Ever stopped to think about how heteronormative, binary and, well, serious the fitness industry can be? Meet the pioneers who are making exercise more inclusive all year round – not just during Pride month.
I am pouring with sweat and my head is tipped back as I sing along to the music. The room is so hot that I know my skin is pink all over although I can’t see properly in the dark. I can feel the bass, heavy in my chest.
I look to my right and my friend is doing exactly the same, we smile at each other and I want to tell him that I’m so glad I came here, that I’m grateful he brought me. But I can’t. Because I can’t speak. Because I am not in a club. I am in a spin class and if I’m not singing along then I am gasping for air or throwing water vaguely in the direction of my mouth.
Rich Allsop, the personal trainer and spin instructor behind Spinder, tells Stylist: “Back in 2016, after years of working in the fitness industry and teaching spin in dozens of gyms across London, I noticed there were zero spin classes created specifically for LGBTQ+ people that allowed us to celebrate and be our authentic queer selves.”
And so, Spinder was born. “I was passionate that all-fitness levels and abilities should feel welcome,” he explains. “You don’t need to be super sporty or fit to join in.”
WHY WE NEED MORE LGBTQ+ FITNESS SPACES
It was that inclusive element of the class that particularly appealed to me. I didn’t start to enjoy exercise until I was in my 20s, and even then, the only exercise I enjoyed was running alone. I am not naturally ‘sporty’ and I get nervous around flying objects; my head is a magnet for footballs and frisbees. Instead of getting frustrated, I’ve made my aversion to sports a facet of my personality, a joke.
A 2016 survey conducted by Out in Sport found that “one in four (queer people) stated that negative experiences of sport in school were responsible for their non-participation in early adult life and almost half (47%) found the culture around sport either intimidating or unwelcoming.”
It is hardly surprising then that in adulthood one in eight LGBT people avoid going to the gym or participating in sports groups because of fear of discrimination and harassment. There are a multitude of reasons for this and it’s vital to remember that queer people and those identifying as LGBTQ+ are not a homogenous group.
People face significantly different barriers and have different needs, so there can’t be one perfect fitness space for all queer people. For that reason, it’s essential that multiple options are available to accommodate different experiences and preferences.
Queer fitness spaces are popping up around the UK
A search on LGBTQ+ sports club-finding database Pride Sports shows there are more than 250 LGBTQ+ specific sports clubs in the UK, ranging from football and rugby to roller derby and surfing and everything in between. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support the link between spending time outdoors and having better mental health, so it’s essential that the queer community exists in this space.
Although there is a high concentration of clubs in the south east of England, new clubs and spaces for queer people are popping up all over the country. Anna and Sims are the co-founders of Sheffield-based Peak Queer Adventures (PQA), which intends to challenge narratives of whom the outdoors are for by organising hikes, climbs and cycles as well as sharing skills and equipment.
“We set up PQA because, as two queer people, we wanted to be part of a collective of other queer people visibly taking up space in the outdoors,” they explain. “There is a very specific aesthetic to a lot of outdoors activities and we wanted a space where people could enjoy themselves in the outdoors without feeling like they need to look a certain way.”
Not having to fit in with a certain aesthetic is a theme that comes up repeatedly when talking to people about moving as queer people. Hannah Thornley, who set up the Camden Belles football club, explains that “worrying about what we look like – or how we are going to fit in – can be such a barrier to joining a sports club.”
She goes on: “It’s important that these spaces exist as they create a real sense of community and a place where people can achieve their personal goals – whether that’s making more friends or becoming the next Alex Scott or Ellen White.” Similarly, personal trainer Annie Celeste founded The Queer Space back in 2017, when all she could find were “heteronormative binary representations of what fitness ‘should’ look like”.
“All of them started from the conversation of ‘your body isn’t good enough’,” she recalls. It was in a bid to change that for other people that motivated Celeste to set up queer and trans exclusive classes for “all bodies, abilities, genders and levels”.
How to make fitness spaces more queer-friendly
When asked about what traditional spaces, classes and clubs could do to be more queer inclusive, several people in the fitness industry suggested “small things such as a visibly displayed pride flag or asking people’s pronouns at the start of a session”. Others cited the need for professional organisations to set an example by leading a “consistent discussion, followed by tangible action”, and allowing role models to come to the fore. That kind of high-level visibility would then help to inspire grassroots clubs to work on their inclusivity.
Spinder founder Allsop sums it up well: “Inclusivity should be at the core of the experience, not an after-thought or something that’s only discussed during Pride month then dropped for the rest of the year.”
Exercising for fun, as well as safety and community
It should go without saying that all people, regardless of sexuality or gender, should be able to exercise in whichever space they want safely and comfortably, but since 2015, hate crimes against LGBTQ people have risen consistently – particularly for the trans community. There are many exercise classes which consider themselves inclusive of all people but safe, queer-specific spaces exist for a reason.
From speaking to people across the board who work and participate in queer fitness spaces, it is clear that what’s overlooked and can get lost amid dire stats and depressing anecdotes is that safety is not and shouldn’t be the only goal: queer fitness spaces are also about having fun.
Once you’re able to relax and be yourself, you can find the joy in exercise. “Exercise is meant to be fun!” Celeste stresses. “In a space without the pressure of expectation, we are encouraged to play and explore. And it’s in that space that we can achieve whatever we want.”
For more first person stories, investigations and workout tips, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).