Tips to Help Navigate the Gym When You Present as Gender Ambiguous

Posted by Ilya Parker on

Let me start by saying that I am a non binary trans masculine person living in the rural south. My safety is often hinged on how well I visibly align with gender normative standards (so in my case the more I present like a cisgender heterosexual man) the “better” it is for me.
Here’s the thing though. I don’t identify as a man nor do I want to be assumed as such. In fact every opportunity I have to disrupt the gender binary I seize it, but again this also depends on my level of safety at any given moment. So when I’m in a place to disclose, unpack or showcase my nonconformity I will. For me that may look like working out in the gym with a full beard, sports bra and packer donned.

It’s not just about gender though. It’s about stopping to interrogate the ways we’ve been made to conform without consent. It’s about reclaiming bodily autonomy (especially for us queer and trans folks of color) who still carry the residual trauma of our ancestors. It’s about reclaiming the complexity and wholeness of my identity. Peeling the layers back; experimenting taking my time and letting go of the things that don’t work for me. Fluidity is liberation for me. This is part of what decolonizing is for me personally in day to day practice.

I want everyone to experience that..and it sucks that because so many queer and trans folks are viewed as deviant that we often don't have room to just be our true selves. It sucks that those of us who have the language spend so much time sharing ways to help folks simply feel safe enough in there bodies to exist in this world. As a personal trainer (primarily for trans, queer and/or disabled folks) I struggle leaving the house sometimes. That’s why I work so hard to support my clients and remind them that they are not alone in this world. That we’re out here doing a little more than surviving. So here’s another “Tips to be Safe” blog. I sincerely hope it helps you find peace.

I really enjoy working out at commercial gyms. Right now I currently rotate between two commercial gyms in my area. One gym has great strength training equipment, a motivational environment and space to engage in good cardio sessions. The other gym is trans affirming and provides for a safe place to work out with my clients who may not be comfortable working out in an overtly “bro” type of environment.

There are lots of benefits to working out in a commercial gym, specifically if you find a convenient location and a cheap membership. However, many folks who are gender ambiguous in there presentation (i.e. trans, non binary, gender non conforming, femme guy, butch woman...) working out at commercial gyms can be very frightening, uncomfortable and a downright unsafe place for us. Commercial gyms generally do little by way of including and accommodating gender ambiguous folks. Regarding trans people: even with laws changing state by state, surrounding public accommodations, we still go through a lot just to get a workout in. We have to worry about binding, packing, “passing”, being outed, being harassed or suffering from some form of physical violence for simply existing in our bodies. Gyms can also be extremely triggering for many of us; I know personally working out around a lot of cisgender men often kicks up my dysphoria and it can be a struggle to push through that…let alone focus on my workouts. My peeps and I will continue to work on de-toxifying the gym culture bit by bit…but in the meantime here a few tips that may help some gender ambiguous folks to navigate the gym:

Tip 1. Choose a transgender affirming , body positive, “all bodies” inclusive training facility: I know this certainly varies state by state with California probably having the most options. You can usually tell if a gym is affirming and inclusive by the type of language and images they use in their promotional material. Are they using gender neutral terms do the pics of folks they highlight look like you? As far as commercial gyms go my top choice would be Planet Fitness as the most accessible, inclusive and affirming place nationwide. Don’t get me wrong Planet Fitness could do a lot more to make their gyms much more accommodating and inclusive. However, in comparison to other commercial gyms; overall they work very hard to create a safe environment for each of their members. I’ve had situations arise with other patrons of planet fitness surrounding locker rooms interactions and the PF staff resolved the situation quickly and discreetly. Always remember that you should NEVER be made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable at any point while training. You deserve to train in peace just like everyone else.

Tip 2. Know the layout of your locker room and shower facility: 

Let me make note: If possible wear your gym clothes to the gym to minimize use of/avoid the locker rooms all together, this is common practice for me. If you need to change in a locker room; find out where any privacy stalls or curtains may be located. Know the locations of towel hooks, so that you can wear your towel as long as possible when you go to and from the shower. Also, (if possible) choose a gym with updated privacy features, such as private shower stalls and changing areas with curtains. If you are switching gyms or looking for your first gym, this might be an important consideration for you. Some stalls include a shower and a separate curtained changing area. If the changing area has clothing hooks, you can strip down to just your underwear (and a T-shirt if you are binding), bring your underwear (shirt if needed) along with your towel when you shower, and change those items in privacy. You can return to your locker to put on your bottoms and other layers of clothing.

Tip 3. Work out with a buddy or group: 

If possible I like to workout with a partner, especially if I’m not quite familiar with the gym layout/atmosphere. Also, if I’m feeling particularly dysphoric that day I prefer to workout with a trans partner or someone who may provide good support and motivation. Good gym partners will help offset the *all eyes on you* feeling many of us gender ambiguous folks experience daily.

Tip 4. Choose a time to frequent the gym during off peak hours:

This goes for the utilizing the locker room as well. If possible, try to train or use the locker room during off-peak hours. The gyms are obviously much less crowded during these times. You will have free reign to much of the equipment and less folks all in your business. In the locker rooms there may be fewer people changing and you can increase your chances of easily finding a locker in a row away from others.

The way mainstream fitness culture is set up, I totally understand why those of us who present with non normative aesthetics would never want to enter a commercial gym. Let alone consistently train in one. However, Fitness has played a very important role in helping me to reclaim body in ways that feel safe and affirming to me. I’ve witnessed many of my clients feel better in their bodies as well through Fitness. Working out in gyms is one of the various ways you can engage in fitness practices. It’s also one of my favorites. I love the smell of the iron. the clanking of weight plates. We’re creating spaces that work for us. I will say that it has also been a huge learning curb with effectively navigating this intimidating environment as a transmasculine person. Hopefully these tips can help you along your fitness training journey.

Thanks for reading this.

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  • Love this post, Ilya. I’ve been reading through all your older blog posts and am once again happy to have found you.

    Kim on

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