A few months after coming out to himself as transgender, Xavier Morales met with a surgeon to discuss top surgery. The doctor made a surprising suggestion at that December 2013 consultation: Morales should also start hitting the gym.
Even though Morales was fairly healthy, he told Mic, the surgeon "recommended that I start going to the gym to really work out my upper body." The doctor said it would help make Morales's chest more masculine-looking. Morales was already taking testosterone, which would help develop muscle and burn fat.
Morales was up for the task — but he'd need to find the right gym. That's when he remembered a gym from a couple of years back — the one he would pass every day on his way to the coffee shop near his then-girlfriend's home. It was called the Perfect Sidekick, and it advertised itself as an "LGBT gym."
He joined the Oakland, California, gym in January 2014 and began exercising in preparation for his surgery. The gym made a fast impression on him, for reasons both physical and emotional.
"I remember right around the two- or three-month mark of going to the gym, I started to feel really good about my body," Morales said. "That was phenomenal. As a trans person, to feel really good about your body before you've had any surgeries — that's amazing."
But one of the best parts, he said, was the culture. "At my first or second class I took at the gym, as part of the introduction, they started asking people for their preferred gender pronouns — that was amazing," he said. He felt safe to introduce himself as Xavier, even though it wasn't his legal name, and to say that his preferred gender pronoun was male.
"I thought it was so significant," he said. "I think it made me feel really safe. It made me feel like I could be exactly who I envisioned myself to be."
That sense of safety is exactly what Nathalie Huerta, who founded the Perfect Sidekick around 5 1/2 years ago, works to create for her members — around 80% of whom identify with LGBT communities.
At the Perfect Sidekick, group classes begin with participants sharing their names and preferred pronouns. Instead of gender-segregated change rooms, there's one big locker room open to folks of all gender identities. The gym's staff is required to attend regular sensitivity training.
In other words, it provides the opposite kinds of experiences Huerta had had at mainstream gyms.
"I noticed that as my sexuality started to evolve, my experience at the gym became shittier," she told Mic. "As my gender expression started to change and I started to present and look more masculine, I noticed an even bigger change."
Changing became a source of stress. "The locker room was definitely an awkward thing," she said. "Women would cover themselves up if I came in the room. They'd be like, 'This is a women's locker room.'"
The weight room was no more comfortable. "It's very much dominated by males," Huerta told Mic. "Having a butch lesbian come in and try to lift — it wasn't very welcoming."
Huerta figured she couldn't be the only lesbian who felt the way she did.
"That's where the idea was born," she said.
"The confidence, the swag, those things that aren't necessarily quantifiable — I think it's the coolest thing to see." — Nathalie Huerta
Building a gym for LGBT communities meant accommodating the fitness needs of all people, including transgender members at various stages of transitioning.
"We've gotten members anywhere on the spectrum, from thinking about transitioning; to having started hormone therapy; to having transitioned in the the past and are going back on hormones; to having just finished top surgery," Huerta said.
Trainers tailor their workout plans to whatever information a client is comfortable sharing. If a client is taking testosterone or estrogen, those hormones "set different tones for the training," Huerta said.
Estrogen tends to produce increased body fat and increased mobility. "Because the estrogen is going to cause additional body fat, at that point we're doing more things that are high-intensity cardio to help counter-effect those estrogen shots," Huerta said.
"For somebody taking testosterone, the opposite is true: They'll see results much faster because of their ability to develop muscle," she told Mic. Testosterone also decreases mobility, which means they're more at risk for injury.
Trainers tailor their workout plans to whatever information a client is comfortable sharing.
Trainers also give special guidance when a client is preparing for surgery — things a client might not necessarily think about when preparing for, say, top surgery or breast augmentation.
Through customized workouts, transgender clients can shape their bodies to match their gender identities. "As trainers, we map our their schedule," Huerta said. "'For what you're trying to do, you should take these classes X amount of times and avoid these classes.'"
"After surgery, you can't move your chest," she said. "You have to really train somebody on developing their lower body strength and core stability."
For Morales, that meant plenty of upper-body work. He wanted more muscle in the chest area and bigger arms.
"We worked a lot on pull-ups, push-ups, did a lot of work with dumbbells, Olympic-style lifting — it was really great," Morales said.
Morales' top surgery was scheduled for June 2014. As he prepared for surgery, TPS recommended he take more yoga classes to help with his healing. After top surgery, his upper body would be completely immobilized. Yoga would help his balance and his ability to move using core strength alone.
"I remember one of the trainers was like, 'You should take yoga; it's going to help with balance and your core. You can get up in bed without using your arms,'" Morales said. "It totally helped. They were right."
But physical training wasn't the only way the Perfect Sidekick helped with Morales' surgery. The gym came together as a community, coordinating his post-operative care. People took shifts visiting him and dropping off food. At least 30% of the gym's members came to visit him at least once — to Morales, they felt like a family. "I"ll never forget it," he said.
Having that strong support system helped Morales feel confident about the major change he'd just undergone.
"To have the TPS community there, as well as my personal networks, it was just reinforcement that it's OK that I transitioned — that I was going to be OK," he said. "It really normalized it."
When it comes to working with transgender clients, Huerta's favorite part of being a trainer isn't watching their physical transformations, but their transformations within — "really seeing them become comfortable with who they are and appreciating their body for the first time," she said.
"The confidence, the swag, those things that aren't necessarily quantifiable," she said. "I think it's the coolest thing to see."