3 min

Women and the YMCA

I am on location this month at the Metro Central YMCA on Grosvenor St in Toronto. I’ve heard from some people — actually, only gay men — that this is prime pick-up ground, a Village landmark. Apparently the VIP men’s locker room is a hoppin’ cruising spot.

FYI, if you’re considering membership, you will either be pleased or disappointed to know that from what I’ve seen, it’s not like that for queer women. It is actually a great place to be alone in a crowd, kind of like public transit, or Wal-mart, or the reference library.

I come on my lunch breaks. It takes me five minutes to walk here, five minutes to change, five minutes to organize my stuff in a locker, remember the combination, get my shoes on without untying the laces. I do it all in reverse when I go, leaving me with about 30 real minutes to spend here, minus warm up, cool down and stretching. When it comes down to it, I get little done in the way of actual exercise.

But I go anyway to get out of the office and to be around healthy people. Not that everyone who goes to the Y is healthy.

The Y is full of mirrors, a throwback to dance class and an invitation to make this an aesthetic venture. There are people who watch every pound they lift, flex for themselves, practise their intense workout cut-eye.

Part of me envies that ability to self-watch. I try not to look at myself in mirrors in public places. I don’t want people to know how consumed I can be with my appearance, or I am afraid of what I might see and then need to pick at. Or maybe I feel that if I scrutinize myself in public, then other people will too, and they will see all those flaws that I find when I look at myself in mirrors. So I send salespeople away, sneak in and out of fitting rooms and only study myself in the Y’s mirrors when no one is there.

My partner used to come here before we started going out. I always pictured this giant sporty bathhouse: all these perfectly sculpted women’s bodies showering in steamy rooms and hanging out in towels, like a queer version of the gym ads you see in the first week of January. I was terrified to come, being someone who still changes clothes the way she did in high school, to avoid being naked.

But of course it isn’t like that at all. Things always seem much more glamorous when you’re picturing the daily goings-on of the woman you’re falling in love with. But there usually is only one identifiably queer woman in any given room at Metro Central: me (and my reflections in the mirrors).

There definitely seems to be a dearth of queer women here. Maybe they’re all clustered in some part of the building I never go to — the VIP sauna or under the counter at reception where they store the lost and found padlocks. Or maybe they just don’t come on the weekdays, work elsewhere, live elsewhere, only sweat in the Village on Saturday nights.

I don’t mind working out in a sea of men, especially when a lot of them appear to be gay. But there are some men, always wearing iPods, who emit an insanely loud “Mmmnnnouagh!” at regular intervals when they lift weights. The sound of a man grunting so loudly it sounds like a yell and throwing down a barbell can feel yucky and a little threatening. It makes me feel like I’m in a gorilla cage. We might all be pretending we’re alone here, but some social standards remain.

Even if it’s not a cruising spot for queer women, why is it a completely solitary one? It often seems that queer people, as a group, when together in a big public place, are either cruising or competing or completely ignoring each other — unless they have kids.

There is something sad about being surrounded by people doing similar things and never talking about it, about going anywhere in the Village regularly and not getting to know anyone.

At the Y, at least half of us have buds in our ears. Sometimes we reach for the disinfectant bottles at the same time and mumble apologies. Sometimes we ask to alternate sets on machines when it’s crowded, usually with minimal words and a hand motion. Once a hairdresser came up to compliment my haircut and asked me who did it. It threw me off completely. “Great idea,” he said. “Great idea.” It was a pretty cute conversation and a rare bursting of the sturdy workout bubbles we all seem to create when we come here.

A gym in the Village is a great idea, an opportunity for queer people to interact in some other way than by partying and cruising, a space to focus on health and well-being and everyday conversation, a space to spot each other, share equipment, give friendly encouragement.

But instead, I’ve found it to be a bit of a lonely place. I’m not saying it’s a problem, just that it’s interesting, this community of people with their heads down, alone, together.