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  • Shane Kokas

Homophobia in Fitness

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

Homophobia is very, very real. 


Prejudice against marginalized communities isn’t new news, and in this case I am discussing the LGBTQ+ community. Though the world has come a long way in it’s treatment of the community, there are still many countries in the world where it is a punishable offense or death for loving the person you care about who happens to be the same gender. 


For the sake of this article, I will be discussing homophobia around health and fitness—in the personal workout sense, but also in a professional space. 


The most recent mainstream cases of homophobia would be from Gus Kenworthy—one of first openly gay athletes to compete in the Olympics for Team USA. 


Gus is active on social media and during his competition in the 2018 Winter Olympics shared his experience, which included his boyfriend. Gus made note of some of the comments showing up on his YouTube channel. The slurs were hateful and derogatory, but could be summed up as,


“It’s 2018—homophobia doesn’t exist anymore. We get it—no one cares you’re gay.” 

Parker Molloy wrote a piece on the issue stating, “no one sent ‘nobody cares that you’re straight’ comments to straight athletes posting about their significant others or families. It’s almost like they do care that he’s gay.” 


Gus chose to showcase this as an example that, yes, it’s 2018 and homophobia is alive—particularly in sports. 


There was an online study, which polled 9,500 people (75% LGBTQ+) in six English-speaking countries — United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. 

The data shows 81% of the Canadians surveyed witnessed or experienced homophobia in sports, while 84% of gay men and 88% of lesbians faced slurs. Over 85% per cent of Canadian LGBTQ+ youth reported they were not open about their sexuality with their teammates. 


I never had a divested interest in sports growing up myself, but figure skating did grab my attention. “Figure skating is for girls, boys play hockey” is what I was told.  


Let me take this moment to acknowledge first openly gay Winter Olympic gold medallist, Eric Radford in figure skating and the Women’s Team USA taking home the gold medial in hockey in 2018. 


Homophobia is a common issue in LGBTQ+ members reaching their health and fitness goals as well.


Anxiety is common among most gym goers, but much of the anxiety in the gym comes from valid concerns surrounding fitness culture. Many marginalized groups are still not fully accepted or represented in these spaces. 


Outside of a workout perspective, homophobia runs in the workplace as well. A new report based on YouGov research with 3213 LGBTQ employees, found that over a 1/3 of LGBTQ people at work have hidden their identity out of fear of discrimination from colleagues (this number rises to 42% for Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBTQ+ staff, and 51% for trans staff). 


Workplace bullying/harassment continues to be an issue with close to 1/5 of LGBTQ+ people at work having faced negative comments or conduct from co-workers because of their sexuality or gender identity.


Carlito Pablo wrote an article in March 2018, explaining the alleged discrimination by a Vancouver gym manager and co-owner against a gay fitness coach. The article states the employer allegedly said that he will “not hire anymore gay men because he was concerned that they would hit on him”. Also, the owner allegedly said “his life would be easier if he was gay because everyone would hit on him”.


B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Jacqueline Beltgens stated, the accused also noted that the claims are “exaggerated or untrue” but do not dispute that certain comments were made. The accused deny that the fitness coach was ever bullied, but assert that the comments made, were all intended to be light-hearted, and none of them were directed at the fitness coach. To the best of my knowledge, the matter is still being settled with the use of the tribunal’s mediation services. 


Regardless of the intent behind the comments (being “light-hearted” jokes), it was still at the expense of a person—a marginalized group of people. 


Though I was “late” to coming out—I came out in my early 20’s, homophobic slurs was something I was experiencing from as far back as I can remember. 


My biggest professional homophobic indecent was brought to my attention in 2015 when colleagues were using my sexuality as a form of attack on another colleague (who is straight and I barely knew). 


“No one should make you feel bad for the way you choose to live your life”, the culprits explained to me during the meeting. After listening to forced sounding apologies, my colleague and I looked them in the eye and asked, “Why, out of every one—all other coworkers—why did you choose me—why did you choose, Shane?” After many versions of, “I don’t know—it was just a joke taken too far”, I realized they couldn’t publicly admit that it was because I'm gay.


I would describe the following months as awkward, but civil. There was now an "elephant in the room", I had to be alongside not just the homophobic messengers, but some colleagues who turned a blind eye and meetings that fell quiet.


Up until that moment, I had the privilege of being a gay man, who never had to question whether or not my sexuality would be a problem in the workplace. 


Fitness Personality, Jillian Michaels describes how she had “lost a couple big campaigns and a couple magazine covers fell through”, after coming out publicly as a lesbian. 


Not all cases are so, in your face—I have been in this industry since 2011 and I can recall a fleeting moment where I am working with a client, then suddenly made part of another (straight) trainer’s narrative as he’s questioning his failed relationships adding, "...even Shane can find a woman.” 


There is a lot to unpack there, but for the topic of this article I will just reference the societal default of me being with a woman. At the time of writing this, I have been committed to another man for almost five years. I don’t place full ownership on this man, because he was a boy who grew up in a society where the expectation is, “men find themselves a woman.” Not to mention I now needed to navigate through a narrative I wasn't asked to be apart of during my client's session, as they are fully aware of the context. I also need to note that I didn't feel any malicious intent behind the comment, I feel it was made purely from a place of ignorance. 


Earlier in my career I was hesitant to make my sexuality known in the fear of losing clients.


Today when asked about my weekend during a client's session, I don't have an issue mentioning my boyfriend passively in conversation because personally, I am more comfortable in my body, but also I don't want to work with those who would deny me of my basic rights anyway. It took time for me to get here and I realize in a way, a privilege I hold right now. Where before it was in the forefront of my mind, but also because I recognize many LGBTQ+ trainers may too struggle with this professionally. 


There have been some reports that the biggest issue with homophobia and sports/fitness is within the change rooms.


Cyd Zeigler (one of the founders of Outsports.com) stated to the Chicago Tribune, on a professional level, it’s the “locker room” banter that further marginalizes a gay/closeted person. Reporting most closeted athletes cannot relate to the banter going on because it’s usually about woman (derogatory or not) and teasing of the male gender (usually at the expense of qualities non-straight men generally posses). Another issue with that 'banter' is due to the relaxed nature of gyms compared to other professional establishments, that banter can easily find it's way onto the gym floor where LGBTQ+ clients and trainers now need to navigate around. 


Change room harassment and judgements are prevalent to the Community on the general scale from patrons just trying to workout in their local gym. Those who may not be “straight passing” are at a higher risk for harassment and physical abuse as well. 


Personally, when I think about gym class, yeah, the class sucked, but a huge anxiety trigger, was the change room itself.


I knew there would be guys in there with me that have said slurs to me or I have heard them say to others, making me nervous because I thought, “What if?”


What if they verbally assaulted me?

What if they physically assaulted me? 

What if something happens, and there is no adult authority to witness?


So when I read that the locker/change rooms were an issue, I wasn't surprised. 

I have an appreciation for professional sports, but personally don’t follow them closely. With this I am making myself more aware of professional athlete's experiences coming out of the closet and how their careers may have been affected. 


Homophobia in fitness is a very diverse, multi-layered subject and I have only scratched the surface here.


Admittedly, I still have much to learn, but after many conversations, global issues and personal experience, I felt the need to showcase the issues that the LGBTQ+ Fitness Community faces both on a personal “working out” and professional “training/athlete” level. 


I also feel as someone who is working professionally in the health/wellness industry, these are issues that need to be discussed, because fitness is, and should be, for everyone. 

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