Advocate Amazin LeThi Sheds Light on Invisibility, HIV-Displaced Children & Homelessness Among LGBTQ Youth in the Asian Community
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n a recent post on social media, actor Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-O) sent “a big shout out to all my brothers and sisters out there, well known or just starting out, who are working hard to do good work and make our voices heard.” Kim, who also appeared on Broadway in The King and I, refers to a New York Times article highlighting “Asian-American actors fighting for visibility.”
The post reminded me of something Amazin LeThi [A&U, September 2014] mentioned to me not that long ago. She reiterated the message quite recently, when I caught up with her this past May, while she was in Washington, D.C. May was AAPI (Asian/Pacific American) Heritage Month. It turns out that during AAPI month, GLAAD named Amazin LeThi one of seven Asian advocates who, alongside the likes of comedian Margaret Cho [A&U, September 2000], help advance LGBTQ equality.
“We’re [often made] invisible. In terms of the broader community, we’re not the first that people think of,” she says, talking about the Asian community. “The Asian community is not outspoken about LGBTQ issues, bullying, HIV,” LeThi also points out. “That’s the reason why I’m an HIV advocate, doing what I’m doing, in particular working in Asia with marginalized groups. It’s because Asian people, we don’t speak about these kinds of issues.” She pauses, as if to reflect on those words or maybe what she’s about to say next. “It is important to have these conversations in terms of HIV awareness, because particularly children are so marginalized if they’re living with HIV or are displaced by HIV.”
During her travels, especially when in Asia, she’s met LGBTQ youth, street kids, poor kids or those who’d been sex-trafficked. “But the saddest kids that I’ve ever met,” she says, “and that have absolutely no hope at all, are the kids that have been displaced by HIV.”
The first children displaced by HIV she’s ever met were in the care of another Vietnamese AIDS and LGBTQ youth advocate, Pham Thi Hue [A&U, April 2015] who has in her care several thousands of children displaced by HIV, and their grandparents. These children had lost their parents to the pandemic and had to face “a hideous amount of stigma and discrimination” because of that. The children were first left in the care of their grandparents who couldn’t even “fend for themselves, let alone take care of a child, and who now were having this new experience of trying to get educated about HIV.” Hence, the situation was near-hopeless and sad.
So LeThi decided to do something about it. She decided to use her foundation to give these children not only hope, but also the possibility of a bright new future, a template on how to succeed in life.
Two of the Amazin LeThi Foundation main programs include #VoiceWithAction Promise, and Teaching and Support—Leadership and Mentoring Program (T2S or Take It to the Streets).
The #VoiceWithAction program is an international anti-bullying youth campaign to raise awareness about LGBT issues across Asian communities that will launch after summer. Last year, LeThi’s foundation supported Act to Change, the White House’s first Asian American/Pacific Islanders anti-bullying campaign. LeThi’s own story is highlighted on the Act to Change website.
The Leadership and Mentoring Program will launch in August, in Haiphong, Vietnam, and then in at least five major cities in that country, including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. “The hope is for it to become a national program across Vietnam. Eventually, we hope to launch in other Asian countries,” LeThi says, commenting that next year, in 2017, she plans to bring the program to the States.
For the Leadership and Mentoring Program, LeThi’s foundation is working on the ground with Pham Thi Hue. It will also partner with VietPride and collaborate with Save the Children Foundation, “as they are working with LGBTQ street youth in Vietnam,” LeThi adds.
The weeklong program offers children and youth—Asian youth orphaned by AIDS and homeless LGBTQ youth ages eight to eighteen—a “template” to help them believe in themselves and succeed in life. LeThi expects some sixty to 100 participants in the first week, in Vietnam, depending on funding. In the U.S., the program will include smaller groups of twenty to forty children and youth who happen to be Asian American. “It will be a smaller number since we’ll not be including children living with HIV,” LeThi says. “As part of the leadership and mentoring side of the program we will work with the youth, and get them involved in community activities or have them engage with disabled or terminally ill children. I’m passionate about bringing joy to children in need and have youth engaged in activities where they find their voice and purpose in the community.”
She believes that it is important that youth work together, and plans on bringing into the program
other youth groups. This way Asian youth can learn from African-American and Latinx youth. They can work together towards finding a common voice and purpose, and building a broader community whose members, in turn can work together in particular when it comes to ending bullying.
“I think there’s a stereotype around the Asian community. That we’re such an affluent community,” LeThi says. Assuming this, people might question the need of programs such as the one she’s about to launch. “In terms of LGBTQ homeless youth, the Asian community makes up one or two percent of the LGBTQ homeless community. But the data might be incorrect, because we don’t [really] have hard data.”
The Leadership and Mentoring Program offers a mind, body and soul experience, and also education. “I think that is important,” LeThi comments, “because you’re not just half a person.” Also, for those reaching puberty and/or are at risk of contracting HIV, the program also provides sexual education classes.
The “language” used to communicate and educate, and also connect participants together is that of sports—soccer, to be exact. That’s because all Vietnamese children play soccer. “[Soccer] is really great for leadership and mentoring,” LeThi explains, “because it teaches so many different life skills in terms of leadership, goal setting, working as a team.”
But that’s not all. LeThi is a qualified health and fitness coach, so she will be looking at participants’ wellbeing in terms of health, fitness, and also nutrition, as well. “We’ll [also] be doing meditation and yoga,” she mentions. “I think we need to look at their psychological needs, because they’ve been through so much trauma at such a young age.” She explains that, while that trauma can become toxic, meditation can help calm their minds.
Also, next year she plans on adding other sports, like swimming, for example, in particular in Vietnam. The country is mostly surrounded by water, but the reality is that the majority of Vietnamese don’t know how to swim. Vietnam has one of the highest rates of drowning in Southeast Asia. “One [person] falls into the river, and then three other people go to save that person, and they all die, because none of them knows how to swim,” LeThi explains about a doubled need to promote swimming. Through her foundation, LeThi is working on having a national campaign around the importance of learning how to swim, in Vietnam.
As part of the Leadership and Mentoring Program, participants will also learn English. They will have the opportunity to meet with local and international business and world leaders, and visit different companies, to get a taste of what it would be like to work in such companies.
The goal is “to ignite the spark within the youth,” LeThi explains about the foundation’s new program, “to give them a template to work with in terms of where the youth can find different services.”
Participants will be evaluated throughout the program. Those who have done well can become leaders, themselves, within the program, and have the opportunity to take the program further. “And when we travel,” LeThi adds, “they would travel with us, and continue their leadership and share their stories. They can meet youth that are like [themselves] in other parts of the world. That [in turn would] give them work experience, and [purpose]. I think [having a purpose] is so important for their self-worth!”
One of Amazin LeThi’s ultimate goals is to become an HIV ambassador for one of the larger organizations, like UNAIDS, for example. And there’s a good reason for that. She needs a larger platform in order to better resonate the voice of children who are living with HIV or are affected by HIV, in particular in Asia. After all, when it comes to the number of HIV infections, Africa may come in first, but Asia is now in second place.
“It’s not just about educating the general public,” Amazin LeThi explains, speaking of HIV and AIDS in the Asian community in particular, “it’s also about having access to leaders of countries and change makers that can create policies and social change, to shift the conversation to end AIDS, social stigma, and discrimination. We need more voices, internationally. We need to find ways to share stories, so that we don’t become forgotten, so that these children don’t become more invisible than they already are, because many parts of Asia, including my country of Vietnam, are losing their HIV funding. And that becomes a very big issue. And how do you keep moving forward?”
Alina Oswald is the author of Journeys Through Darkness, a biography of artist Kurt Weston.