The Word On Fitness

How The Experience Fitness & Mobility Studio Created Their Own Inclusive Gym Space

By Angeli Ryan-Lim

Happy San Diego Pride season! My wife and I own an LGBTQ+ studio gym here in the heart of the Hillcrest gayborhood, and you know that we genuinely mean it when we wish you well during this month–and every month–even after San Diego Pride comes and goes. We are here, we are queer, and we will be here all year! 

This month’s article does not entirely have to deal with health and fitness, per se, as our previous write ups have been about. Rather, I would like to discuss how we have created a safe LGBTQ+ space in our small gym setting. Keep in mind, there is not a “one size fits all” solution to this, however, this is what we have done in our particular setting to provide an inclusive, welcoming, safe, and brave space to work out in. There will always be work that needs to be done. My hope is that other fitness professionals near and far will take this as an opportunity to reflect and begin dialogue on what they are doing to create inclusivity within their community.

So, what have we done?

LISTEN – I have my own stories and experiences with exercising at gyms that may completely differ from my neighbor. Despite the differences, it does not make their experience any less valid. I describe myself as a cisgender lesbian of an average body type, and I come from an Asian-American upbringing. I can acknowledge that I am lucky for not being on the receiving end of any non-consensual stares or touching by any creepy gym-goers, however, my experience is going to be different from that of a non-binary person, a transgender person, or perhaps that of a person of color. For example, my wife (who co-owns this gym with me) identifies as non-binary. Firstly, they had anxiety trying to choose which locker room to go into. Secondly, as they chose to go into the female locker room since it matched their sex assigned at birth, they experienced an irate woman telling them that, “people like you,” didn’t belong in that particular locker room. She even had the audacity to bring it up to the gym staff. Although that person’s membership was promptly revoked, my wife has never felt safe in a gym locker room ever since that experience. 

Since I personally have not had any ignorant people questioning my gender in a locker room, this does not mean that it simply doesn’t happen in the gym, nor that it couldn’t happen in MY gym. It can happen to anybody, anywhere, and in varying situations. A transgender person will have their unique gym-going stories. A person of color will have their unique stories as well. It’s important to hear these stories and give them full value even though they are not mine. My lived experience does not define nor disregard the experience of others. 

FOLLOW THROUGH – Listening is meaningless if you do not follow through. There was a common theme that we heard in our gym: many of our members have experienced body dysmorphia and/or dysphoria especially while trying to workout. Sometimes they felt this way even while looking at themselves in the mirror. Those feelings discouraged them from coming back to the gym. They would see all of these ideally fit people taking their shirts off and flexing in the large and wide gym mirrors, or more simply they did not like seeing the way they looked while working out. We heard this sentiment and took the effort to remove all of the mirrors in our gym (except for one in the bathroom). 

Another point of view we heard was that some of our members were self-conscious due to their athletic ability. We understood how intimidating or defeating this could be for those individuals, so we do not dictate the amount of weight everyone lifts. We encourage them to listen to what their body is telling them day by day and lift weights that help them achieve their individual goals. We do not display how each individual performed during the workout for all to see, such as on a leaderboard. We encourage independent journaling or record keeping through an app so that the only person they are comparing themselves to is themself. 

EDUCATE YOUR STAFF — Although our gym is queer-owned, we don’t exclusively have LGBTQ+ coaches or members. Whether you’re staffing your gym with an LGBTQ+ family member or a fierce ally, it’s important to coach your staff on how to handle any potential harassment or bullying scenario with compassion and effectiveness. Our coaches are trained to recognize these scenarios, as well as LGBTQ+ history, culture, identities, and concepts. Particularly with our fierce straight allies, they recognize that this is a safe place for them as well to ask questions and gain a better understanding without judgement. The only way for us queers to live harmoniously with our straight allies is to let them openly ask questions and politely check them when they may teeter on being insensitive. 

Ultimately, what we have done to create a safe, inclusive gym space within our four walls is to lead with kindness, compassion, patience, authenticity, and the willingness to continuously grow. My wife and I have seen and heard stories of absolutely abysmal behavior within the fitness community, but we’ve also seen some incredible examples and efforts of inclusivity and representation. Living life as my authentic self has allowed our business to become a reflection of our own journey, and embracing these parts of ourselves has allowed our community to find us. I am humbled because of this community and fully understand that I do not, and cannot, know everything there is to know to run this small gym business of ours. We all have our own story to be told, with our own identities, preferences, races, ages, abilities, and general different walks of life. These are the stories that deserve to be told, heard, and celebrated all year round.