These are personal stories from members of our LGBT+ Network to support Virtual Pride.
I am an overweight, middle-aged, queer woman with a shaved head. Gyms are terrifying! When I started going to the gym a few years ago I said that everyone was half my size and half my age (peril of living in a university city I assume). I felt like everyone was staring at me and laughing. I also add the complication of being autistic, so gyms are also noisy and bright and full of unpredictability.
All by myself I used resistance machines (badly), I used cardio equipment (bikes are torture devices and no one can convince me differently), and I went to classes where I was so very very out of place.
What got me to loving (and missing so much!) the gym was having a really excellent trainer for a circuit training class. Someone who adapted the exercises dependent on ability, but still pushed us to do our best. He gave me confidence to approach him to talk about smaller/personal training and I’ve been exercising well and consistently in gyms for two years now. 99% of the time I am exercising with a PT, someone who supports me both to do the exercise but also to access spaces I would have been scared to enter by myself.
I’m still not sure I’d go to the weights floor by myself, but that’s more for fear of injuring myself without having someone there to watch me than it is fear of impinging on the very testosterone-heavy space. For me what gaining confidence in the gym has given me is the confidence to take up space in my own right. I’m still an overweight, middle-aged, queer woman with a shaved head, and people do still react to that in a variety of ways, but both inside the gym and in the wider world there is still space for me. Sometimes I have to create that space, sometimes the space already exists and I didn’t realise, but either way it is there and I am there.
My wife had a different experience of gyms. She is trans and went to visit a number of gyms in the city to see if she felt comfortable or would be welcomed in them. For a worryingly large amount the answer was: No. So very many gyms told her she would have to get changed in the Accessible toilet facilities and would not be allowed in the Ladies’ changing room. Many also heavily implied that if she was harassed or treated badly in the gym that there would be nothing they ‘could’ do about it. For me the fear was of being laughed at, for her the fear was of being attacked.
This experience is so common for trans people, being excluded from spaces that they should be welcomed in (and that they have a legal right to access). Beyond the binary, think of the experience for non-binary/genderqueer people who face the choice of gendered options every day, so very often the only choice they have is to use the Accessible facilities, thus blocking them from people who have accessibility needs, through no fault of their own.
In many ways I welcome Women-only gyms or classes, they create a safe space for people who might otherwise not go to the gym or access types of exercise they would feel excluded from in a mixed-gender situation. But they do risk excluding trans people and non-binary people, people who feel even more vulnerable in mixed-gender spaces. I don’t know what the solution is, though I would like to see these restricted groups be explicitly welcoming to a broader group of people while still keeping the positive safety they are set up for.