3 min

Showing it off in the showers

What's Toronto best gym for trans men?

Credit: Nicola Betts

Working out helps you feel better, sleep better and get picked-up better. Many trans guys work out to build a more masculine body. Also, if you are going to have chest surgery, it’s recommended that you build up your pecs before going under the knife.

I’ve always assumed that I get enough exercise in my daily life, but my waist is beginning to suggest otherwise, and with the cold weather I decided it was time to get to a gym. While facilities, cost and location were part of my decision-making process, assessing how trans-positive various gyms were played a major role. I consulted several trans men who train, and visited gyms myself.

As most guys pointed out, when you are working out, you want to work out, not educate others about trans issues, defend your gender identity or deal with transphobia. Concerns about how they would be treated delayed or limited them joining a gym.

Their concerns are well founded; of nine gyms I visited, none have an explicit policy about trans people and change-room access, although staff at the University Of Toronto Athletics Centre say they are working on developing one. Without a policy, staff at most gyms were on their own answering my questions about what change room I should use if I joined.

At most places, it felt like whether staff would support me in a transphobic incident was an individual decision. All of them eventually resorted to referring me to their manager. Which means every trans person has to ask the questions themselves and do their own advocacy. It all comes down to how trans-positive the manager is going to be. That’s a lot of work and risk, before you get to the weights.

Dan (the guys I talked to asked me not to use their real names or only use their first names) has trained at the Central YMCA for a year. He identifies as male and has had chest surgery, but when he joined his ID read female. During his intake interview staff seemed to be familiar with trans issues but he was told to use the women’s facilities. He used the men’s anyway. While he was never confronted, every time he went, he expected to be stopped and chastised by staff.

When Hank joined the U of T Athletics Centre he wrote “trans” in the blank next to gender on the membership form. Without any questions being asked, he was assigned a locker in the women’s locker room. While they have a sign up in the office signally they were queer-positive, Hank felt that they didn’t walk their talk. A year later when he renewed his membership things had improved. He was asked what locker room he would like to be assigned to.

Felix’s gym does a complete physical assessment on each member when they join, including chest measurement. The idea of being measured over his bindings was too much, so he bought a set of weights and worked out at home until after he had chest surgery. He didn’t identify himself as trans when he joined and if his body seemed outside of what is normally accepted as male during his physical assessment, nobody mentioned it. Felix says he’s perceived as just a guy working out at the gym, although he still avoids the locker rooms – he changes and showers at home.

Jake joined his gym before he began transitioning. He currently avoids using any locker room. He no longer feels comfortable there, and after chest surgery plans to join another gym and “go straight to the men’s.”

For all of them, locker rooms are challenging places. Several City Of Toronto Parks And Recreation facilities, The West End YMCA and the Jewish Community Centre Fitness Centre have designated family change rooms. Built to allow parents and children of opposite sexes to change together, these family rooms offer a gender-neutral location to doff your clothes and grab a shower. All of the guys liked having this option. The downside is that they may not offer all the services the men’s or women’s do, like steam rooms, saunas or whirlpools.

Like Hank and Jake, I am generally read as male when I’m in street clothes. But when naked I look like I have a lot of female parts. I feel like I am trespassing in the women’s, but am concerned about being read as female in the men’s. Hank sees it as an issue of personal safety.

“In the women’s I will endure some uncomfortability,” he says, “The men’s may not be safe when I get undressed.” Hank has experienced transphobia in the showers in the women’s and says women in the sauna will cover up, move away from him or leave if he enters.

I joined the West End YMCA. The manager was positive and supportive when I met with him. Knowing there are already other trans people there was reassuring. While they don’t have a policy, I was told I could use whatever change room I preferred and that I didn’t have to be consistent. I was assured that staff would back me up if there was a problem. I was even invited to a staff meeting to provide education and information on trans issues.

Trans-positive policies at gyms? No. Individual victories to challenges. Yes. Gym operators have to realize it’s about equity and access. It’s time for them to raise the bar.