At this point it's likely that someone in your world--maybe that high school classmate you haven't spoken to in 10 years who friended you on Facebook--is taking part in the latest fitness craze. You know the person I'm referring to: Their selfies suddenly take a turn for the sweaty and they begin making references to "the box," hashtagging the mysterious "WOD" all over their Instagram updates and describing the kind of "sweat angel" they leave on the floor after pushups.
Now, I haven't stepped inside a gym in years but I know a lot more than your average person thanks to a vocal crew of friends across the country. One of these friends led me to Nathalie Huerta, a queer Latina fitness expert and owner of The Perfect Sidekick, which is branded as the first and only LGBTQ gym in the country.
Huerta's model has a lot of appeal, even to me, someone scared away from gyms after decades of self-hating, diet-driven exercise. It's a space that she says prioritizes relationships between its members, works to remove awkwardness and brings queerness to the front and center. Her mission statement: "To make happy, healthy homos!"
Huerta got into fitness as a young person playing basketball in her hometown of Anaheim, Calif. She found community on the court but also a lot of struggle with homophobia. Her high school basketball coach outed her when she was 16, after she began a relationship with a player from a neighboring team. She describes it as a "super 'Love and Basketball,' dykey coming-out story."
At the college level many of the players she encountered were also gay but she says there was often closetedness among them and resistance from coaches. And, as a Mexican-American, Huerta also had to address stereotypes about her athletic ability. "People, they [looked] at me, and the first assumption was always 'soccer.' I have some really defined legs--and because I'm Mexican it must be soccer."
Huerta became a personal trainer after a post-college summer of working out in a local gym. The Perfect Sidekick idea came out of her discomfort about her own gender presentation: "It wasn't until I started presenting more masculine [that] I realized what a shithole gym spaces were for people who present differently," she says. "If I feel this fucking awkward and I'm a trainer and I work in a gym, I can't be the only one."
That discomfort led her to Google "lesbian personal trainers." All she found was porn and Jillian Michaels, a clear indication that there was a niche that needed to be filled. Five years later and The Perfect Sidekick is a thriving gym that offers branded classes like "Hardcore Homo," asks about customers' preferred gender pronouns and queers the language used in workouts.
"We gender neutralize everything from the bathrooms and the showers to the exercises," says Huerta. "'Superman,' an exercise where you lie on the floor and raise your arms and legs like you are flying has become 'Superpeople.' The 'Indian run,' where a group of people jog in a straight line and the person at the back has to sprint to the front, has also been renamed because of its racism. Huerta calls it the 'Unicorn run.' "When in doubt--name it something gay," she says.
Rose Foronda, a queer person of color who is a member of Huerta's gym, e-mailed with me about what drew her to The Perfect Sidekick: "At TPS you don't have the weird gym culture where people are either sizing you up or uncomfortably checking you out," she explains. "Also, I tried Crossfit and I lasted about six workouts. Their gender politics were horrendous. The misogyny was on overdrive and microaggression-filled language was unbelievable. [During] every single workout I heard the words, 'Men, grab the heavier weight. Women, grab the lighter weight.'"
While The Perfect Sidekick is not explicitly for people of color, both Huerta and Foronda say its customers are multiracial. "We're in Oakland, which is diverse, and we're a queer gym. It's like diversity on crack here sometimes,"Huerta said.
"As a person of color," says Foronda, "I also feel the love in the TPS community. Although, by my estimation, the clientele is still predominantly white, people of color are definitely represented at the gym. I'm not the only one!"
At the end of the day, Huerta says she is interested in expanding her business to other cities "to give more queers throughout the country a safe and healthy space where they can work out." She's currently considering Long Beach, Calif., as well as Portland, Ore. She's also trying to change how health and fitness professionals serve the LGBT community. For example, at a conference this fall for the online scheduling system she uses, Mindbody Online, she responded to the owner's request for suggestions on how to improve the service. "I might be the only one in here that this matters to," she recounts saying, "but your system only allows me two gender options. I'm a queer gym, I need more options than that." This exchange happened in front of 3,000 attendees. At the end, the owner agreed to add a third gender option that owners can customize.
Even with the noise of the gym in the background, Huerta's vibrant personality shines through during our phone interview. The child of immigrants, she learned from her parents. "I was raised in a very business and [entrepreneurial] environment. I remember seeing my mom doing payroll, counting on her fingers with only a third grade education. [She ran] a business for 30 years." When I ask Huerta what her parents think about her current line of work, she laughs and shares, "The first time my mom came to the gym, [she said] 'All that money for college and you work out with lesbians for a living?!' [I responded] 'Yeah mom, only in America!'"