Accessing and navigating fitness spaces as a trans or nonbinary person can sometimes be challenging. This section gives tips and tools to help you have positive fitness experiences.
Information and Recommendations for Community Members
Are you interested in learning what you can do to make your gym a better place? Do you want to start going to a gym but feel intimidated or have had pretty negative experiences in the past? This guide can help!
In 2018, we designed and delivered a community survey for 2SLGBTQ+ folks to better understand their fitness experiences, with a focus on what contributes to good or bad experiences in the gym, as well as what might prevent 2SLGBTQ+ folks from going to gyms or fitness spaces.
Responses came from across North America and represented a diverse range of community members. Throughout this guide, we’ve taken the common themes which emerged from their survey responses to provide useful tips you can use when considering accessing new physical fitness spaces or services or making improvements to the one you currently use. By the end of this guide, you should have a better idea of:
- What questions to ask of a new fitness space or provider
- What to look for when considering a new fitness space or service
- What you should be able to expect from the fitness spaces and services you use
- Tools available to help you identify and ask for changes when needed
What did people say? What gyms can I go to? How the heck do I figure this out?
We did get some information about safer gyms and trainers, but a lot more of the comments we heard were about the people who worked in the spaces. It seems that, by and large, inclusive staff and management create inclusive spaces. Finding a gym with the right people to meet your personal training or group fitness needs can be pretty hard but it’s not impossible! Just look at our survey results. About a third of respondents reported having had positive experiences with personal trainers, and nearly half had found group fitness classes that they enjoyed. So, despite the challenges, people are doing it. It is possible!
When exploring what respondents said contributed to a positive fitness experience, we heard the same things over and over:
- Body positive environment: In personal training, people preferred when they were helped to meet their own goals, without immediately focussing on weight loss. In group fitness, people enjoyed having modifications offered throughout the class for a variety of body types and dis/abilities, other patrons and trainers had diverse body types, and people were able to work out without fear of judgement.
- Queer- and trans-friendly environment: People had good fitness experiences when gendered language was not used, when pronouns and preferred names were respected, and when they didn’t feel judged or harassed because of their identity.
- Honouring the reason people were there to work out: While some respondents wanted to achieve weight loss goals or preferred a more competitive environment, many others weren’t interested in weight loss, preferred to feel supported, and only wanted to be pushed as hard as they were ready for. Working together with trainers to set and achieve a client’s own personal fitness goals, whatever they were, was a key factor that contributed to a positive fitness experience.
While these factors may not come as a surprise while you read them, it can be helpful to hear others’ experiences to know what questions to ask while you are looking for a fitness space. Here are some we suggest as starting points; if staff or trainers at a gym or fitness space you’re considering are unwilling or unable to answer these questions you can use that to inform your choice.
- How will you build your plan for me? When can we sit down to talk about my goals before we start?
- Can we include exercises I will be able to continue on my own with no or minimal equipment?
- Do you focus on weight loss with many of your clients? How do you decide whether or not this is a goal?
- How do you motivate your clients? What comes naturally to you? I want to make sure our styles and needs will be a good fit.
- What experience have you had working with [trans/queer/gay/etc] clients?
Group fitness spaces
- How do your trainers motivate people during classes?
- What are the policies around touch and physical corrections during classes? How can I bring it up if a trainer breaks these policies during class?
- Are classes gendered?
- Have your trainers had education on using gender-neutral and body-positive language?
- Are movement modifications offered throughout all classes for different body shapes and fitness abilities? Will I be trusted to modify slightly to fit my body or take short breaks if my body needs it without being singled out by the trainer?
You can also consider doing research online before reaching out to trainers or trying out gyms. A few respondents mentioned doing this and generally had good experiences with people and places that explicitly advertised themselves as queer- and trans-friendly and body-positive.
Is it normal to want a safe place to work out? Am I asking too much?
YES! It is absolutely normal and you are not asking too much! Just look at our survey responses. The vast majority of respondents said it was important for them to be able to access all-gender change rooms, for spaces to have clear harassment guidelines that are communicated and enforced, and to have gender-inclusive intake forms. In fact, most of our respondents identified all these inclusive practices as ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ important:
Yes, that all does sound important! But my gym doesn’t have any of this stuff and I don’t want to change gyms.
Good news – there are lots of ways your gym can improve and learn, some of which can be done pretty quickly at limited cost! When speaking with a staff member from your gym, here are some things to consider:
- Regardless of who you talk to, make sure you have concrete suggestions for what changes you’d like to see made in the space to make it more inclusive; and how those changes will benefit you and other 2SLGBTQ+ community members. Consider asking for some of the changes detailed above or reference some of the experiences that survey respondents reported as contributing to positive fitness experiences for them.
- Is there a specific staff member or owner/manager you feel comfortable bringing this to? If so, start by chatting with them. If you are comfortable speaking with multiple staff members, consider talking to someone who can make the changes you’re asking for.
- Do you have friends or allies who attend the same gym/fitness space? Can they help you advocate for the changes you want to see, particularly if staff and management appear less receptive to change?
- What information is most likely to influence the actions of staff, owners, and management? Will they be most interested in statistics demonstrating the size of the 2SLGBTQ+ population to show how many people might be impacted by changes?? Would they be more interested in articles that demonstrate the importance of trauma informed practice, disability awareness, or body-positivity for working with queer and trans clients? Bring whatever information you feel will influence decision makers to implement the changes you want. One helpful tool might be the Audit Tool and Recommendations for Change we developed for fitness professionals. This tool is a self-assessment that staff and owners can fill out on their own, so they can identify and respond to areas of improvement themselves.
- If this seems like too much for you to do on your own, connect with the EMHC or your local pride or 2SLGBGTQ+ organization to get support! Find allies. Find people who have time and energy and expertise. Have a support system of people to help you advocate for the change you want to see at your fitness facility.
What are some concrete suggestions? Putting up signs, sure, but how can I ask for people to stop being fatphobic etc.?
I’m glad you asked. Let’s talk first about Health At Every Size (HAES), since some of the biggest concerns that we saw in the community survey were fatphobia and body shaming. HAES is a movement encouraging radical self-love and acceptance. As stated on their website, they have three core components:
“Respect: Celebrates body diversity; Honors differences in size, age, race, ethnicity, gender, dis/ability, sexual orientation, religion, class, and other human attributes.
“Critical Awareness: Challenges scientific and cultural assumptions; Values body knowledge and people’s lived experiences.
“Compassionate Self-Care: Finding the joy in moving one’s body and being physically active; Eating in a flexible and attuned manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite, while respecting the social conditions that frame eating options.”
This is an exciting concept/movement with lots of support from major health organizations. HAES is also supported by research as being the safest way for folks living with eating disorders to re-integrate physical activity into their lives. Check out this blog post from Obesity Canada about HAES and some FAQ’s. If you want to learn more about this, you can check out their resources and the Association for Size Diversity and Health. There are online training programs for HAES and similar body-positive philosophies, and you can encourage your gym to do some research!
A second tricky section is trauma-informed practice (also referred to as trauma-informed care) – we know that many of our community members have experienced trauma, and things such as touch without consent, microaggressions, and misgendering can continue to enact that trauma. We also know that a lot of people think this is either not their problem (“How does that matter when you’re lifting weights?”) or are unsure what it means.
As Alberta Health Services (AHS) puts it, trauma informed care is “[understanding] how common trauma is and how it affects people. Then … [putting] that knowledge into practice in your work.” It’s not a specialized skill set for therapists or health care professionals; we can ask something as simple as some self-education and compassion from anyone in our circles, including gym or fitness staff! AHS has a great series of online modules that you can tell your gym about, and local organizations may offer in-person training if your gym prefers that.
For 2SLGBTQ+ specific needs, any of the items from the above graph could be great starting points for concrete change. If you’re looking for more suggestions or a way to help evaluate your favourite gym to help them improve, we do have a Space Audit Tool designed for community members to use and then discuss with your gym! There’s also a Space Audit Tool designed for fitness professionals that looks at more different items, and in more detail, that you could propose to your gym as a tool for change. You can also direct your change-maker to our survey analysis and guide for fitness professionals, where they can find more in-depth analysis and a variety of specific changes!
…This seems like a lot.
You’re right, this is a lot of work and sometimes it can be easier to just … not address it. That’s a valid tactic: several of our survey respondents said they had good experiences with personal training or group classes, but presented in their expected gender and/or explicitly didn’t come out to stay safe and just be able to get through their fitness. If that works better for you right now, that is entirely okay and we wish you continued safety in your fitness and movement journey!
If you just want to take the top two sections of this document and use the information to help you find somewhere that is already safe for you to work out, that is also entirely okay. We are crossing our fingers for you to find a place where you can experience joy in moving your body!
If you do want to make change but don’t have the energy, or if this is overwhelming and you have more questions, please feel free to reach out to EMHC or your local pride or 2SLGBGTQ+ organization for clarifications and/or help. We want enough inclusive workout and fitness spaces that this is no longer a problem, and it takes a village!