During Pride Month, which took place in the midst of a global pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, athlete, activist, and motivational speaker Amazin LeThi partnered with The Advocate in a series of Instagram Live discussions with Asian actors and entertainers.
As a queer Vietnamese kid growing up in Australia, LeThi experienced firsthand how a lack of representation can affect people in her community, and has made it her mission to fight racism and elevate Asian and LGBTQ+ voices.
"When I was younger, I never saw an Asian person on TV; I never saw an LGBTQ person on TV," LeThi said during the IG Live series. "I always thought as an Asian LGBTQ person that my feelings were very singular — I was the only Asian LGBTQ person in the world.... [Now] there's some Asian kid watching Black Lighting, thinking 'I'm LGBTQ, and I can be a superhero.'"
The conversations included BD Wong, Leo Sheng, Leonardo Nam, Rain Valdez, and Jake Choi. Keep reading for some of the highlights, and visit The Advocate's IGTV channel for more.
Starting off the series, BD Wong from Jurassic Park, Mr. Robot, and Law & Order: SVU covered a wide range of topics, including the recent surge of anti-Asian racism in America during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's a really disturbing and terribly frustrating trend to be noticing, and yet it is up to us to take that trend and use it to try to raise awareness or create a dialogue about it, so people can understand the gravity of it," he said. "It's kind of a reminder that these things are always there festering, and our first step in dealing with it is acknowledging that it's an actual thing."
However, he was encouraged by the creativity he was seeing from artists in lockdown, and looked forward to the new conversations that would arise out of it. "I think the new wave of art that will come from this pandemic in general is going to be really fertile. That's the way humans are."
Transgender actor Leo Sheng, known for his role on The L Word: Generation Q, joined the IG Live series right after the Black Lives Matter movement started making headlines around the world. He had plenty to say about the crucial role of trans people, both in the Black community and as originators of Pride Month.
"As we know and as we have to learn, from either our own education or from Black and Brown trans people educating us, is the trans liberation movement was heralded by Black and Brown trans people, particularly Black and Brown trans women," he said.
Sheng also discussed the importance of casting transgender actors in transgender roles on TV and in movies, a debate that has included The L Word in the past. "We have so long seen cis women playing trans men, and whether or not that's a byproduct of the time these movies or TV shows were made, I think it still very much speaks to the fact that people are only recently understanding that gender isn't a costume."
Westworld star Leonardo Nam had a lot in common with LeThi from the start, as they're both Asian entertainers from Australia. They had an in-depth discussion about why representation in media is so important, not only on screen but also among the executives making decisions in Hollywood.
"It really does come from changing of the guard, and hopefully now in this post-COVID world, we're going to see accountability," he said. "People say 'We have Crazy Rich Asians, we have this one thing' — that's the token example. We need to keep striving for finding ways to amplify our voices with excellent storytelling. The fact that the Oscars or the Emmys do not really show Asian faces is reflective of the guardship that is up there."
He also encouraged artists and creators to keep putting their stories out there, even if they don't get it right the first time. "The first pancake you make is going to burn, it's going to be a weird shape, but you've just got to toss it (or eat it) and understand that that's not the one. The second one is better, and the third's even better. People need to get it out and not be dismayed by the journey."
Transparent producer and actor Rain Valdez joined LeThi on the series on the same day the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex — a major victory for the LGBTQ+ community.
"Today's such a historical moment and this week has been so rough, so I want people to understand that it's okay to find joy in your life, because joy is experiencing love, and living is a revolutionary act," she said. "We're doing all of this in baby steps, unfortunately, but we are getting there."
While the fight for transgender rights continues, Valdez hoped that people with disabilities would soon be given the same support. "People with disability need time and attention, and I hope that we can fold them into our movement as well. People with disability face so much more than just job discrimination and housing discrimination — they can barely go to restaurants unless it's equipped to handle their situation."
Single Parents star Jake Choi was the final guest in the series, and he bonded with LeThi over their shared experiences in sports before becoming advocates and entertainers.
"When I went to Korea to play [basketball] for Yonsei University, the culture was toxic in a different way [than American sports], but not so much toxic masculinity," he said. "A lot of my teammates actually had a lot of feminine side to them, and they were very comfortable showing that to each other."
He also looked back on the emotional experience of giving a speech at the Human Rights Campaign's Columbus, Ohio dinner in 2019, where he received the Visibility Award. "It was nerve-wracking. It was in front of many people, I'd never really given any speech like that. I was trying to tell myself, okay, you're probably going to get emotional when you get to the youth, so don't get emotional, just get through the speech. And then of course the more you try to fight that, it's harder to control. [...] I was speaking from the heart, but I feel like a lot of people were able to relate with things that they went through personally."