The Queer Personal Trainers Tackling Heteronormativity One Deadlift at a Time

"We know our community has more trauma around body dysmorphia and greater likelihood of depression… understanding it will go a long way in creating a culture of inclusivity."

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Nov 29 2018, 8:29pm

Left to right: Lore McSpadden (photo courtesy of McSpadden), Gus Lanza (photo by Matt Baume), Nathalie Huerta (photo courtesy of Huerta)

For many queer people, it can be difficult to work on their personal fitness. There are often gendered restrooms, intake forms that don’t create space for one’s identity, and gendered language on gym equipment. Not to mention the potential for harassment and the equally intrusive prospect of gym staff who don’t know how to handle it.

Working with a queer personal trainer, however, allows the possibility of working with a person who understands all of this and knows the personal strains such a space can elicit. In fact, in their practices many have worked toward actively combating hyper-gendered fitness narratives to create radically inclusive spaces where everyone can feel welcome.

We spoke to several queer trainers across North America who not only seek to empower queer, trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people in their practices, but who offered suggestions for making gyms fear and judgement-free zones, shared how personal training has affected their own fitness experiences, and gave insights into the experience of being queer in the often heteronormative fitness industry.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

A person holding some kind of hammer
Photo courtesy of Lore McSpadden

Lore McSpadden, Owner and CEO of Positive Force Movement
Rochester, New York
They/Them/Theirs

VICE: What made you want to become a personal trainer?
Lore McSpadden: I had been a fairly mediocre athlete in middle school and high school followed by years of being very sedentary, struggling to be present in my body as someone who does experience gender dysphoria. Any attempt at movement originated from that shame-based space of “I should do this, I should look like that.” That all-or-nothing thinking with shame as a motivator is not effective at creating long-term healthy change. I just wanted to find a way of moving that I didn’t completely hate so I could figure out what it means to have a flourishing relationship with my body. I have now sustained a relationship to movement that is joyful and celebratory. It was a way of being radically present in my body from a place that showed love for my body with my actions even when I couldn’t manifest that with my mind. And I was like, how many people feel that, particularly within the trans community, particularly within communities of folks who have survived trauma or who in any way have bodies that are marginalized? So many of us move through the world really struggling with being at home in our bodies. What I do is 100 percent focused on helping folks feel at home in their body, recognizing that overlap between the physical and the political, between kindness and strength, vulnerability and strength.

What made you decide to specialize in working with the queer community?
Having grown up in an area that was conservative and religious in a way that didn’t celebrate queer and trans folks, some of the teachings I was exposed to were very much that who I was was a shameful person. Moving through some of the shame but still having the fear is part of the reason why one of my several certifications is trauma informed fitness professional. Some of the ways movement benefits our health is in that very deeply holistic way of practicing embodying empowerment. That we will gain strength very literally by doing things you’ve never done before and then recovering from it. When we practice that in a physical way, that carries over into the rest of life. A lot of my desire to work with a lot of queer folks and trans folks is directly connected to my hope that I can equip folks who have been marginalized or have any reason to silence the truth of who they are with that deep empowerment where the physical strength is not the be-all end all of it. The physical strength is the catalyst of the deeper transformation for self-advocacy and [for] others who are vulnerable.

A person sits on a bench with boxing tape around their hands
Photo courtesy of Nathalie Huerta

Nathalie Huerta, Founder and CEO of the Queer Gym
Oakland, California
She/Her/Hers

VICE: What experiences led you to start the Queer Gym?
Nathalie Huerta: I was feminine presenting so right there I dealt with the typical experience straight women have at the gym, which is uncomfortable. I was also significantly overweight. I lost the weight, I started to get more comfortable expressing myself in a masculine way, and during that transition from feminine presenting to masculine presenting is really where the gym got really weird. The gym went from a place where I loved to go, to being a place I didn’t wanna go because I didn’t wanna deal with those stares in the locker room, I didn’t wanna deal with the guys in the weight room, I didn’t wanna be bothered with my girlfriend when we go in there to work out or being told I’m in the wrong bathroom. It got to the point where I was trying to find anywhere to work out where I didn’t feel so shitty just based on my gender expression. I was like, I can’t be the only queer person having this shitty experience, so I’m gonna start my own shit and see what happens. We’ve been open almost nine years.

How can a trainer make their fitness practice more inclusive?
Unfortunately many certifications mostly deal with anatomy and science, as they should, but they’re definitely lacking in other areas like inclusivity and harassment. One, I would say language—just simply asking for pronouns as part of the conversation. From the language on the intake forms to addressing the clients openly. Things like referring to your class like “good job guys”—that binary language, there’s really no need for it. Also when it comes to certain exercises or equipment, for example, man makers, which is an exercise name, or Superman. We just scratch those out and man makers we call homie makers, and superman we call superpeople. It doesn’t hurt to have a rainbow flag or a little rainbow sticker on your door or on your website but take it a step further by having gender neutral restrooms that have that signage and doing your homework on certain communities that you serve. We know our community has more trauma around body dysmorphia and greater likelihood of depression… understanding it will go a long way in creating a culture of inclusivity.

a man lifting a kettlebell
Photo by Matt Baume

Gus Lanza, Owner of Bedrock Strength and Conditioning
Seattle
He/Him/His

VICE: How do your experiences in the queer community affect the way you want to work with clients?
Gus Lanza: In talking about being a queer person, it’s one facet of people’s identity. When you’re coming into a gym environment, especially when the people know I’m a queer trans person, generally gender is not a big discussion of what we talk about. More often, it allows them to forget about that for a bit and focus on other areas of their life that maybe don’t get as much attention. They can focus on dealing with work stress and how do they relieve that, depression and anxiety, building up confidence, having more energy throughout the day and sleeping better at night. It’s funny, I was thinking about my own experiences, whenever I know that somebody else is queer or trans, it’s almost like you can breathe easy and that’s the last thing you need to talk about because there’s a base level of understanding around that. It becomes a non-issue.

How do you tailor your workouts to your clients in the queer community?
A lot of people, for various reasons like money and fear of going into a gendered space like a gym, prefer to work out at home. What I usually do is when I’m tailoring my workouts to people, we’ll use equipment when we’re in the gym but then when I send them home with homework I say this is how you do this at home with no equipment. We’ll get really creative in designing the workouts for home or the park so that it can still feel like they have progress and momentum around making exercise a part of their lives. I’m hoping too when people work with me and they see the gym and they see a lot of what’s intimidating—yes, it’s a very heteronormative, aggressive feeling environment, but a lot of that dissipates if you know what you’re doing and you can keep your headphones on, come in, just get your work done, and then leave.

A person photographed from the waist up
Photo by Andrea Beça

Kyle Fairall, Founder and Executive Director, QUEERFLEX Canada
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
They/Them/Theirs

VICE: What made you decide to become a personal trainer, and then to open your own gym?
Kyle Fairall: QUEERFLEX started in late 2016 kind of as a response to my own needs as a non-binary person not being met in the gym. I came out as non-binary in 2013 and in that whole process I really leaned hard on fitness and movement to start to understand what that meant in my body and reconnecting with my body. Going to gyms and typical fitness spaces or studios, I wasn’t having really great experiences with those spaces being affirming and sometimes even accepting of my identity. [I] was like, I’m not getting what I need from these spaces so I’m just going to fulfill that dream and open my own gym.

How were your needs not being met?
The fitness industry and wellness spaces are quite gendered, from questions on the intake forms not being reflective of my gender identity to talking with trainers about specific things I wanted to work on within my body. I’ve had several personal trainers and very poor experiences with all of them when it came to getting why my name legally on the contract is one thing but the name that I’m asking them to call me is different and them not understanding or even wanting to really understand what that was about; to having to explain pronouns and constantly having to correct them; to being misgendered by staff in the gym; to going in and not having bathrooms or change rooms that fit with my identity; all the way to actually being harassed on the gym floor. There was one individual who I asked if I could work in on a piece of machinery and this guy lost his mind on me and called me an “it.” I [went] to the staff at the gym to help me and they didn’t know what to do.

How did you work to make QUEERFLEX into the inclusive space you felt was missing?
We actually developed an entire training program around this for other trainers and gyms that are looking to be more inclusive and affirming and create safer spaces for their queer, trans, and non-binary staff and clients. We looked at everything a person could experience accessing a gym space, from walking in the front door to how they’re greeted. We don’t use gendered greetings here because we don’t want to assume what somebody’s gender or experience of those things might be. Our safer space guidelines, which we call our house rules, talk a lot about [how] you have autonomy over your own body. We encourage people not to make assumptions on other people’s identities. We also come from a “health at every size” perspective, which I think is really important because at QUEERFLEX we really honor the fact that LGBTQ+ accessibility doesn’t just end at gender identity and sexual orientation, it also encompasses many other intersecting parts of our identities that impact the way that we experience our bodies. We don’t tolerate any forms of harassment or discrimination based on gender, ability, race, socioeconomic status, and we honor the fact that we don’t know what somebody’s experiences with trauma might be. We build those into our actual safer space guidelines and the policies we use when working with people. We have a space on our forms for people to put whatever name that they go by, we ask folks for pronouns. Our emergency contact information that we ask people for—we are really intentional about asking to make sure that whoever you’ve got listed, it’s okay that we use the name that you go by with your pronoun so we don’t unintentionally out somebody. We ask about things like gender affirming practices, we give folks information on how to train if they’re wearing a binder, and more. We have all of our trainers trained on supporting folks who use different gender affirming practices as well as physiological considerations to make for people who might be on hormones. We also have the gender inclusive change room. All of our washrooms are gender inclusive and accessible andour entire space is supportive of that level of accessibility.

Follow Elyssa Goodman on Twitter.

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