How This Female Founder Opened America’s First LGBTQ-Friendly Gym

By: Nathalie Huerta

I played college basketball for Dominican University of California, so fitness was always part of my life. But when I stopped playing, I gained 70 pounds. I went from a college athlete to weighing 250 pounds by graduation.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I did know I wanted to lose weight. So the following summer, I started working out at a local gym. I became friends with the manager, who asked if I’d consider being a trainer there—I had a degree in exercise and sports medicine and I spoke Spanish, which were two things they were looking for. He said, “I can hire you, but you have to show weight loss in three months” (which, yes, was absolutely crazy).

In the beginning, I had no clients. But as I started to lose the weight I had gained—and transform my body in front of everyone at the gym—suddenly, there was a two-month waitlist to train with me. 

When I was training at that gym, I was already out as a gay woman, but I “passed” as straight. And I had the same bad experience most femme-presenting women have with creepy guys at the gym. But society tolerated it, so I tolerated it. I figured I’d deal with degraders at the gym, and that’s just how it is.

As I began to openly express my queerness, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable in gyms.

As time went on, I cut my hair and started to present more masculine. The weight room started to feel like a competition with the guys, and I didn’t feel welcome with the women in the locker room. I was uncomfortable because of how uncomfortable people were being around me.

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It finally reached a point where I just stopped going to the gym to work out. I would go in to train my clients, then I would work out at home or play basketball at the park. I thought, “I can’t be the only queer person having a shitty gym experience.”

I mean, think about transgender people: They’re proven more likely to experience physical or sexual violence. For them, it’s not even about being uncomfortable at the gym—it’s, “Am I going to get jumped or raped in the locker room?” No one is more committed to transforming their body than a trans person is, and they don’t have anywhere to do that safely. 

I thought there had to be some sort of option for queer people—but there wasn’t.

When I started searching online for an inclusive, safe space to work out, nothing appeared in the search results. That was where the seed was planted in my mind to start my own gym.

As my career developed at the gym and I was working my way up to district management, I got to learn more about the business side of things. I quit my job during the 2008 economic crisis and went back to school to get my MBA. I knew I wanted my business to be some sort of gay gym—something tailored to us. When I opened The Queer Gym in Oakland, California, during my second semester of grad school, it was the first LGBTQ gym in the nation.

Our mission at The Queer Gym is to create “happy, healthy homos.” There are gender-neutral bathrooms, no mirrors, and all of our trainers take LGBTQI+ sensitivity training. We offer tailored training specifically for trans people preparing for gender confirmation surgery, and host social events for our community to get to know each other. 

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My next calling is to make sure we’re not the only LGTBQ gym.

As The Queer Gym comes up on its 10th anniversary this month, I’m thinking about the next 10 years. One thing I’ve realized is that you’ve got to be determined to start a business—and in order to keep it open, you need vulnerability. In any business, you grow the business by growing the people, and to grow the people, you need to be amicable. So my goal is to help other queer or trans trainers who want to replicate what we do get started.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, we transitioned all of our clients to an online format—and now that our community is more accessible, we have nearly doubled in size. Going digital allows us to expand our mission beyond the 4-mile radius of the gym and to start coaching others to do this, too. I want to start creating “happy, healthy, wealthy homos”—because economics is a part of wellness, and it’s something that often the queer community gets excluded from.

I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished, but the coolest thing is that now, when someone Googles “queer gym,” they don’t get unsatisfactory search results. We made it a thing.


Photo Source: Nathalie Huerta

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