'Queer Gym' Empowers LGBTQ+ Clients, Both Physically And Mentally

Oct 15, 2019
Originally published on October 15, 2019 8:18 am

On a recent Sunday in a tiny gym just outside of Boston, physical trainer Justice Williams teaches Leo Morris a stretch called the Brettzel.

"Yasss," Williams shouts. "There you go. Elbows down."

"Jesus," Morris says, exhausted.

"Yass," Williams shouts again. "And hold. Very nice."

Morris, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, is among about 10 people working out who identify as gay, trans and/or queer.

This is "Queer Gym." It's one of a few workout spaces explicitly for LGBTQ folks that's cropped up in North America in recent years.

Williams, who started this pop-up gym, says it's a place where people can work out if they're in the LGBTQ+ community and don't feel comfortable in regular gyms. He says going to a gym can be an awkward experience for many people, but that vulnerability is amplified when your body or mannerisms don't conform to people's interpretation of how you should be.

"[Gyms] are hyper-masculine, they're toxic, they're about an aesthetic," Williams says. "Being part of the LGBT community, I've observed and noticed that people don't feel comfortable in gyms today."

Morris, who Williams is teaching how to Brettzel stretch, recently had top surgery — which is an operation to remove breast tissue to reflect a person's gender expression.

"My body looks a little bit different than a lot of the other peoples' who are in the gym," they say.

Justice Williams talks Eddie Maisonet through a crawl to side kick.
Robin Lubbock / WBUR

And Morris says that causes some people to stare.

"When you're working out, you just want to focus on your workout. But when you know that other people are staring at you and then sometimes talking about you, it can be distracting," Morris says. "It can be demoralizing, you know, when you're supposed to be pumping yourself up in the gym."

Eddie Maisonet, who is trans, says he wears sleeveless shirts when he works out and has also noticed people staring at the scars from his top surgery. But Maisonet says at Queer Gym, the visibility is only positive.

"Here, we're looking at each other, but we're so supportive," he says. "It's people trying to take pointers or make sure you're not hurting yourself as opposed to feeling like a spectacle."

Maisonet says other physical trainers he's worked with didn't know how to work with trans people. But Williams does.

"If I tell Justice, 'yo, this hurts', he'll give me a modification or tell me to take a break," Maisonet says. "So, I feel listened to and I feel a lot stronger, and that kind of confidence — there's not many places in my life where I can get that."

Justice Williams with gym goers and kettlebells at CORE in Brookline, Mass.
Robin Lubbock / WBUR

Creating confidence is why Williams says he became a personal trainer. Williams is trans, too. Ten years ago Williams needed to lose weight before taking testosterone, and couldn't find a personal trainer who understood his journey.

"And that forced me to learn on my own so that I could teach the proper way to work out, to be in my body, to polish my armor," Williams says.

And today, Williams' armor couldn't be shinier. Now, he's hoping to offer that protection to whoever comes to Queer Gym, a place he says honors queer people's existence. He says the ultimate goal is to arm people in his community with the confidence to navigate all gyms.

But until then, Williams says he'll try to keep Queer Gym around for as long as necessary.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Going to the gym can be good for your health but also can be hard on your mind - you're sweating and straining your body in front of other people. One physical trainer says that is especially hard for people who are trans or gender nonbinary. So he started a pop-up gym in Massachusetts that is designed to help LGBTQ people work out without worry. Here's Quincy Walters of our member station WBUR.

JUSTICE WILLIAMS: Hinge. Plank. Hinge. Plank.

QUINCY WALTERS, BYLINE: On a Sunday afternoon, in a tiny gym just outside of Boston, about 10 people are working out. They're trans. They're gay. They identify as queer. There's a pride flag on the wall. This is Queer Gym. Personal trainer Justice Williams takes time to coach each and every person. Williams, who started Queer Gym, says it's a place to work out for whoever identifies as LGBTQ and doesn't feel welcome in other gyms.

WILLIAMS: They're hypermasculine. They're toxic. They're about an aesthetic. And being a part of the LGBT community, I've observed and noticed that people don't feel comfortable in gyms today.

WALTERS: Queer Gym is one of a few spaces that's cropped up in North America in recent years designed to cater specifically to LGBTQ people.

WILLIAMS: And then bring - yes, there you go. Elbows down.

WALTERS: Right now Williams is teaching gymgoer Leo Morris something called the brettzel (ph) stretch, which pretty much looks how it sounds. Morris is nonbinary and uses they-them pronouns. They recently had top surgery, which is a chest surgery to conform to a person's gender expression.

LEO MORRIS: My body looks a little bit different than a lot of the other people's who are in the gym.

WALTERS: And Morris says that causes some people to stare.

MORRIS: You know, when you're working out, you just want to focus on your workout. But when you know that other people are staring at you and then sometimes talking about you, it can just be sort of demoralizing, you know, when you're supposed to be, like, pumping yourself up in the gym.

WALTERS: Eddie Maisonet, who's trans, says he wears tank tops when he works out and people at regular gyms gawk at the scars from his top surgery. But Maisonet says, at Queer Gym, the visibility is only positive.

EDDIE MAISONET: Like, here, like, we're looking at each other, but it's so supportive - people, like, trying to take pointers or, like, make sure that you're not hurting yourself, as opposed to, like, kind of feeling like a spectacle.

WALTERS: Maisonet says other physical trainers he's worked with didn't know how to work with trans people, but Justice Williams does.

MAISONET: Because if I tell Justice, like, yo, this hurts, he'll give me a modification or tell me to take a break. So, like, I feel listened to, and I feel a lot stronger. And that kind of confidence is, like - I can't - there's not really many other places in my life that I can get that.

WALTERS: Creating confidence is why Williams says he became a physical trainer. Williams is trans, too. Ten years ago, Williams needed to lose weight before taking testosterone but couldn't find a personal trainer who understood his journey.

WILLIAMS: And that forced me to learn on my own so that I could teach myself the proper way to work out, to be in my body, to polish my armor.

WALTERS: And today Williams' armor couldn't be shinier. He says the ultimate goal is to arm people in his community with the confidence to navigate all gyms. But until then, Williams says, he'll try to keep Queer Gym around for as long as necessary. For NPR News, I'm Quincy Walters.

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