In recognition of 2022’s Pride Month, ACE recently hosted a Facebook Live conversation discussing LGBTQIA+ youth and their relationship to physical activity. Before diving into that discussion, let’s begin by defining each element of that acronym:
L – Lesbian
G – Gay
B – Bisexual
T – Transgender
Q – Queer or Questioning
I – Intersex
A – Asexual or Ally
+ – Other non-heterosexual people
The conversation was moderated by Fred Hoffman, a member of the ACE Board of Directors who has been an ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor for more than 35 years. Fred is the founder and owner of Fitness Resources, an education and consultancy company for health clubs, fitness centers, boutique studios and personal-training companies. Joining him was Scott Greenspan, PhD, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist. As a practitioner, Dr. Greenspan works with youth, families and schools to develop systems that foster affirming mental health and behavioral supports. He has led several research projects focused on LGBTQIA+ youths’ experiences in school-based sport and physical activity. He has published his work in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of LGBT Youth, Adolescent Research Review and Psychology in the Schools.
The World Health Organization recommends that youth get about 60 minutes of physical activity each day. While most health coaches and exercise professionals know the sad reality that the vast majority of America’s youth are falling well short of that goal, LGBTQIA+ youth actually perform less physical activity than their non- LGBTQIA+ counterparts.
“It’s not because they can’t engage in sports or they don’t like sports or physical activity,” explains Dr. Greenspan. “It’s really that a lot of the physical-activity settings [are places in which they have to navigate] a lot of discrimination, victimization and harassment, and a lot of LGBT youth feel unsafe. The environments in which we are promoting and fostering physical activity are not allowing youth to feel safe and supported, so it’s sadly predictable.”
To be more specific, LGBTQIA+ youth often feel very unsafe in places like locker rooms and actively try to avoid them due to bullying in the form of anti-LGBTQIA+ language and physical harassment. This bullying, coupled with too little intervention from staff or other students, leaves LGBTQIA+ students feeling unsafe. This negatively impacts not only their desire or ability to participate in physical activity, explains Dr. Greenspan, “but also their psychological well-being, life satisfaction [and] confidence, which is going to lead to a host of negative mental health outcomes.”
It’s important to note that the creation of a welcoming and affirming environment and culture will yield benefits beyond participation in physical activity. According to Dr. Greenspan, LGBTQIA+ youth who engage in school-based sport are typically also involved with other extracurricular activities, meaning that they probably feel like they belong and have a positive relationship with their school. Which comes first, the participation or the positive feelings, is likely tough to gauge, but there’s little doubt that a welcoming environment enhances the overall well-being of LGBTQIA+ youth.
The Role of Health Coaches and Exercise Professionals
There is clearly a lot of work to be done to transform settings that are currently seen to be “unsafe” by many members of this community into environments that are welcoming, affirming and empowering for LGBTQIA+ youth. While Dr. Greenspan’s research into the topic of LGBTQIA+ youth and physical activity has focused on the school setting, much of it can be translated to the world of fitness. Here are some suggestions for how you can become an ally:
Engage youth in the conversation about what it means for a setting to be affirming: If you have the opportunity to connect with local LGBTQIA+ youth (for example, through a high school club or community center group), ask what barriers and facilitators they have experienced when it comes to physical activity. Also, ask what you can do as a professional or in your facility to foster more inclusive practices. Then, translate what you learn into visible changes in your signage and representation. Dr. Greenspan highlights the importance of visibility as an ally to LGBTQIA+ youth. Behind-the-scenes changes are great, but visibility is vital.
Connect with schools that have Gender and Sexuality Alliances: Do some outreach and explain how your fitness facility is a welcoming, safe and affirming place, and offer physical-activity events for the Alliance. These student organizations may not currently be thinking much about physical activity, so asking them what types of events they’d like to see in the community and then offering them to the group is a great way to initiate a supportive relationship.
Be mindful about language: People often undervalue the importance of things like using proper pronouns or chosen names when speaking to others, but we know that when youth are addressed by their chosen pronouns, it decreases the risk of depression and suicide. So, add pronouns to your name tag to signal that “we share our pronouns here” and normalize that conversation. Then, take the time to learn people’s chosen pronouns and names.
Take a careful look around your facility: Does your staff feature LGBTQIA+ individuals? Does your signage use gender-neutral language and feature LGBTQIA+ athletes? What types of uniforms are staff members asked to wear? Do you provide gender-neutral locker rooms or restrooms? Take a step back from your day-to-day work and evaluate your facility from the perspective of a first-time visitor. Or, better yet, ask a friend or colleague who is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community to visit during business hours and provide some feedback.
No one wants to exercise in a fitness facility where they feel unwelcomed, and LGBTQIA+ youth are no different. Unfortunately, many communities, rec centers, fitness facilities and schools are not seen as safe spaces, and it’s going to take a lot of work to change not only the reality of that situation but the perception as well. So, if you are interested in making a difference in the lives of LGBTQIA+ youth, connect with existing resources, from school guidance counselors and psychiatrists to local community centers and national organizations like The Trevor Project, and then collaborate with like-minded individuals to bring meaningful change to the lives of these children and teens.