When I was in school, I looked forward to P.T. or physical training class because it gave me a break from academics. Whether I was good at sports or not, I got to move around and have fun with my friends, and that was my incentive to attend the sessions. But as I grew up and my so-called adult life began, P.T. class was no longer a regular part of my life. This trajectory is a shared experience for many of us who now have to work or study long hours every day.
Enter the gym — P.T. class for grown-ups. Going to the gym before or after the day’s work can help us feel energised and relieve some stress. It also has a range of health benefits including keeping our hearts happy and boosting mental health because of the endorphin release. Going to the gym can also help us achieve our goals of weight loss or weight gain. We all know that quite well, thanks to the vigorous advertising by ‘health junkies’.
Is the gym inclusive for the transgender community?
Is it really all that simple, though? For many transgender people, working out is a way of relieving dysphoria and feeling good about ourselves, but gyms are usually not trans-accommodative. From the exclusionary registration forms to being shamed for being transgender, let us look at a few different experiences.
Pratyay (she/her), an educator in Delhi started going to the gym when she was in grade 7. Growing up fat, her parents wanted her to work out and ‘get in shape’, but the aggressively masculine workout regime was something she just did not relate to. Today, Pratyay has the motivation to work out at a gym, but is hesitant to do so because of past experiences. She says, “I was fat-shamed in the gym and never felt safe exercising around men. A lot of them would laugh at my feminine expressions and mannerisms. Now I really want to exercise at the gym, but I know it will be a bad experience because I am out as a trans person.”
For N (he/they), a student from Kochi, the struggle stems from being a closeted trans masculine person. Since he is not open about his gender at the gym, he is assumed to be a woman and is treated differently. Recalling one instance, N says that their trainer asked them not to work on their arms too much, because “your arms could get too big for a woman.” Not only is this statement soaked in misogyny, but also hurts the validity of N’s transmasculine identity. He says hearing that made him feel very dysphoric and worried that the trainer would coax him into workouts that promote more of a feminine figure.
“I felt insecure about bringing this up with the trainer because I don’t want to out myself. Ideally, trainers should ask the client what their fitness goals are rather than assuming. I am not a fan of the aesthetic-focused culture in general. Let people work out for the sake of working out without commenting on what their bodies “should” look like,” says N.
Elliott (they/he), a student from Mumbai, finds other gym members staring, and occasionally murmuring and giggling because of his appearance, making it difficult to interact with them. Recalling an instance, Elliott says, “I once told someone I knew at the gym that I go by Elliott and that I’m not a girl. They were puzzled and did not seem to understand at all. They also made some unnecessary comments about my appearance and gender expression.”
In my experience (the author), the last time I went to a gym was when I began taking testosterone as part of my transition. On my first day, I communicated to the trainer my reasons for joining and what my goals were, and in response he said something to the effect of, “Why are you ruining your life? Just be a woman.” I was excited to start a new chapter of my life, but that ignorant statement made me resent the gym. I went back for a couple of weeks, but eventually decided to quit.
On a positive note, however, Bittu K R, Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology says his friends who are cisgender men are quite understanding and accommodative — “I found gyms to be very trans affirming spaces because many cis men are also there with the goal of changing their bodies. They understand dysphoria readily from their experiences of dysmorphia.”
Almost everywhere, transgender people are considered an afterthought, and there seems to be very little winning for us. To keep gyms safe and inclusive, gym members, trainers and other staff should consider attending LGBTQ+ sensitisation sessions. LGBTQ+ sensitisation sessions help people understand how to be respectful towards peers who identify differently. Opening up one’s own mind allows everyone to enjoy shared spaces without fear and anxiety.