This LGBTQ Gym Is a Safe Place to Sweat It Out
If making it to the local gym to pump weights or sweat it out on a treadmill is hard, imagine not knowing which locker room is safe to shower in or which bathroom to use without receiving disparaging looks. At The Perfect Sidekick, the first LGBTQ gym in the United States, members don’t have to worry about anything but getting healthy and fit.
Nathalie Huerta, who founded the Oakland, California–based fitness center in 2010—and holds the official title “Chief of Making S--- Happen”—said a big part of her job is educating the staff and members about how to prepare their bodies for gender reassignment surgery. About 15 percent of the gym’s members are transgender, she said.
“There’s not a lot of information out there for next steps, like this is how to work out for [when you go on testosterone],” Huerta told TakePart. “If you’re given testosterone, it immediately affects your mobility and makes you less flexible. We do recovery workouts like yoga.... Otherwise it’s going to put you at a higher risk for injury.”
Testosterone helps grow muscle mass, and Huerta said she often sees trans men get excited because they start to feel stronger and tougher, but the trainers are responsible for managing that feeling to make sure clients aren’t lifting too much weight too fast.
Similarly, she said, although estrogen redistributes body weight, the staff has to remind trans women that achieving a more feminine look doesn’t mean going all-in on cardiovascular exercise and ignoring weight training.
The need for a gym such as The Perfect Sidekick exists. A 2011 study comparing results from roughly 156,000 high schoolers found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were less likely than straight students to be physically active and were 1.5 times more likely to report having had less than an hour of exercise in a given week.
The gym is about more than fitness education, however. Huerta set out to create a safe space too. She said growing up as a fitness junkie while undergoing changes in the way she presented herself didn’t always pair well at the traditional gym where she was a member.
“When I was more feminine, I had normal bad experiences that women have at the gym...like being hit on when you’re just trying to work out,” she said. “When I was an alpha butch lesbian in the weight room, it became an awkward contest with other men.”
Huerta said going to the gym was not something she was willing to give up, so she started her own, complete with a gender-neutral bathroom and locker room. Membership has grown to more than 100 people since the gym first opened its doors.
Although Huerta said the endeavor has been a success, she knows operating it isn’t without risk. The transgender community faces high rates of suicide and even homicide, with at least 21 murders of transgender individuals in 2015. A 2011 study showed that a trans man or woman is 41 percent more likely to attempt suicide than a cisgender person.
“At any moment, some douchebag could come in [the gym] and start something,” Huerta acknowledged. “But I’m hoping the world is slowly becoming a little more accepting and open-minded.”
Erika Peterson, who was a member for a year and a half, said the gym is an important space for the queer community. “Number one is general safety concerns—gyms can often be not super LGBTQ-friendly, even in the Bay Area,” Peterson wrote in an email to TakePart.
In a city as diverse as Oakland, Huerta said safety isn’t the No. 1 concern, but it is something she’ll think about as she expands. She hopes to have another location open somewhere in the Bay Area by the end of 2016 and plans to eventually open a third location near her hometown in Southern California.
Meanwhile, with names like “Oakland Booty” and “Hardcore Homo,” group workout classes are designed to keep energy and motivation high. But some former members, including Peterson, mentioned that a large group of clients left the gym after several trainers were allegedly fired without much explanation.
“For such a small gym it caused major upheaval for members. At those times the mood was one of confusion and frustration,” Peterson wrote.
Krystal Peak, a journalist who lives in San Francisco, told TakePart she worked out at The Perfect Sidekick for two years before leaving. She said about 30 or 40 members left between February and March of this year for similar reasons.
“Member contracts were being changed.... It became about monetizing more than creating a community,” said Peak.
Huerta said only 18 people canceled their memberships and that frequent turnover is common for trainers in the gym community. Some trainers left for personal reasons, and others departed because their desired work hours didn’t align with the gym’s schedule, she said. She admitted the membership cancellation notice was changed from two weeks to 30 days to stabilize the gym’s cash flow after some members left but that this is a standard time period for fitness facilities.
“Because we have a really strong sense of community, that gets intertwined and mixed up with the business side of things,” she said. “There are things that need to take place on the business side that conflict with that.”
Still, Peterson said she enjoyed working out in a community of clients that celebrated diversity. “I really appreciated the diversity in age, race, size, and fitness levels. The mood was generally enthusiastic and very supportive,” she wrote.
“That’s our mission—to make happy and healthy homos,” said Huerta. “We want you to have a safe space to work out so you have a happier, healthier life.”