Half a year after my CrossFit gym’s annual Pride Month WOD (or “workout of the day“), the last rainbow-heart sticker fell off the sign by the kettlebells and was promptly discarded.
The mindless disposal illustrates a phenomenon in the fitness scene (particularly in boutique studios), that needs to change: While many gyms host inclusivity themed events during Pride Month in June, overall it feels like the spaces and its trainers could do more to be LGBTQ+ friendly throughout the year.
“From the physical environment and the bathroom setup to the energy of the gym’s community and the overall vibe, there are a lot of reasons LGBTQ+ folks wouldn’t feel comfortable in a ‘normal’ gym,” says Dirk Smith, the personal trainer who founded Stonewall Fitness to unite the LGBTQ+ community through exercise.
“From the physical environment and the bathroom setup to the energy of the gym’s community and the overall vibe, there are a lot of reasons LGBTQ+ folks wouldn’t feel comfortable in a ‘normal’ gym.” —Dirk Smith, personal trainer and LGBTQ+ advocate
Rena McDaniel, licensed clinical counselor and sex therapist agrees. “Gyms are often a site of toxic masculinity, gender microaggressions, policing of bodies and what bodies look like, and harassment,” she says. While unpleasant for all people, these realities can also be straight-up unsafe for queer and trans people.
And when gyms and workout studios are LGBTQ+ inclusive, everyone really wins because the result is a space that’s positive, welcoming, and celebratory of all people.
With that in mind, check out a number of ways fitness spaces can support an inclusive vibe all year long.
7 LGBTQ+ inclusive features all gyms should have.
1. An exercise area without mirrors
“Sure, mirrors in a gym have a practical purpose: to check your form. But a lot of people aren’t looking in the mirror to check their form. They’re looking at their bodies,” says Smith. While feeling yourself is great when you like and feel empowered by the reflection, it’s not a reality for many people who suffer from body-image issues like body dysmorphia. That’s why McDaniel says having the option to check yourself out while working out—or not—is so helpful.
Trainer Lore McSpadden, founder of inclusivity brand Positive Force Movement, adds that completely removing mirrors isn’t a great solution considering many people do rely on them. “My current suggestion for mirrors in fitness facilities is to have some—but to have them curtained,” they say. “This way, the curtains can be pulled aside in order to use them when appropriate, and otherwise kept covered.”
2. Marketing that’s thoughtful and intentional
“Most trans and queer people will assume that companies’ diversity initiatives do not include them unless it is specifically stated otherwise through sign verbiage and marketing materials,” McSpadden says. “That’s why, if your facility is prepared to provide a safe and celebratory environment for people of all genders and sizes, it is important that you explicitly state and visually cue that that is the case.” And, of course, ensure that an inclusive reality backs up that message.
3. Queer and trans staff members
“Who you hire can help change who that gym feels safe and welcoming for,” says Smith. And it makes sense: Visual cues are very much a part of feeling entrenched in a community. “It’s helpful to know I’m not going to be the first queer person this gym community has seen,” McDaniel says.
4. Trans, LGBTQ+, and women’s-only fitness classes
“I love knowing that I can walk into those classes without having to worry about hearing gendered, sexist phrases that are common in male-dominant gyms,” says McDaniel of her experience.
Still, it’s vital that women and members of the LGBTQ+ community know they’re welcome and safe at any class on the schedule. And ultimately, that reality just comes down to the overall culture at the gym.
5. An avoidance of gender-specific language
Ever walked into a fitness class and heard “hey, guys!” or “welcome, ladies!”? According to McSpadden, this is super problematic. “It can peak dysphoria and body-image issues in nonbinary folks and trans folks during a time when they are already engaged in the vulnerable process of being physically active in a public space.”
As a trainer, staff member, or fellow gym-mate, using gender-neutral they/them pronouns is an easy way to promote inclusivity and avoid mis-gendering people.
6. Either a gender-neutral dress code or none at all
Some gyms, particularly “big-box” chain gyms, have a dress code. For example, the chain space I visit when I’m home for the holidays has an illustrated sign in the locker rooms about what women can and cannot wear. On it, there’s a big X over a woman in a midriff-bearing top, another X over the image of a woman in booty shorts, and a third X over the character in flip-flops.
But truthfully, there’s no reason for the dress code to be this gendered, says McDaniel. “It just needs to keep people safe.” (Okay, so fine. The flip-flops rule can stand.)
7. A gender-neutral locker room
“If the only locker-room options are male or female locker rooms, that can be very, very scary—especially for those who have endured bullying, ridicule, and assault or harassment in these spaces previously,” says Smith. Plus, if a gym doesn’t have a gender-netural restroom, many trans people may fail to properly hydrate while training in order to decrease the risk that they will need to use a gendered bathroom, McSpadden says. This can increase the risk of a number of health concerns like dehydration and rhabdomylosis.
Smith says there are a few options for ameliorating this: Make all locker rooms gender neutral, add a third locker room that’s gender neutral, combine existing locker rooms to make one giant gender-neutral space, or convert the staff bathroom into a gender-neutral stall.
“Ultimately, the fitness industry has a lot of work to do in order to truly be a welcoming, safe, and celebratory environment for queer and trans folks,” says McSpadden. “But fitness studios shouldn’t wait to get started. They should get started now and commit to continuously doing better.”
Because yes, creating a more inclusive fitness space will positively impact everyone. But doing it for the sake of queer and trans people is certainly reason enough.
For a fitness community that’s not down with LGBTQ+ discrimination, consider trying CrossFit. Or check out this art project, inspired by the stereotype of the Pilates body.
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