Although gyms are causally associated with gay culture, the reality often fails to live up to our best Village People-esque dreams. But two personal trainers are looking to change that in their local area, recently opening the Leeds People’s Gym. Although based in the UK, their approach to inclusive fitness could stand as a model for gyms everywhere.
In a conversation with PinkNews, fitness trainer Daniel Browne described how toxic gym culture nearly ruined his relationship with fitness. “All the [gyms] I went to, I hated,” he said. “They were so exclusionary – actively exclusionary – and nothing was particularly comfortable. There were public-address announcements saying: ‘You’re in a safe space’, which is really quite gaslighty.”
It only got worse whenever he went to the gym wearing anything not traditionally masculine. “The looks you get immediately,” he recalled. “The only difference between being able to go under the radar and people now giving me weird looks is that I’ve got rainbow laces on, which is nothing, or a bit of nail polish, which wasn’t even brightly colored, just gray.”
Eventually, Browne quit the gym altogether and joined an inclusive rugby team, where he met a trainer with similar experiences, Chris Woods. “I used to go to the gym at two or three o’clock in the morning because I was so terrified,” Woods said. “That was the only time there was no one there.”
Like Browne, Woods felt forced to hide his identity at the gym. “When I started at the gym, I vowed to myself I’d never go back in the closet again… I went back in the closet for the gym and it wasn’t even a conscious decision,” he said. “People walked in and assumed. It was so unpleasant, and having that sudden slingshot moment back to when I was at school, I immediately suppressed everything.”
Browne and Woods described “hyper-masculine members” who bully anyone in both subtle and overt ways who do not fit. This combined with an inattentive or impassive staff makes the gym a nightmare for many queer people.
There’s no wrong way to do fitness except by not showing up.
While you might find a queer-friendly gym in most major cities, the experience is far from universal. Browne and Woods would often discuss opening a dedicated inclusive fitness space in their own local area, but for a while it seemed like a pipe dream. “It got quite real when we both left our jobs in June not yet having secured a space for the gym, but at every point along the way, we both realized that this is the right thing to do,” Browne recalled.
On September 30, the pair opened The Leeds People’s Gym, with the dedicated mission of eliminating shame and gender biases. This along with tranquil mood lighting is intended to reduce stress and “change [people’s] relationship with fitness.”
One important feature they’ve introduced are “anti-judgment mirrors,” in which members can see their own reflections up close, but the reflection is warped from far away. “If you clock yourself from across the room, it is impossible to judge yourself because everyone looks stupid in them,” Browne said.
Additionally, they’ve made changing rooms gender-neutral with private cubicles, and they’ve replaced the gendered stickers that demonstrate how equipment is used. They are also holding personal trainer courses to inspire a new generation of inclusive fitness leaders.
But at the end of the day, they are aiming for a gym that is more than inclusive—it should be a joy. “Instead of going: ‘Oh I need to go to the gym’, it becomes, ‘I can’t wait to go to the gym,’” said Browne. “That immediately changes everything about the whole conversation because it’s not this arduous task. It’s something you can enjoy.”
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