Fitness studios and gyms were designed to help people become healthier versions of themselves, but the truth is that most fitness spaces aren't accessible to everyone. In a community where Instagram influencers and fitness bros reign supreme, gyms and studios can feel really exclusionary to folks who don't fit into the narrow ideal of what a "person doing fitness" looks like.
As a queer, white, cisgender woman, I have an incredible amount of privilege. The gym spaces I feel comfortable in aren't going to be the same as what people of color, people with disabilities, and trans folks might feel comfortable in, but I've still had a hard time navigating a fitness scene where it sometimes feels like you need to be straight to fit in.
A welcoming gym space is important.
And it's especially crucial for the LGBTQ+ community, considering that we are at an increased risk for issues such as depression, anxiety, attempted suicide, and PTSD, all emotional health issues that exercise has been shown to help. A lot of gyms may claim to be "dedicated to offering the best possible experience," a "judgment-free zone," and a "supportive, welcoming gym community," but many one-size-fits-all spaces fall short when it comes to providing positive experiences for the queer community.
So in an effort to make a fitness space that was more inclusive and accessible for everybody, Nathalie Huerta opened Queer Gym in Oakland, CA, in 2010. "I grew up as an athlete and played basketball in college, but as I came into my identity as a lesbian and began presenting myself more masculinely, I began to feel less and less comfortable and safe in gyms—and I was a personal trainer," she says.
"So here I was as a person with knowledge about fitness, feeling out of place in regular gyms. I figured I couldn't be the only queer person having these negative experiences, so when my hunt for a queer-friendly gym came up short, I opened Queer Gym."
As Queer Gym's name suggests, the space primarily exists to give non-binary, agender, gender non-conforming, and queer folks a safe space to exercise.
And Queer Gym is not the only gym of its kind.
Naked in Motion hosts a monthly naked yoga class specifically for trans and cis women, and anyone assigned female at birth, Liberation Barbell is a Portland, OR, queer gym, and Transform Fitness Austin is a queer-friendly space in Austin, TX.
"Making sure your gym and fitness studio is actually inclusive takes more than just slapping on a rainbow flag or sticker or celebrating pride. It starts with understanding the LGBTQ+ community and doing the work to include those folks and make them feel safe in your language, coaching, signage, and advertisements," Huerta says.
Whether you're a gym owner, a fitness instructor, or a regular fitness class attendee, there are actionable ways you can help you make your fitness spaces more inclusive of and welcoming for trans and queer folks. Here's how to get started:
1. Ask people what their pronouns are.
It's not always possible to know a person's gender identity by looking at them. An easy way to avoid misgendering someone or gendering them without their consent is to use the third-person "they/them" and and to avoid gendered language such as "sir," "miss," "ladies," and "guys."
At Queer Gym, the trainers begin each class by going around and having everyone share their name and preferred pronouns. For example, "Hi, I'm Gabrielle Kassel, I'm from New York, and I use she/her or they/them pronouns."
Shana Sumer, Queer Gym member and head of community and social media at HER Social App, says she's noticed that discussing gender pronouns encourages people to share other important information about themselves with the trainer they may not have otherwise disclosed, like medical conditions or pregnancy.
2. Stop gendering exercises and fitness equipment.
"A barbell does not have a gender," Huerta says. "At most gyms, the 45-pound barbell is referred to as the men's barbell, while the 35-pound barbell is referred to as the women's barbell. There's no need to gender fitness equipment like that." Instead, the trainers at Queer Gym might suggest that folks with smaller hands use the 35-pound barbell, while folks with bigger hands use the 45-pound barbell.
Similarly, instead of assigning weight to the group of exercisers by gender, fitness instructors should rely on more fitness-based markers. "If you can run a mile in less than eight minutes, aim for 20 burpees per minute in this workout," would be a good replacement for the always irksome, "Guys, try to get 20 burpees per minute, and ladies, aim for 16."
"That's what I like about taking fitness classes that assign weight by strength—the emphasis is on feeling good in your body and what your body is able to do," Sumer says.
Another example: "Man-makers" (a challenging compound movement) can be called "homie-makers." "With language, it's the subtle things—but it goes a long way," Huerta says.
3. Hold each other (and yourself) accountable.
"If our trainers slip up and accidentally address the group as 'guys' or 'ladies,' the community at Queer Gym isn't afraid to call them out," Huerta says.
"It may sound awkward to call out your trainer or workout buddies when they accidentally gender something or say something 'off-color,' but it creates an environment of respect that makes everyone feel good," Sumer says.
4. Consider offering trans or queer-only classes.
"My gym has certain hours every week that are just for trans folks and women, and the place is always packed," says Liz Powell, PsyD, an LGBTQ-friendly sex educator, coach, and licensed psychologist.
5. Spend time clarifying your harassment policies.
"In Portland, OR, queer gyms are popping up everywhere, and I'm finding that they have better policies around harassment," Powell says. These policies address things such as cruising, hitting on other members, and staring, and they have zero tolerance for harassment. Um, can we get some of that everywhere?
"Has a fitness studio or gym ever walked you through their harassment policies before you signed up? Queer gyms usually will do that," Powell adds. Sharing a harassment policy becomes part of any member onboard process, and signs of the policy are posted around the gym for folks to read and be held accountable to.
6. Add a gender-neutral locker room.
Creating spaces that are more welcoming is crucial. Nothing compares to the anxiety and stress of using a locker room when you're gender non-conforming or transgender. Less-gendered options take away the possibility that someone will get accused of being in the "wrong" bathroom or, even worse, harmed or attacked for their gender presentation or sexuality.
7. Remove your mirrors (at least from some spaces).
While not having mirrors is certainly beneficial to queer and trans folks who may have a higher prevalence of body dysmorphia or image issues, Huerta says that's not the only reason Queer Gym doesn't have them.
"Most people don't know what they're looking at when they look in the mirror! Instead, we've implemented coaching—a coach is someone who can actually tell you how your form is looking."
8. Educate yourself and your staff.
"If your goal as a studio is to be more welcoming to trans and queer folks, you need to go out of your way to learn about the culture of those communities," Huerta says. That's why twice a year Queer Gym hosts a seminar where the community is educated about queer issues and culture, and folks are free to ask any questions they might have. Attending educational LGBTQ+-run events that are open to allies in your area can serve a similar purpose.
For the gym owners out there, Powell suggests hiring an LGBTQ+ liaison. "Often times, if a queer person has a problem or uncomfortable situation, they won't talk to the gym staff. Having someone on staff who is queer shows that you walk the walk as much as you talk the talk."
9. Rethink your signage and marketing.
"Gym marketing is very white, very cisgendered, and very able-bodied. It can be hard to see yourself in that space if you don't look that way—especially if you don't already have a six-pack like most of the models do," Powell says. "The marketing of queer gyms and fitness classes is typically more about loving the body you're in and getting healthier in that body. You can see it in the slogans, the advertisements, and the posters in the gym."
And if you're worried how this might affect your business, don't. "Every queer gym that I know of is thriving. The money is there. You just need to change your idea of who is paying money to go there," Powell says. Making your gym queer-friendly isn't just about getting queer people to join, it's about becoming a safe and welcoming place for those folks to work out and continue coming back.
Gabrielle Kassel is an athleisure-wearing, adaptogen-taking, left-swiping, CrossFitting, New York-based writer with a knack for thinking about wellness as a lifestyle. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books, bench-pressing, or practicing hygge. Follow her on Instagram.