The Instagram Community That’s Decolonizing Fitness

Here’s where to find a safe space for queer and trans people to get fit or stay healthy.
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Small group training at Sweet Momentum Fitness in Portland, OR. 

Photo by Lauren Miles.

In April, Beck Beverage was tagged in an Instagram post. It was a callout for trans- and queer-affirming personal trainers. Within a few weeks, the post had more than 150 comments, with trainers shouting out themselves and clients tagging the people they’ve worked with.

For Beverage, who is a certified personal trainer and owner of Sweet Momentum Fitness in Portland, Ore., that was an introduction to an online community of queer and trans trainers across the United States. “Before I found out about Decolonizing Fitness, I really struggled with feeling very isolated as a trans person in the fitness industry and as someone trying to build a business based around pretty progressive values,” they said.

In 2017, the U.S. had 38,447 health clubs, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. The number includes YMCAs, community centers, and studios, among other places to work on your fitness. And yet, there aren’t a lot of places where queer and trans people to feel safe to work out and train.

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Queer and trans people often experience discrimination in fitness spaces. The very design of gyms, both in the physical buildings and their processes, is often gendered. Intake forms offer “male” and “female” gender options, and restrooms and changing rooms typically don’t make room for people who identify as nonbinary. Additionally, people point to other patrons misgendering or harassing them.

That’s where the Decolonizing Fitness database comes in. Ilya Parker, owner of Decolonizing Fitness LLC, posted that callout to confirm the need to create a free, downloadable list of fitness trainers and movement trainers who provide affirming services for queer and trans clients.

“I hope Decolonizing Fitness can help improve the lives of trans, queer, fat, gender-nonconforming, disabled, and chronically ill people by carving space for us to exist freely just as we are,” Parker wrote by email. “I firmly believe that fitness can be used [as] a healing modality which will offer us room to reconnect with and find peace in our bodies.”

Decolonizing in the fitness world means creating spaces where trainers and clients are intentionally accepting of everyone, no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race, or any other identity. For example, there’s a body-positive gym in Oakland that was founded with the purpose of meeting the needs of everybody who uses the space.

Ilya Parker, owner of Decolonizing Fitness. Photo from Ilya Parker.

Since Parker, a licensed physical therapist assistant and medical exercise coach, started the database, it has grown to include about 100 personal trainers, strength coaches, yogis, and other fitness or wellness professionals. They’re based in many U.S. cities and the database even includes a few international listings—in Melbourne, Australia, and Toronto.

Bianca Russo, a personal trainer and founder of Body Positive Boot Camp in Washington, D.C., was one of the first people to respond to Parker’s post about queer- and trans-affirming trainers. She said she felt uncomfortable in previous gyms, and most fitness services aren’t “positive, inclusive, trans-affirming” like the one she owns and others on the database.

Bianca Russo (right), founder of Body Positive Boot Camp, with personal client Dee Dennis who is wearing a t-shirt that reads Eff Your Beauty Standards. Photo from Body Positive Boot Camp.

“The business model stands for almost the antithesis of what the greater general fitness community is putting in everybody’s faces,” Russo said, noting that Decolonizing Fitness is encouraging all fitness and wellness professionals to make their work more inclusive and accessible.

“The focus is shifting from only centering cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied people,” Parker wrote. “The database is prompting people to be mindful of those who carry multiple marginalized identities.”

“The database is prompting people to be mindful of those who carry multiple marginalized identities.”

In addition to the database, Decolonizing Fitness has a growing Instagram following (16.9K followers as of this writing). There, Parker posts messages related to health, racial, and queer justice as well as photos and videos of people who are queer, trans, and/or of color in fitness spaces.

Both Russo and Beverage said Decolonize Fitness has helped them connect to other trainers across the country. Beverage recalled a post where trainers discussed how they make their businesses accessible and others where Parker discussed how trainers can maintain active awareness of their clients’ various identities when working out.

Beck Beverage, owner of Sweet Momentum Fitness. Photo by Lauren Miles.

Having this awareness is important because a person might have different needs related to identity. For example, people using chest binders might need to adjust their reps because the garment can affect the ability to flex and cause shortness of breath.

“These are conversations, that for me, I don’t get to have in networking groups or in other places,” Beverage said. “It’s giving a voice to folks ... totally overlooked and not taken seriously.”

On another post about social media allowing marginalized people to engage in important conversations, one user commented, “I found you recently while looking for alternative spaces in health and fitness world outside the heteronormative mainstream, and I’m so glad I found you.”

This is one of those examples of social media providing a constructive learning tool for connection. Decolonizing Fitness helps each body and gender find its role in being an ally to their neighbors who may not identify in the same ways that they do.

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.