In the lead-up to every American presidential election we hear a lot about the "humble beginnings" of those seeking to take up residence at the White House. When Amazin LêThi stepped foot inside the White House for its Forum on Global LGBT Rights last year, it was the culmination of a journey that started from true humble beginnings.
LêThi was adopted by her European mother and Australian father from a Vietnamese orphanage as a child, and brought back to Australia to live on Sydney's North Shore. She said the Australia she knew then was very different to the one she knows now.
"I suffered a terrible amount of racism through my childhood and teenage years," she explained.
“I’d come at a time when there were a lot of new communities arriving in Australia - the Vietnamese, the Chinese. There isn’t an Asian slur that you can say to me now that I hadn’t heard in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.”
LêThi said she developed a very low self-worth, especially given she was living away from large parts of the Vietnamese population in Sydney.
“I didn’t have a high opinion of myself. I don't remember ever meeting another Vietnamese person as a child and I wanted to have an impact and show that the Vietnamese could be good people," she said.
At the age of six she took up bodybuilding which, despite being an unusual choice for someone so young, LêThi said proved both a haven and a potential ticket out of Australia.
“It sounds cliché, but I had heard the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger and how someone in a small town could see the world through bodybuilding. I thought, ‘maybe that could be me?’,” she said.
“It was the only story I could latch onto. Even now we don’t have many Asian rolemodels when we watch TV. So I just randomly latched on to Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
She eventually started competing professionally and used the platform to champion change for LGBT youth, becoming an ambassador with the "Athlete Ally" initiative. Created by American collegiate wrestler and coach Hudson Taylor, Athlete Ally is a non-profit organisation that produces public awareness campaigns, educational programming and resources to foster inclusive sports communities. Hudson, who is not gay, started the organisation after observing wide-spread homophobic language during his sporting career. Other ambassadors include Australian rugby player David Pocock and basketball player Lauren Jackson.LêThi no longer competes professionally, instead spending the majority of her time on advocacy work and managing the Amazin LêThi Foundation, which runs sports and education programs for homeless LGBT youth and children living with HIV.
This year she partnered with Viet Pride to provide vocational scholarships to two Vietnamese transgender youth, and next year plans to launch the organisation's flagship LGBT educational program in Chicago, USA.
“I always felt marginalised - all the leaders I’ve worked with in Asia and the West have felt marginalised in some way. It gives you a sense of compassion and understanding. So, when I launched my organisation, I thought about who I could make the most impact with, and two of the most marginlised groups are homeless LGBT youth and children living with HIV," she said.
“The funding for these particular groups isn’t there globally. LGBT youth make up such a small per cent of the population but they make up a large part of the homeless population."
Her advocacy work caught the attention of the nephew of American gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, Stuart Milk, who invited her to last year's White House Forum on Global LGBT Rights as a guest of the Harvey Milk Foundation, which he co-founded.
“It was amazing to meet all these incredible advocates from around the world, particularly one of the activists from Uganda. To meet people like that from countries where their lobbying could get them killed was very humbling,” she said.
“As an advocate, you can’t always see what you’re doing, you’re not always connected to the people you’re trying to help. When you go to events like that, you realise what you’re doing is important.”
"When you look at the statistics around discrimination and violence that LGBT youth suffer when they go into ordinary shelters, you realise that they have very specific needs."
The forum also allowed LêThi to meet personally with US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr Jill Biden, in the library of their official residence, the Naval Observatory Residence, following the White House event.
"It was one of those incredible moments. [Joe Biden] gave an amazing speech in support of LGBT and human rights, and I had a few moments to talk to him about my work before we took a photo - which is now on my phone background as a bit priceless moment and reminder," she said.
LêThi plans to launch some of her foundation's LGBT homeless youth programs in Australia in the next two years following more work in the US and Vietnam. Further down the track, she hopes the organisation can work on the development of an LGBT-inclusive school.
"When you look at the statistics around discrimination and violence that LGBT youth suffer when they go into ordinary [homeless] shelters, you realise that they have very specific needs," she said.
"In countries that have LGBT schools, you see how they flourish. It’s not about segregating youth; in the same way we have boys schools, girls schools and Catholic schools, LGBT youth need places that can cater to these specific needs.”