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12/11/2017 14:28 EST | Updated 12/11/2017 14:28 EST

Canada's 1st LGBTQ-Only Gym Fills An 'Obvious Need' For A Safe Space

LGBTQ people encounter many barriers to accessing exercise facilities.

Kyle Fairall

Male and female change rooms, gendered intake forms, and a focus on physical appearance are just a few of the barriers that can prevent LGBTQ people from fully, comfortably, and safely accessing traditional fitness facilities.

There can also be a lot trans-phobia and discrimination in the fitness world, says Kyle Fairall, who knows from personal experience. Filling this "very obvious need" for a safe space is why Fairall said they founded Queerflex, Canada's first gym solely dedicated to LGBTQ people, just over a year ago in Edmonton. On Sunday, Fairall received a human rights award for creating the gym.

"There's this culture in a lot of traditional gym environments that's very aggressive and doesn't feel like a safe space for a lot of queer people," Fairall, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, told HuffPost Canada.

"I've had other gym members verbally attack me and I've had instances where I've gone and reported this to management... and not only did they not know what to do to support me, but their answer was to just go work out in the women's centre, assuming that I was a woman."

Kyle Fairall

Queerflex is a non-profit gym in a volunteered space that offers its services on a sliding pay-scale, since finances are another barrier often faced by the LGBTQ community, Fairall said. Although no national data exists, the median household income for transgender people in Ontario is just $15,000.

The gym under the motto "Strong bodies. Tender hearts." is focused on creating safer spaces for queer, transgender, and non-binary people in the fitness world through personal training, public education and advocacy. Queerflex currently offers personal training and small fitness classes, and Fairall has about 25 clients. They hope to be able to move to a bigger space and offer their services to more people in the near future.

Because gyms deal specifically with bodies, they're a very vulnerable space to be in, Fairall says. And even though a lot of facilities or trainers might be doing their best to be inclusive, issues specific to the LGBTQ population are often just not on their radar.

Kyle Fairall

"They don't understand what it actually means for a queer or trans person to be present in their body," Fairall said.

A client could also be in the process of transitioning, have certain parts of their body that they're not comfortable with, or may have experienced trauma, Fairall added.

"A lot of the fitness and recreation facilities out there are doing their best, and they're not trying to intentionally be isolating or make LGBTQ people feel unsafe," Fairall said.

"But it's not just about signage or putting a rainbow sticker on your door."

It's about more than just exercise

Regular exercise has been associated with improved mental health and can help with anxiety and depression, which LGBTQ people experience in higher rates.

LGBTQ people also face higher rates of obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, suicide risk, self-harm, and substance use, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk, facing about 14 times the risk of suicide and substance abuse compared to their heterosexual peers, the CMHA reports.

But research from Rainbow Health Ontario found that many LGBTQ people encounter barriers to accessing exercise facilities or playing organized sports due to "homophobia and other social factors."

Kyle Fairall

Fairall says fitness has helped them make peace with their body after experiencing so much gender dysphoria from being non-binary.

"Fitness has really helped me reconnect with my body in a way that's more focused on function and feel," they said. "It's been a big piece of what I use to manage depression and anxiety."

Support and criticism

Since receiving an Edmonton human rights award and being profiled in the news, Fairall said they've been overwhelmed with feedback, most of it positive.

They've been inundated with emails from other LGBTQ people sharing their own experiences in traditional gyms and expressing interest in joining Queerflex. And parents of queer youth have contacted Fairall to say how happy they are that something like Queerflex exists out there for their children, and that conversations about safe spaces are happening, Fairall said.

But there has also been some criticism. While there are other LGBTQ fitness spaces in Canada, Queerflex doesn't offer its services to people who don't identify as LGBTQ. Fairall said they've received accusations on social media of being non inclusive.

"Safe space is not segregation," Fairall said in response.

"Segregation is rooted in hatred and discrimination, and safe space acknowledges that the structures out there that create that hatred and discrimination are barriers to people accessing wellness or the things that they need to survive."

Queerflex is about wellness and empowerment, Fairall said, adding that all spaces are pretty open and welcoming to people with dominant identities.

"If it's such a concern, why not work to make all spaces safe for everybody?"

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