American Council on Exercise by American Council on Exercise

In recognition of Pride Month, ACE recently hosted a Facebook Live event discussing the LGBTQIA+ community in the fitness industry. Since education about the terminology involved was a focal point of that discussion, let’s begin by defining each element of that acronym:

  • L – Lesbian
  • G – Gay
  • B – Bisexual
  • T – Transgender
  • Q – Queer or Questioning
  • I – Intersex
  • A – Asexual or Ally
  • + – Other non-heterosexual people

The conversation was moderated by Fred Hoffman, a member of the ACE Board of Directors who has been an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor for 35 years. Fred is the founder and owner of Fitness Resources, an education and consultancy company for health clubs, fitness centers, boutique studios and personal-training companies. Joining him were Hector Fletes, an ACE Certified Personal Trainer who works in campus recreation at UC San Diego, and Marybeth Weiss, MSE.d., MBA, the vice president of learning design at FORME, where she leads the learning design and instructional strategy for the Human Performance department. Marybeth is also a certified personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a Level 2 Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition.

The conversation began with an exploration of the panel members’ experiences in the fitness industry as someone who identifies as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Marybeth started the dialogue by outlining her struggles with trying to maintain a professional appearance when she doesn’t fit a specific gender norm. “As a trainer, I asked myself, ‘What do I wear? How do I fit in?’” And those questions remained even after she moved into the corporate side of the industry.

So much of the fitness industry involves being evaluated on how you look, as that’s often the first thing potential clients consider when making a decision about whether to hire you. They don’t know you, Marybeth explained, and no one wants to be judged when you’re trying to sell yourself and your services, which led her to worry about losing business or not being able to be a full-time trainer because people simply didn’t agree with who she was.

Coupled with that was the question of how much to share of yourself with your clients—and the management at the facility where you work. Hector says this can be a delicate process with clients, particularly when working with youth. Early on in his career, Hector asked the directors where he worked whether he could be frank and honest if someone in his youth program asked about his partner. The directors responded by saying, essentially, “Huh, we’ll have to think about that.” It can be scary to not be able to able to be your true self, and management’s lack of preparedness for that situation highlights the need for more education on concerns related to the LGBTQIA+ community.

And, as Fred reinforced, the fact that Hector felt he needed to ask permission is not something that a heterosexual exercise professional would ever even have to consider.

The good news is, all three panelists believe things are improving. But, Hector says, “I still feel like I need to ask, that I need to get permission to be who I am while at work.” 

Education and Language

When discussing the important topic of how to overcome those obstacles, a few common themes emerged.

First, it is important to note that it is not the responsibility of members the LGBTQIA+ community to educate everyone they encounter. And, as Fred explained, being open with who you are does not come easily to every individual, so we have to be careful about putting that burden on people.

One thing that fitness facilities and leadership within the industry can do to be more welcoming to everyone and to pursue true inclusivity is to learn and implement the language used to describe members of the LGBTQIA+ community. And this goes beyond the acronym to include terms like non-binary (i.e., an individual who doesn’t identify as exclusively male or female) and cisgender (i.e., a person whose sense of identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex), which may be completely new to some people.

When it comes to language, as Hector reminds us, a little grace goes a long way. Everyone is going to make mistakes when trying to incorporate new language into their day-to-day vernacular.

“Even I mess up the language sometimes,” admits Marybeth. And that’s okay. The important thing is to learn from it and make the correction moving forward.

At the end of the day, that comes down to skills in which health coaches and exercise professionals are already well-versed: empathy, active listening, rapport building and communication. It’s about getting to know each person as an individual, and then doing your best to make them feel not only welcomed, but also empowered and valued by your partnership.

Being an ally means educating yourself about proper terminology and then taking action, not only in your daily interaction with other people, but also in your signage, social media presence, intake forms and even invitations to company-sponsored events or holiday parties. Regarding this last example, Marybeth says that simply including “All families welcome” on the invitation can be a bold, inclusive statement.

Importantly, this inclusivity must carry over from the invitation to the event itself, which must also be welcoming and inclusive. This can help organizational leadership—who may be acting from a genuine desire to be allies to the LGBTQIA+ community—from being simply performative in their support.

As Hector explains, while acknowledging Pride Month in a social media post or hanging a rainbow flag in the facility are great and meaningful actions, it’s vital that your support continues beyond the end of June. In addition to working toward making your facility truly welcoming to all people, do some research to find charities or facilities in your area that serve the LGBTQIA+ community and support them year-round.

Representation and an Opportunity Revealed

Fred asked the panel whether there is good representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in the larger fitness community. After a dramatic, sigh-filled pause, both Marybeth and Hector said, “Yes and no.”

Marybeth says she believes we are on an upward swing but that there is still a lot of room for improvement. “Everybody and ‘every body’ needs to be represented and they’re not currently.” 

There simply isn’t a lot of training on this topic, explains Hector, which means there are opportunities for webinars, conventions and tradeshows to fill this gap and provide the needed training. Education on topics related to the LGBTQIA+ community helps create a safe environment where everyone can feel welcomed, empowered and valued.

In addition, it’s vital that organizations that wish to be allies to the LGBTQIA+ community identify and then collaborate with like-minded people and companies that share their values and approach to inclusivity. It’s that open-minded collaboration that can eventually bring meaningful change to the industry, the people working within it, and the people it serves.