I Felt Uncomfortable Exercising As A Queer Woman – Until Now

It’s midday on a bracingly cold Saturday in mid January, the kind of day when you want nothing more than to stay in bed with some snacks and a good book. Instead I’m squatting to the beat in a neon-lit studio in east London while Kylie’s Greatest Hits blasts on the speakers and a drag queen Mariah Carey prowls around taking selfies in the mirrors.
It might sound like my Friday night out got a bit out of hand, but I’m not still up from the night before. I’m at Drag Diva Fit, a weekly exercise class on a mission to make fitness less of a drag with a little help from some of pop’s biggest divas. Attracting a diverse crowd of hen parties, older women and groups of queer friends, the class is probably more suitable as a one-off, wholesome alternative to brunch or the pub than as part of a serious exercise regime, but I’m here to find out if it’s something I could see myself doing on a regular basis.
I recently reached the middle of my 20s and during the ensuing quarter-life crisis, I decided it was time to make some lifestyle changes before my four coffees a day, toast-heavy diet, inability to say no to a pint and mostly sedentary existence led to my early demise. One of those changes, predictably, was to get some Regular Exercise.
The problem is, I’ve often felt a bit uncomfortable in conventional fitness spaces. It’s not that I don’t enjoy exercising (not to be a show-off but I was actually vice captain of the Emmanuel College Year 7 netball team) or that I’m unwilling to commit the time, money and energy it takes to stick with a fitness routine, it's more that as a visibly queer woman I tend to feel a bit out of place among all the high ponytails and Stella McCartney x adidas leggings in your average gym or fitness class. Public spaces can feel unwelcoming for people who look or feel 'different', particularly those which combine rigid gender binaries, communal changing rooms and the pursuit of physical perfection with strangers, Lycra and visible exertion. 
It’s not uncommon for LGBTQ+ people’s experiences of fitness spaces to run the gamut from mild discomfort to outright homophobia, with one study discovering that 63% of UK participants believe team sports environments to be more homophobic than general society. For queer women, who have to contend with misogyny alongside this, it can be enough to put you off fitness for good. It’s no surprise that research by Public Health England and the National LGB&T Partnership found that LGBTQ+ people are statistically a lot less likely to stay fit, with 56% of queer women and 64% of those who identify outside the gender binary not exercising enough to maintain good health. 
Queer trainers Kole Fulmine and Michelle Amosu are well aware of the problem. Both are non-binary and have come across their fair share of casual homophobia and misgendering in mainstream gyms and fitness classes, experiences which inspired them to set up their own class, Queer Circuits.

Sharing our pronouns at the beginning of class might seem like a pretty small departure from convention, but the knowledge that this is a space that recognises the particular needs and anxieties of LGBTQ+ people is enough to make it a far more relaxing and enjoyable experience.

"I think from a very young age many of us have been put off being physical because of an inherent shame," they say over email. "That feeling of being wrong because you don't see anyone like you in a space that is supposed to make you feel better about yourself can compound anxieties around exercise or moving one's body in public, which is a shame because in our eyes, there isn't a better space to encourage feelings of euphoria and excitement. The wellness industry has a lot of work to do to make queer people feel accepted, so we set up Queer Circuits with a very clear manifesto: a safe space for our community to feel represented and encouraged. We don't body shame, we don't judge, and we try and ensure that there is a shared energy in our sessions, that no one feels afraid to ask questions or call something out."
The weekly Sunday morning class on Hackney Downs is fewer than 10 minutes from my doorstep so I don’t really have any excuse not to try it out, even if it starts before I’ve usually got dressed at the weekend. With zero drag queens in attendance, it’s not really any different from a standard outdoor class, apart from a couple of minutes at the beginning where we all share our names and pronouns. It might seem like a pretty small departure from convention, but the knowledge that this is a space which recognises the particular needs and anxieties of LGBTQ+ people is enough to make it a far more relaxing and enjoyable experience than I’ve typically had in classes like this, despite discovering muscles I didn’t know existed over the course of the hourlong session. 
While it’s good to finally find an intensive class that I could commit to regularly, I’m keen to combine it with something a little less strenuous too, so I head to Queer Yoga at Clapton social enterprise Supply Yoga, which aims to tackle disparity in access to wellness, with queer instructor Elle Bower Johnston.
"It’s important for the yoga industry to not only talk of 'accessibility' and 'safe spaces' but to do the deeper work of making their studios actually feel safe for a wider group of people," Elle explains in an email. "Studios need to hire more queer teachers, more POC teachers, more fat teachers. It's important to start to walk the talk and make changes around who gets represented as belonging in the yoga world."
For Elle, yoga’s capacity to encourage people to feel more grounded and at one with their bodies is especially helpful for LGBTQ+ people. "Yoga offers us a chance to meet ourselves exactly as we are, to offer ourselves care and compassion, and get to know our bodies from the inside out rather than from external validation," she explains. "These are skills that every human could use, but they’re particularly empowering for the queer community." I’ve never set foot inside a yoga studio before I visit Supply for one of the monthly Saturday afternoon sessions, but Elle does a great job of putting the class at ease with a relaxing tone and ethos of self-love. By the end of the session I’m basically a Lululemon ambassador. 
The three classes I’ve attended might have been very different from one another but they all proved one thing: There is a space for the LGBTQ+ community in the fitness world, and there are trainers and instructors who care about making queer people feel comfortable, understood and accepted enough to enjoy staying fit. It might take a bit of work to seek them out but these spaces do exist, and I’m excited to make use of them in the future. 

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