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As conversations about transgender rights — fueled by anti-trans legislation around gender-affirming care and inclusion in sports — reverberate across the country, a growing number of trans male influencers have aimed to create safer spaces in an industry not exactly known for transgender inclusion: fitness.
“A huge part of mental health is physical well-being,” Mar Keller, a trans fitness entrepreneur, tells Yahoo Life.
It's why influencers like Keller have been able to form communities, both online and in real life, for queer folks navigating their life and fitness goals. Shawn Stinson, the first ever trans male two-time bodybuilding champion and a personal trainer with nearly 18K followers, helms one such space. Ilya Parker, similarly, has built Decolonizing Fitness, a consulting firm striving to help trainers and gyms across the country unlearn "toxic fitness culture."
Meanwhile, some fitness companies are already there — including the Los Angeles-based Everybody Gym and the online training service Non-Gendered Fitness, which aim to offer welcoming spaces for trans clients, especially while they're in the process of transitioning.
Keller has built queer-focused online platforms like Q Grit Fitness, a personal training service he founded in 2019 catering to people of all sizes, abilities and identities, giving queer clients a newfound confidence in their bodies. It's something he believes has saved lives.
“A lot of queer people just want to exist as they are," he explains. "Their bodies are so scrutinized in everyday life, they don't really want to show up to a gym and feel like they're being scrutinized there, as well.”
While the personal training industry in the United States is currently estimated at $13 billion — representing a jump of $3.5 billion over the last 10 years, according to research from Ibis World — Keller say gyms and similar fitness spaces often neglect the needs of trans and nonbinary people.
“In the beginning of my transition, when I was trying to masculinize my body, I didn't really feel like I fit in anywhere going to the gym,” he tells Yahoo Life. “I was comparing myself to cis men and getting misgendered and not really knowing who to look up to. And I didn't really see a lot of healthy role models out there who were going through the same experience.”
Positive role models are vital for normalizing and celebrating trans bodies, says model-activist Aydian Dowling, a fitness professional who, in 2015, became the first trans man to be featured on the cover of Men’s Health.
Dowling began documenting his gender transition on YouTube in 2009 as a means to connect with other trans folks and to cultivate conversations about health and well-being — areas he says are widely misunderstood and under-researched when it comes to trans men.
“There is a large responsibility on trans men to speak up in spaces and times, to remind other men that, regardless of our sex at birth, we have an experience of being a man in the world,” Dowling tells Yahoo Life. “I have a voice to add to the table of masculinity I think could be really eye-opening for many men — and maybe offer a sense of kinship.”
That’s why Dowling co-founded Trace, an app for trans people undergoing gender transition surgery, helping them to track their progress and to create community support for their emotional, mental and physical health.
“It's hard to make choices that will benefit your body when you don't feel a connection to your body,” Dowling says of the need for fitness professionals to empower gender-diverse people.
“Isn't that what most people are at the gym for?" he continues. "They feel some type of disconnect and they're just trying to align [themselves]. Everyone has different goals: Some people are trying to get ripped and lean, and some people are just trying to move and feel good and get healthy. When we boil it down to those things, we're all there for the same reason.”
"Through storytelling, we become more human"
At least 20 million adults in the United States, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent survey, could be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — representing nearly 8% of the total adult population. Of that number, more than 1% (or over 2 million) identify as transgender.
But despite more people identifying as LGBTQ than ever before, projects centering the trans male experience have been a slow burn — despite the trails blazed by celebs including Chaz Bono, Leo Sheng, Brian Michael Smith and Elliot Page.
T Cooper, executive producer and writer for NBC’s Blacklist, and whose documentary Man Made highlights the lives of trans male bodybuilders, says authentic storytelling not only saves lives but society as a whole, because it challenges toxic ideals around masculinity.
“It's very important to see our lives represented authentically on screen,” Cooper, himself transgender, tells Yahoo Life. Last season, for example, Cooper and his Blacklist team cast five transgender actors in non-trans-specific roles — a huge shift for trans visibility in Hollywood.
“When I was coming of age as a trans person, there were very few protected groups where you could sort of trade photos and information about top surgery or whatever,” he says, noting the importance of online communities like those created by Dowling and Keller. “Now, it's just such a different world. You might be in Texas, or wherever, but you can reach people all around the world who can offer possibilities for yourself.”
When one builds space for trans men to have rich conversations about physical and mental health, Dowling says, it has a trickle-down effect.
“Through storytelling, we become more human,” Dowling, father to a 4-year-old son, shares. “I've gone to the gym and have had people not enjoying my presence. Then I've had people who maybe just didn't quite know how to respond, but then we start a conversation — I would hear their story, they would hear my story — and it really humanizes us.”
Seeing trans people happy and thriving, Cooper notes, has a profound effect for parents of trans kids, as well. “The first reaction for many parents [of trans kids] is rejection,” he explains. “But when you see images of successful, healthy, thriving trans people, that tips them over to acceptance and support of their kids, when the opposite could literally be fatal.”
“When I would tour around with Man Made, cis straight dudes would come up and just be like, ‘Wow, I relate to that story’ or ‘I couldn't be further away from this experience, and yet I saw myself and my relationship to masculinity,’” adds Cooper, who is currently developing a docuseries based on the film. “Those are the kinds of things that help push people [toward acceptance].”
"There’s a lot of work to be done"
Looking ahead, Keller says it’s important for companies — particularly big chains like Equinox, 24 Hour Fitness and Planet Fitness — to be mindful of the needs of trans folks, especially now.
“When there's so many anti-trans bills saying, ‘Your existence isn't important’ or ‘Your body is wrong,’ there's a lot of parallels between that and the fitness industry,” he explains. “Feeling connected to your body is something I think a lot of queer and trans people don't necessarily have access to in a cis-heteronormative world.”
Dowling believes we’re reaching a precipice at which mainstream society — despite its attempts to dismiss trans people — will soon have no choice but to embrace equality.
“In the late ’70s and late ’80s going into the ’90s, there was this concept of, well, if we shun away gay people they will just go away, they'll disappear,” he explains. “I think that's what the trans community is experiencing now: if the outside world stops acknowledging us, then maybe we'll just disappear.”
But, he says, “As history has proven, that is not at all what happens. If anything, we grow in numbers, and kinda use that [backlash] as more of a reason to come out and to be more proud and to speak more assertively about our lives and who we are.”
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