t care for their people or leading their country. We could go on and on about this, but it showed the cracks in different communities, how vulnerable the LGBTQ+ community is, and how we need to do more for LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness and who will be the most vulnerable coming out of this. We could never have guesstimated that the Asian community would’ve been attacked in this way, maybe if the leadership had been stronger, we could’ve put our heads together, but it shows strong leadership what steps they take to support their immigrant communities that will be the most vulnerable.

Coming out of this, the world will have changed. How can we use this to our advantage to get LGBTQ+ voices heard louder?

I think this pandemic has given us time to pause and reset and I think for the LGBTQ+ community, we have been one of the most vulnerable commentaries during this because of so many factors that have been there before and were heightened during this. We need to look at ourselves as a community, because I think of myself, as someone who is Asian and queer, who does work in challenges and barriers that Asian LGBTQ+ people face, and Black leaders talk about the challenges they face, we need to work stronger and better together as one community. We’re all fighting for the same thing, although it is different in different communities. We need to support our most vulnerable more, particularly youth and those youths facing homelessness. It’s such an epidemic as the LGBTQ+ youth population is three to five per cent, but around 40-50% are made homeless. Although we’ve gotten so far, we still need to change hearts and minds, and that can be seen with the Equality Minister [Liz Truss] trying to rollback trans rights during this time. All around the world, the transgender community is being persecuted and attacked, and as gay, lesbian, bisexual, non-binary, no matter how you identify we need to rally around the trans community more. As a sports person, obviously there’s been no sport during this pandemic, I think we need to use sport to unify communities, it brings them together. It’s a shared common interest that the world has, that we can use as a platform to change hearts and minds, particularly going towards Tokyo 2021 in July-August, we need to use it as a moment for the LGBTQ+ community. I’m hoping the Japanese government can pass anti-discrimination laws, as that will become a beacon in Asia. As a Stonewall Sport Ambassador and Athlete Ally, I’m still having conversations as to how we can use sport as a platform for equality. We need to use it more than ever, knowing this is the one thing that people are looking forward to and brings us all together.

I know you’re a supporter of trans women competing in sport, why is it important that they get to compete as their gender?

I’ve always been a very big ally and advocate to the trans community, and particularly trans athletes. Idaho has passed a bill blocking trans athletes from playing sports, and I think for myself what that would mean to me if I suddenly couldn’t play sports, if a country I was in passed a law banning Asian people. I think about how horrible and upset I would feel that something I hold so dear to me had been taken away like that. Trans people are people and they have every right to play sports within the gender they identify. I wouldn’t be here without sport, and I know how I thrived through sport, and everyone should have the opportunity to thrive through sport. LGBTQ+ people should play sports because of the skillset it gives, and children should be given that opportunity. I think of the mental and wellbeing of trans youth if they had the opportunity to play sport. Denying a six-year-old trans girl the ability to go outside and kick a ball is horrible. It’s been a massive discussion, particularly around the Olympics. Some cis-gendered women feel like they’re threatened by a trans woman playing sport as it won’t be an equal playing field, but sport was never meant to be a playing equal field. As an Asian athlete, when I competed, I competed against people who were taller, had a bigger build, had longer legs, could run faster than me, but sport is about being my best and the best that I could be.

Amazin Lethi, HIV/AIDS activist, pic credit: Alina Oswald..

How was your Asian Heritage Month this year, and how would you have liked to celebrate it this year if the pandemic hadn’t been about?

This year’s Asian Heritage Month has been more important than every single year it’s been, because of the issues of the pandemic and how Asian people were persecuted with the violent xenophobia and negativity around being Asian that was attached to the virus. I used it for a moment in time to just celebrate our achievements, the richness of our community and our tradition and celebrating being Asian and LGBTQ+. May and June are very busy times for my schedule, if we didn’t have the pandemic, I would’ve been doing a lot of events around the US with different governments and organisations celebrating the Asian heritage. This is the first year that we don’t have Pride, it’s unprecedented that we won’t have any in-person Prides. I think of LGBTQ+ people just coming out, particularly Asians, as there are so many challenges and barriers relating to family in our tradition in regards to coming out, and this would’ve been the first opportunity to go to a Pride. I always try to see the positivity, and having a Virtual Pride means the whole world can have Pride together, and if you’re struggling with your sexuality or gender identity you can log on anonymously and still feel connected, and if there were in-person Prides, they might not have had the bravery to go.

You were planning on launching Asian Pride in London this year, what would that have entailed and why is it needed?

I was part of this first Asian Pride in the US last year, and this year I was planning to launch Asian Pride in London and Atlanta, for their fiftieth anniversary. We’re the most populous community in the world and we don’t have this celebration. There’s Black Pride, everyone knows when it’s Black History Month, but no one knows that May is the month for Asians. We’re the most populous community in the world, but people know so little about us. It’s important that Asian people have their own space, where we can see ourselves. I think back to when I was younger and struggling with my sexuality, when you see that first LGBTQ+ person who looks like you and shares your story, you realise the feeling you have inside isn’t singular, but part of a larger community and it’s important that, as a community, we have our own space to share our story and celebrate the richness of Asian LGBTQ+ people. It’ll also amplify Asian LGBTQ+ people in the community, advocates, community leaders and performers, and just the mere factor of having that support network. Asian LGBTQ+ people don’t have that support network, so we’re lost within Pride. We don’t see ourselves, or have anything innately for our community, and I think how important that would’ve been for me if there was an Asian Pride I could’ve gone to when I was 16 to see people like me.

What do you think Pride events can do now to become more inclusive of Asian voices?

We can do so much with Virtual Pride, and the lift isn’t hard. Virtual Prides could get people to do video recordings with their iPhone, sharing a message, reaching out to advocates all around the world. In Hollywood, we now have Asian entertainment voices like Margaret Cho and George Takei who are high-profile. Story sharing and storytelling are the most important, and the Virtual Prides will have unlimited hours. Whether it’s from advocates to celebrities to everyday people in the street sharing a 30-second video clip they uploaded. We can share situations on the ground in different Asian countries, Asia is a massive continent, we go from good to Brunei where you can be buried up to your head and stoned to death. We need to highlight how there’s so much work to be done in the continent of Asia and the countries there, we’re fighting for very basic rights.

Lockdown has been difficult for many, and has had a negative effect on people’s mental health, do you have any advice for them?

The sudden shutdown and isolation is hard, it’s like being stranded on a desert island where there’s no one. There’s that touch starvation as we’re used to shaking hands, giving a kiss on the cheek or hug, and that’s been taken away within 24 hours. The first thing is to be kind to yourself, it’s okay if one day you can’t get out of bed, and feel that for the next 24 hours you’re going to eat cereal in bed. I think we, especially LGBTQ+ people who have been pushed into a box of conformity, sometimes we just need to hear that you’re enough. Exercise is really important, and it’s a bit easier now as in the UK and US you can go outside, it’s important to go outside every day in nature as that lifts your spirits. In the evening, we’re so fixated on technology and reading the news, but it’s not good for your mental health to be attached to technology and watching the doom and gloom of the pandemic on the news. Before you go to bed, turn off your technology two hours beforehand, it will help your mental health and sleep better. It’s a research fact that during the pandemic, people have had weird sleeping patterns and vivid dreams and that’s the anxiety of being in the pandemic and going through your Facebook news feed won’t help. I do a lot of meditation and that helps you stay in the present, for the most part when we start becoming anxious it’s because our mind is running into the future and because of that uncertainty and the need to stay certain, we create stories about our future or the world. Even if you can do five or ten minutes of meditation with classical music in the morning. Gratitude is very important, even if it’s just thinking of three basic things you’re thankful for, and it can be as easy as ‘I’m grateful I can open my eyes and see.’ And in the evenings, do the same like ‘I’m thankful I was able to go to the park and social distance walk with a friend.’ Having a support network, and the great thing about the internet during this pandemic, is that there are a lot of LGBTQ+ Facebook groups, if you’re in an environment that isn’t friendly there are groups or on the phone you can connect to, and these can help your mental well-being.

Amazin LêThị is a Stonewall Sport Ambassador and an Athlete Ally, to find out more about her, click here.

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