It's hard enough to join a new gym and build a consistent fitness routine. Unfortunately, finding an inclusive gym makes exercise even more challenging for LGBTQIA+ folks.
LGBTQIA+ students are half as likely to participate in school sports their as non-LGBTQIA+ peers, according to a 2021 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Research Institute.
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Transgender folks may experience even greater barriers to exercise than their cisgender lesbian, bisexual and gay peers. Transmasculine youth frequently experience discomfort, embarrassment and even fear at the gym, according to a small February 2020 study in the International Journal of Transgender Health. These feelings and concerns prevented some study participants from exercising as much as they wanted, even if they otherwise felt motivated.
It goes without saying: Everyone should be able to exercise and move their body without fear of judgment, harassment or discrimination. So, we reached out to two LGBTQIA+ fitness coaches who shared their personal tips and advice on how to navigate the gym safely and find a welcoming, accepting community.
1. Find a Welcoming Facility
Every gym has a different vibe, clientele and set of values. Certain gyms, including Planet Fitness, have an explicit anti-bullying, anti-harassment and anti-judgement policy. Other gyms openly welcome LGBTQIA+ members. Unfortunately, it's not always that easy to figure out if a gym is right for you.
Do some research ahead of time, checking out different gyms' websites and social media pages, recommends Luis Hernandez, CPT and SFG1 kettlebell coach. Also look for outreach or volunteer activities that give you a sense of a gym's values.
He also recommends touring a facility before you sign up.
"It's usually pretty easy to tell if a space is LGBTQIA+-friendly based on your gut feeling when you walk in," Hernandez says.
Pay attention the general atmosphere, music, decor as well as the athletes you see training there.
"It's important for LGBTQIA+ folks to reach out to the gym management or leadership and be forthcoming with them, if they're comfortable doing so," Jen Kates, CPT and owner of Shift Human Performance says. "Ask what they do to train their staff to be more aware of different cultures and lifestyles that may differ from their own, and whether or not they've been trained on appropriate language to be used."
If anything feels off or raises red flags, consider looking elsewhere — even if you're feeling pressured to make a decision on the spot, Hernandez says. You don't need to commit right away and it's totally okay to pause, think and explore other facilities.
2. Consider Locker Room Access
The above-mentioned GLSEN Research Institute report found that nearly half of LGBTQIA+ students avoided locker rooms — more than any other exercise related space. It's an unfortunate reality that in some places, the threat of harassment, intimidation and even violence in locker rooms is very real.
Before you join a gym, take a good look at their locker room set up. Every gym member has a right to use the locker room but your personal safety is the priority.
"If you're transgender or fall elsewhere on the gender spectrum, considerations around gender-neutral restrooms or changing areas are important to make everyone feel welcome," Kates says.
Look for gyms with private changing areas and showers if gender-neutral changing areas are not available.
Some transgender and nonbinary folks may need to make an informed decision about which locker room they plan to use. So, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with any local regulations or laws surrounding locker room use. You can also ask to speak directly with the owner or manager of your gym about locker room policies to ensure you find a space that feels comfortable.
3. Exercise With a Buddy or Group
It can be intimidating to hit the gym on your own, so Hernandez recommends recruiting friends as training buddies. "You always feel safer around friends or a support group," he says. And chances are, your gym offers guest passes.
He notes that you don't necessarily need your workout buddies to be other LGBTQIA+ folks. Training with supportive friends can be just as fun and still help you feel welcome, safe and confident.
Hernandez also suggests looking for group classes if you feel uneasy about training solo. Many people find group classes to be a more welcoming environment and it gives you the opportunity to meet supportive people and build camaraderie with other gym members, he says.
4. Get Involved With a Local LGBTQIA+ Sports League
If you live in a major city, chances are there are recreational team sports leagues specifically catered toward your local LBTQIA+ community.
These leagues can include all kinds of team sports — flag football, kickball, pickle-ball, etc. — and you can also search for LGBTQIA+-friendly training clubs for endurance sports, like running, cycling and triathlons.
"One reason gay sports leagues are so popular with LGBTQIA+ individuals is that they already know the community will accept them and they don't have to 'feel out' a gym's environment and members first," Kates says.
Sports leagues also allow you to network and get useful intel, according to Hernandez.
"You can ask other people on your team where they like to work out," he says. Teammates often have knowledge about which local gyms are welcoming and safe for LGBTQIA+ folks — and which facilities you might want to avoid.
5. Use Online Resources
The internet can be a big help as you research local gyms and sports leagues in your community.
"Some LGBTQIA+ folks may be able to search online for gay-friendly gyms in their area, or reach out to a local queer organization to inquire about what local gyms or sports leagues have been proven to be more accepting," Kates says.
If you're feeling isolated or simply aren't ready to venture out in real life, you can also find a tremendous amount of support and connection through social media and other forums. The Facebook group Eat, Train, Progress (which has over 20,000 members) is an especially welcoming and helpful place for LGBTQIA+ folks.
6. Be Kind to Yourself
Making the decision to join a gym and put yourself out there can be a big, scary step for many people. You're much more likely to keep showing up — and ultimately reap all the amazing benefits of a regular exercise — if you treat yourself with kindness along the way.
"Give yourself grace and be patient," Hernandez says. "It's called a fitness journey for a reason."
If you feel safe to do so, consider also being open about who you are with your fitness community.
"I have found that the more honest I am about who I am and about my partner, the more those around me accept me, support me and trust me," Kates says. "The best thing you can do is to get out there, find your fitness community and use it to take care of your health and wellness — your healthy existence is an act of revolution in and of itself, so embrace it!"