(And Other Lessons I'm Learning as a TransWoman)
The gym is a complicated place for most transgender people. Thankfully, the one I belong to has been awesome throughout my transition. I started working out there a few months before going on hormones, wanting to get a jump on the muscle atrophy and weight gain estrogen so lovingly provides. I had no problem waltzing into the men’s locker room in a sundress, and did so for the better part of a year. When things started taking shape however, going into the stall to change my bra kinda felt like a disgrace, and the gym staff let me use their single-unit gender-neutral employee restroom instead.
I wasn’t about to use the women’s locker room while I still had a dick. I respect women’s spaces and recognize that male genitalia, even when tucked, can be a trigger that makes some women feel unsafe. Even after I got rid of my penis (and once I was finally able to work out again) I still felt terrified that someone would complain about a man changing in the ladies’ room. To be honest, I don’t really consider myself “passable.” It’s probably all in my head, but when I walk around naked with a pussy and a weave I still assume other ladies are gonna clock me as a tranny. (Yeah, I said it and you can’t. Sorry.) All this is to say, the mental and emotional workout a Trans person experiences at the gym is as great as–if not greater than–the physical fitness they’re seeking.
This also explains why it was such a shock when last week this hot dude hit on me at the gym.
I saw him when I was walking back to the locker room, finished for the day. We smiled at one another as I flung my gym towel over my shoulder and he adjusted his headphones between chest presses.
You know that light headed euphoria you get after a good workout? The fuzzy exhaustion coupled with rewarding soreness? Well that’s the state I was in when, while refilling my water bottle, I heard this suave voice behind me.
“You work out here a lot?”
I turned. It was the smiling headphones dude.
“Yeah, all the time.”
“That’s funny, I never seen you here before.”
I tell him I’ve been out of town for a while, and move out of the way. Oh. He doesn’t have a bottle to fill.
He asks my name. I tell him. He tells me his.
“Damn, you’re beautiful Shakina.”
Now look, yo soy feminist, but those words said to that name, especially coming from muscled dudes with a nice line-up and an assortment of tats, will still activate my vaginal pulse.
“Take my number,” I tell him.
In truth I was still thinking about Daniel. But he had told me to get to know other guys, and that’s what I was doing.
This dude’s eyes light up, perhaps baffled by his easy win. “Yeah? For sure!” He motions for me to walk with him, “I’ve never had a friend like you, Shakina.”
What does he mean by that, I wonder rhetorically. Tall? Ample? Almost famous?
We head back toward the locker rooms, presumably to get his phone. He veers over to the staff area, an otherwise off-limits zone with which I’m thankfully familiar.
“Ah nice, you work here?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m just trying to find…” His voice trails off as he turns the corner into the back room. He quickly reappears, “my buddy was just here…”
I’m a bit confused, still dazed from my sprints. His buddy has his phone?
“Ah, right! Over here…” He goes back down the hall to what looks like a janitorial closet. “Follow me”.
He ducks behind the open door and that little buzzer in my mind goes off, the sex-and-danger warning light, only it’s clouded by workout fatigue and the novelty of this surprising interaction.
Yup. It’s a closet. There’s a mop and stacks of boxes, cleaning supplies and a bag of towels on the floor. And now I’m in it, and I fully understand what’s going on.
“Hey, I’m not comfortable with this,” I say, turning around and pushing past him. He says something like “hold up” or “wait a sec” but the door is closing and I’m not about to get stuck inside. I realize my heart is racing, I realize I feel unsafe. How quickly the tone of the moment has changed.
Now if I were a gay man maybe we would have jerked off in the steam room together. That shit happens all the time. And if I were more sexually adventurous I might have fucked him right there against the mop bucket. (I’ve always wanted to be Kim Cattrall in that scene from Porky’s…”the boy’s locker room always turns me on…” And then I’m on my back getting it from the basketball coach, howling orgiastically with a jockstrap in my mouth…) BUT, I was there to give this guy my number, not take his dick in the dark.
Just then a hand wrapped around the closing door and pulled it open. It was a guy from the staff, “Hey, y’all can’t be back here!”
I bust out into the hallway and threw my gym bag around me, “Homie, you can’t be tryin’ to get me in trouble.” I said to him, “They know me here, I’ve been working out at this place since I was a dude!”
He laughs, the guy on staff is looking at me like smmfh. I’m secretly so thankful he was there to intervene.
I thought the whole thing was funny at first. I snapchatted something about it and sent a text to a friend who works at the gym. It’s only in recounting the story that I start to freak out. I realize I’m shaking, I realize I’m short of breath, I realize I want to cry.
I think back to a friend, this woman I know and admire, sexually liberated and strong in her own power. She told me how her boss had put the moves on her when they were sharing a cab. How suddenly all the comments and advances she pretended not to notice added up to one emboldened and unwelcome advance. How for days after that she felt sick and depressed and kept asking how she let herself get into that situation.
How did I let myself get into that situation?
I was sincerely confused. I’m a grown-ass person, and still I couldn’t say “No!” when I sensed things getting shady. It all happened so fast, and I went from feeling flattered to threatened in an exchange that lasted less than two minutes. Now I was left feeling sad, ashamed, and responsible.
“Welcome to being a woman,” I thought.
It’s fucked, but it’s true.
Not all sexual assaults are outwardly violent. Some are subtle and play off making you feel valued. But objectification does not equal appreciation, and even subtle force–when applied with the intent to take advantage or disempower–can be traumatic.
You don’t always notice it happening, until suddenly something feels wrong. And it’s harder to label because it’s harder to see. And you try to justify it or excuse it away; tell yourself you’re being too sensitive, paranoid, critical. And you ask yourself, “how did I let myself get into this situation?”
Here’s the thing: You didn’t get yourself into this situation. It wasn’t your clothing or your hair or your smile or your walk or the fact that you accepted a drink or a ride home or even your offer to give someone at the gym your number. These “situations” are brought about by our masculinist culture that sanctions predatory behavior and passes it off as swagger. We didn’t get ourselves into it, but we owe it to each other to work ourselves out.
Incidentally, after that brief and disconcerting interaction, that dude from the gym gave me his number. I plan on texting him the link to this blog.
Some quick tips on defusing masculinist swagger at the gym (or elsewhere in your everyday feminist practice):
- Burn Down The Walls That Say You Can’t (Thanks Bikini Kill)(Thanks Bikini Kill)
- Read bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody while doing your cardio
- Go to the gym with a grrrl squad
- Never make anyone feel trapped or less-than, ever.
- Appreciate your body. This in and of itself is radically subversive.
- Ask if your gym has a gender-neutral changing area, and if not, ask how they plan to support their transgender patrons
- Leave a box of tampons or pads in the men’s locker room. There are plenty of dudes who have to deal with periods.
- Silkscreen your favorite Barabra Kruger art on all of your workout tees
- Call out inappropriate behavior, or ask someone to help you call it out if you’re not comfortable doing it on your own.
- Recognize strength, flexibility, and endurance as inherently feminist principles