Our appearance is one of the most central aspects of our individual identity; we use how we look to express the most fundamental aspects of our self, including how we present our gender and sexuality.
So when I heard about a queer gym that didn't have a single mirror inside, I had to see it firsthand.
The Perfect Sidekick (also known as the "Queer Gym")—the country's first LGBTQ gym, according to founder Nathalie Huerta—is an Oakland workout space where more than 150 local queer folk have been staying active and building community since 2010. "Our mission is to make happy, healthy homos (and, yes, straight people can come too)," as Huerta put it in a promo video. "If you're looking to get swole with a bunch of homos and homies, you've found the right gym." But more than that, Huerta's space is disrupting and challenging gym culture (and gay gym culture, to boot) in a way few others are today.
Of course, whether officially or more informally known as such, there have been gay gyms since time immemorial. David Barton Gym—where "drag queens worked out in platform heels" and "locker rooms doubled as hookup joints," as the New York Times noted—may be the best-known among them, but from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Chicago and everywhere in between, any decently sized urban core of gay men will likely sport a "gay" gym nearby. But gay men represent just one letter of the LGBTQ umbrella. Inclusivity, on the other hand, is at the core of The Perfect Sidekick's mission—a goal it becomes obvious they're meeting after just one visit to the space.
At a fitness class there earlier this month, I saw people of all body types and gender presentations meet under one roof to break a sweat.
What becomes striking about a place like the Perfect Sidekick isn't how inclusive it is—an effort that, by all measures, should be celebrated—but what its existence points out about how little other gyms understand queer identity.
It's not that "normal" gyms aren't inclusive, per se. Many gyms across the nation welcome clients with open arms: Planet Fitness famously claims to be a "judgement free zone," and Anytime Fitness may be a "supportive, welcoming gym community," but "one size fits all" gyms don't often work out that way in practice. For people who may already feel excluded or marginalized on a day-to-day basis, the heightened aesthetic and physical pressure of massive gyms may end up exacerbating those feelings. That's part of why the Perfect Sidekick has no mirrors—by de-emphasizing the aesthetics of fitness, the gym cuts down on that physical pressure.
Huerta isn't the only one to capitalize on that disparity. A slew of LGBTQ personal trainers are advertising the inclusivity of their services, offering to help queer clients navigate gyms and workouts in a way that's right for them. While it's not an LGBTQ-specific gym, City Gym in Kansas City, Missouri, was "born with the belief that a gym should be more than a place to work out—it should be a place to belong," as owner Hailee Bland-Walsh said in a commercial spotlighting Jacob, a transgender patron who says he found an inclusive place to work out there.
For the Perfect Sidekick trainer Kendra Campbell, working out at mainstream gyms exposed her to gendered assumptions people make based purely on aesthetics. "For me, especially being a lesbian who's more on the masculine side, it's awkward to go into a [normal] gym; everyone stares at you," Campbell said. She noted that males struggled to appropriately interact with her and would attempt to "bro-out" and bond with her over what they saw as a shared male identity—when, in reality, Campbell's identity falls outside that.
"They want that bond with another male in the gym, but they're not going to necessarily approach another female unless they're trying to check them out or get in their pants," Campbell said.
As a more masculine presenting lesbian—and a female who lifts weights—Campbell challenges society's assumptions about how queer (and non-queer) females work out, what they wear, and how they look. At the Perfect Sidekick, she says those assumptions fall away. "Environment is huge," Campbell said. "This place gives you a space to be whatever. You're ultimately here for yourself, and that's what working out should be. And then you get a great community out of it."
For Danny Ceballos, a member at the Perfect Sidekick for the past five years, the objectification one can often experience at other gay-friendly gyms led him to seek out alternatives. Even if "gay" gyms are queer-friendly, "there's still the whole locker room mentality, especially for the men," Ceballos said. "It's always about who's bigger, stronger."
The Perfect Sidekick aims to address the needs of queer folk front and center, while taking pains to acknowledge and validate a wide spectrum of identities. Coaches undergo sensitivity training before working with clients, covering topics like preferred pronouns, asking for permission to touch another's body, and tweaking gendered terminology to be more tolerant. Instead of "calling [an exercise] a 'man-maker,' I'm gonna call that a 'homie-maker,'" Campbell said as an example. "Always making a conscious effort to do that is huge."
It's easy for each of us to over-simplify, generalize and undercut queer identities, no matter how we identify. It might not be obvious when we do it, but when we do—if we make assumptions about someone's gender identity, for example, or what their fitness goals may be—we discount the vast spectrum of queer identities. Doing that in public is one thing, but doing it in a workout space, where one is already vulnerable, can leave them incredibly exposed.
Gyms like the Perfect Sidekick are hoping to bridge that gap in awareness and inclusivity. It's a heavier issue than you may think—one that demands you pick it up, bear its weight, and learn to embrace the slow burn of inclusivity.
Camila Martinez-Granata is a Bay Area–based writer.