(Fitness)

How The Queer Gym Became A Safe Space For The LGBTQIA+ Community

12 years of inclusivity.

By Elyssa Goodman
Courtesy of The Queer Gym
Nathalie Huerta the queer gym

It’s Sunday morning on the West Coast and Nathalie Huerta, aka Coach Nat, is on Zoom with a group of her clients from The Queer Gym. They’re tuning in from across the country: Shreveport, Louisiana, Appleton, Wisconsin, New York City, and San Francisco, among others. Sunday mornings are for The Queer Gym’s Adulting class, which instructs clients on everything from today’s topic of protein to finance to time management and more. In the class, Huerta is charismatic and accessible: this is what micros are, this is what macros are, these are some of her favorite proteins (“Dude, protein pasta with my meatballs, you can’t tell me sh*t!”), this is how often you need to eat protein and how much. She encourages people to ask questions, make recommendations, tell her what they want to get out of the class, and offer feedback. But there’s more happening here than just a talk about protein. “Fitness and nutrition is our drag,” Huerta likes to say. “Accountability and community is really what we're about.”

In fact, the latter have been central to The Queer Gym since Huerta opened it in 2010. Originally based in Oakland, California, the fitness studio — the first of its kind in the country — has since gone totally online, having given up its brick and mortar space during the pandemic. But, as Huerta says, this actually makes the gym more accessible to people around the country seeking queer-friendly fitness classes they might not have otherwise. Such an experience is central to the reason The Queer Gym exists at all.

Huerta remembers working as a trainer in a gym over a decade ago, being treated differently once she cut her hair from what she refers to as a “more feminine-presenting look to a more queer-presenting look.” She realized, too, that though she was out herself, she rarely found other queer members at her gym. There were “ripped hot gay men,” she said, but she noticed any other queer folks would come in for a week or two, try it out, and rarely return.

Courtesy of The Queer Gym

She also noticed that, even as a trainer, she wasn’t always well-equipped to help some members of the queer community. A client, a trans woman, came to her with questions about hormones and fitness and Huerta didn’t know what to say. “I remember feeling inadequate and being like, if I'm the best suited in here to train them, and I am finding myself clueless, it makes sense why there's no [queer] people, because there's no one that knows how to serve the community,” she said. “And they would rather not show up and be uncomfortable. Because it's already an uncomfortable feeling if you don't know what you're doing in the gym, which is 90% of people. And then you slap on the queer thing. Like, no wonder.”

Huerta didn’t want anyone else to feel this way and wanted to find a way to get everyone the training they needed and deserved — create a space where people could feel nurtured, a place where fitness could be for everyone regardless of gender, presentation, size, sexual orientation, anything. Then, at 25, as a full-time grad student, she opened The Queer Gym. At first, the gym offered only one-on-one training, then expanded to group training, where more people seemed to thrive. Group training became the focus, with an addition of semi-private instruction. As years progressed, semi-private instruction with an option for online classes then became the order of the day.

Then, the pandemic hit. The gym pivoted yet again and left its brick and mortar space, transitioning fully online, where members can now take classes via group training classes on Zoom. There are sessions every day, like “Biceptuals” on Mondays and Thursdays; “Oakland Booty” on Tuesday, Thursdays, and Saturdays, to name a few. There’s also the Hard Core Homo Academy, which offers access to classes, nutrition, and regular coaching at a financially customizable rate. Classes are an hour long and kept at small sizes so members can still get personalized attention. Shorter classes launched on IG Live on June 9.

Every class offered by The Queer Gym is led by coaches trained to work with the queer community and of the community themselves. Huerta recalls a former marine applying for a job as a trainer. “He was giving me his straight, corporate vibe, but I could see right through it,” she says. “Be you,” she said to him. “We want this to be a safe space for you, too. So if you want to show up to teach a class in drag, I'm here for it.” Although she was just offering an example, as it turned out, the trainer really did do drag, and was soon teaching in it. “His classes were a show of him kicking your ass in full drag,” she says with a smile.

Every class has its own vibe, of course, but always with that same sensitivity to creating community and safety. They all open with a statement of pronouns and an ice-breaking discussion question. In Coach Lisa’s Weights & Meditate virtual class I attended on a Friday, for example, the ice-breaking topic is favorite de-stressors. Two attendees wear Street Fighter and Sailor Moon shirts, which another attendee loves — “these are my people!” Even if it’s just about the moment, it’s still poignant. Positive affirmation empowers them to feel strong, but they’re also not deterred from sharing difficulties while rising to the challenge that the class’ HIIT training presents.

As much as The Queer Gym allows both clients and trainers to feel more relaxed wherever they are in their fitness journey and/or identity experience, it’s something that has grown over time and continues to progress every year, every day even. Huerta noticed early on, for example, that even though part of her original goal was to better serve the trans community, transgender clients would stay for two months then cancel, so she finally asked for feedback. While people she spoke to understood her intention of creating an accessible fitness space, they felt the execution wasn’t there. Even if the space was safe, training and language usage needed to be more inclusive. “They were right,” she said. “I realized that I can be the gay and lesbian gym, or I could be the queer gym, get educated on what I need to learn, and be inclusive of everybody in the community.” She took their feedback to heart and educated herself and her staff to make sure they were properly serving all members of the queer community.

Since it began, the gym has made strides in making sure everyone feels safe, seen, and secure, and the strides show: one third of its clientele identify as transgender now, for example, and retain their memberships. So accountability is not just for the clients. “Nothing tells you about yourself like a business. Because it will show you where you suck. And for me, I grew up,” Huerta says. “I'm the first queer gym which is cool, right? It's cool to pioneer [a] new space. But there's also nobody that's gone ahead of me. And I think there's a certain expectation for me to get it perfect. And when I didn't, you know, the internet's quick to tell you about it.” Huerta is proud that there’s a diverse representation of the queer community, that people join and stay. The community is dynamic, she says, and she knows the best way the gym can continue to serve is to be dynamic, too.

The dynamism doesn’t stop with the gym, either. “One of my biggest growth opportunities as a leader was changing my perspective on vulnerability, like vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness, and the more vulnerable that you're comfortable being, the better leader you become.” The fact that Huerta’s business actively engages with queerness was part of what helped her access her own vulnerability, always fueled, she said, by “my passion for what I do and who I do it for, who I do it with.” This passion is part of what keeps her and The Queer Gym afloat. Another part is always the desire to remain true to the gym’s original mission. “I want to be proud about the realness I'm bringing,” she says. “I just don't have time to be fake.”