This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
For most people, going to the gym can be quite a painful process. Not only do you have to rub shoulders with sweaty bodies which are exponentially firmer than your own, but you’ll have to do so in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, in which your own red face will inevitably catch eyes with random guys’ sex faces as they pound that last bicep curl. But for a small minority of people, the gym isn’t just a sweaty pit designed to make you feel physically inferior, it can be a place where your whole sense of identity is challenged and put into question.
For non-binary and gender non-conforming folk, the idea of a hyper-gendered space such as a gym is something many choose to avoid. Simply entering into such a strict binary environment is mistakenly taken as an invite for strangers to police your gender. And while many restaurants, schools, and businesses are waking up to the struggles of non-binary and gender non-conforming people and putting in measures to make life easier for them, including gender neutral bathrooms and gender neutral service in restaurants, it seems sadly most gyms haven't put this on their agenda for 2018, with only a small number of gyms advocating for gender-neutral spaces.
After a friend of mine told me of their traumatic experiences as a non-binary person at the gym, I decided to look into the ways cisgendered folk can support our non-binary and gender non-conforming friends in these spaces. So I spoke to some of my non-binary and gender non-conforming friends to find out what their experiences look like and to see what measures should be put in place to advocate for better and more accepting spaces in the future.
Skylar, 34, Vancouver
VICE: So tell me, have you experienced anything that has made you uncomfortable at your gym?
Skylar: Two or three years ago, I would go to the gym and people would just stare at me. If I was in the women’s changing room, women would think I was in the wrong room or women would walk in and think they were in the wrong room. I stopped using the women's changing room because I was making so many people feel uncomfortable, just by being there. I was being treated like I shouldn't even be in that space, it was horrible. I've been binding my chest for a very long time, and I kind of look like a girl but I don’t—my breasts aren't there, I’ve got hips and a small waist, muscles, and I’ve had a lot of people stare at me. I know a lot of trans and non-binary folks that won’t even walk into a gym because it’s way too uncomfortable for them.
What about your experience now?
I have to change at home before I go. Reason being at my gym, Steve Nash, they have three change rooms; two are for men and one is for women and there’s no handicapped or single-stalled bathroom for any type of non-binary person or transperson to use. So while I’m at the gym, I also can’t use the bathroom. I actually have to leave and go to the Tim Hortons to go pee, and it’s very, very frustrating. I brought this to their attention two years ago and they didn't seem to want to do anything about it. I told them “you’re Davie street, this is the gay neighborhood and you should be considerate.” They still haven't done anything about it.
Were you tempted to leave because of this?
Absolutely. One of the hardest things was trying to cancel my membership and telling them why—because I'm trans and there’s no way to use the bathroom and there no way I can change. That was really uncomfortable to have to explain that to a heterosexual cis male, who has no idea what my experience is like. The man on the phone while I was speaking to him said “oh, well your voice doesn't sound like a guy” and I just felt so defeated and I didn't have the energy to put up a fight. It was so next-level insulting.
That sucks! What are some measures they could put in place to make you and other non-binary or gender non-conforming folks feel more comfortable?
Firstly, make sure they have space for people to go and change and use a bathroom. They should also allow people upon signing up to chose their preferred pronoun as well as the name they would like to be called. That was another experience at Steve Nash, they wanted to call me by my birth name as well as them calling me “she,” it was very traumatizing. They need to make it so that it’s easy for you to say “this is who I am, this is what I want to be called.” I just think it’s in the infrastructure of how a gym is set up; they operate in such a hyper-gendered way, that that's just what they’re used to. I think it’s just about education really.
Is progress being made?
I do think so. Four or five years ago, I felt a lot more uncomfortable at gyms than I do now. It’s a different age now. I think the general public are learning more about trans folks and non-binary folks and so it’s not quite a shock for them to see someone who is trans or non-binary at the gym nowadays.
Fray, they/them, 29, Toronto
VICE: Hello Fray, could you describe your experiences day to day at your gym?
Fray: As of recently, I no longer go to my gym. The experience became too uncomfortable for me, so I now chose to exercise with a friend at home.
Ah, I’m sorry! Would you describe your gym as being a hyper-gendered space?
It absolutely is. I think naturally a space where you have people undressing, or in tight exercise clothes means that our bodies are more on display, which invites people to look at you more than they would outside that environment. Plus lots of gyms have workouts designed “for men” or “for women,” and certain classes specifically targeted for women or men, any space like that is naturally going to be extremely gendered.
Have you ever felt unwelcome?
Yes, primarily because it’s just a constant reminder that there are men and then there are women and then there’s me, in the middle somewhere. As a non-binary person I have spent the last five years actively trying to separate myself from the “binary experience” because I don’t identify with it, and a space like a gym seems to reinforce that rather than tear it down.
What’s the set-up at your gym?
My gym has a women’s only section in it, this is where women can go to workout away from guys. For many of my cisgendered female friends, this is an important space for them. However for me, it obviously isn't my space, and although it’s a positive thing for cisgendered women it’s still enforcing gendered spaces. I used to use the women section just because I would feel much more conformable there and away from the huge cis males on the general gym floor. I had to stop using it because I had three or four separate occasions where women in that section would ask me to leave. I don't look feminine enough for the women’s section but I would feel unsafe in the men's, so that was a deal breaker for me.
Are you going to go back any time soon?
Until I find a gym with gender-neutral stalls and areas, I don’t see a way to go back and I don’t want to. I’m not mad about it, but I had to make a choice and accept that right now that’s not a space that is healthy for me.
Gus, he/they, 37, Queens
VICE: So tell me about your gym.
Gus: My gym feels hyper-gendered, as the locker rooms definitely are, but the free weights/weight bench section tends to be mostly men. This is sometimes too intimidating or overwhelming, so I’ll either wait until it’s less crowded, or use other machines.
Can you remember times that made you feel unwelcome?
Earlier in my transition, after I had top surgery, but before I went on T, I used the women’s locker room, but barely. I would walk in with my head down, put my stuff in a locker, pee, and run out. I would often get stared at by members and staff, and there were several instances where members and staff would ask me if I knew I was in the women’s locker room. It was always mortifying. If your appearance doesn’t fit in with stereotypical gender performances, you will always be ostracized on some level. This is something I hope shifts within my lifetime.
Is it an easy fix?
Partly. A reworking of locker rooms would be the only way to make trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folks feel safe in locker rooms. Dressing room-type stalls with floor-to-ceiling doors in which people could change and shower with full privacy.
What other measures should gyms put in place to make your experiences more comfortable?
Each gym should also have a way for members to communicate name/gender marker changes in a way that is private, and doesn’t out them to other members and staff, plus a way to add/change people’s pronouns, so when a person checked in at the front desk, their name and pronoun would come up. Maybe this would eliminate a lot of misgendering with greetings and farewells. “Have a good day, friend,” instead of, “have a good day, sir” or “have a good day, ma’am.”
I had the benefit of finding a personal trainer who had no judgment about trans people, but that’s not always the case. Perhaps each gym should have at least one trainer who is advertised as being LGBTQ friendly, and make sure that person has done sensitivity training, as well as received education about how cross-hormone treatment works in relation to diet and exercise.
Have your experiences been primarily negative at your gym?
No, definitely not. The most positive experience I had was about six months into starting hormone treatment. I’d reached a point where using the women’s locker room was no longer possible due to facial hair starting to grow in, but I didn’t feel safe using the men’s locker room either. I went back to a manager with a request and she responded positively and said she would be happy to do whatever it took to make me feel comfortable. She also called in the other manager and brought him up to speed so there wouldn’t be any issues. It felt very empowering to be so understood and validated. Granted, I shared a lot of personal information in the process, but it resulted in a workable situation for everyone. For now, this solution is working well.
Elliot, they/them, 36, Los Angeles
VICE: Hey Elliot, so what’s your experiences day-to-day at your gym?
Elliot: I work as a trainer at Everybody, a queer non-gendered gym, so my day-to-day experiences at my gym are positive and affirming. I never have to stress about what changing area or bathroom to use, and I am surrounded by people like me all day.
How lovely! How does your gym set itself apart from a gendered gym?
My gym has one locker room for people of all genders to use, with private changing and shower areas, and multiple all-gender toilets. Typical standards of beauty and health are not valued at my gym, so results and goals are not gendered. In the fitness industry, everything is gendered, even certain exercises are are categorized as “for men” or “for women.” It is a huge relief to be freed of that burden, even if it’s just in this space.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable in a gym before?
All of the time. I avoid changing or showering when I am away from my gym. If I must use the bathroom, I appraise which one will be the safest for me, if a non-gendered one is not available—I keep my eyes down, rush in, and rush out. For the most part, I just hold it, and avoid drinking anything.
What are some measures that gyms could put in place to ungender these spaces to make people feel more comfortable?
Train staff to use non-gendered language, and to ask guests what their personal gender pronouns are... never assume! Provide non-gendered changing/shower areas, and bathrooms. Feature gender non-conforming folks in your social media and advertising.
How important is it that you can identify with the folks you train?
I am out and visible as a trans-masculine non-binary person, I don’t hide who I am, this alone helps folks open up to me. It is a privilege to live and work in a place where it is safe for me to do this. Because my community is disproportionately underemployed, I offer sliding scale rates, and make myself very available to answer questions. I also founded a group called the TG/NB Project, which offers a free group fitness class for and by trans and non-binary folks every Monday night.
Amazing! Have you seen things shift in the last few years?
I have! The success of Everybody has been stellar, and it serves as a shining example of the reality of a large-scale, profitable, non-gendered wellness space. It is my hope that other people will have the courage to create such spaces in their community. We are are seeing more spaces starting to de-gender single occupancy bathrooms, and the body positive movement has made huge strides in changing the general population’s concept of a “worthy” body. As more folks seek to queer the fitness industry from the inside, we are going to continue to see it develop into something more welcoming for all bodies.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.