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SCMP: A gym where LGBT people feel safe working out: how inclusive spaces for exercise empower those who face stigma, rejection in their daily lives

This is the full version of the interview. Find the original article from the link below.

Lifestyle / Health & Wellness

  • Working out can be a challenge for the gender-expansive community, who face discrimination in their daily lives, if they can’t find a gym where they feel safe

  • In response, a genderqueer bodybuilder and ambassador for the Gay Games in Hong Kong is leading inclusive fitness workshops for the LGBT community

Siufung Law Wan-ling has been delivering low-cost fitness workshops for LGBT people in Hong Kong, many of whom find going to the gym very stressful. 

Since he came out as a transgender man four years ago, Liam Mak Wai-hon has placed sport at the centre of his transition. Going to the gym, he says, makes him feel healthier – physically and mentally. 

“I blow off steam, I feel more masculine, and it helps me match the image I want to project,” he says. 

Mak, who was assigned female at birth, started masculinising hormone treatment – to alter his hormone levels to match his male gender identity – in August 2019. It was a catalyst for numerous life changes.

Soon afterwards, he founded Quarks, an organisation to support transgender youth. He also stopped his pursuit of a social science bachelor’s degree to study wine and beverage management. None of these developments would have been possible had he not been in stable mental and physical health, he notes.

Wai-hon Mak spends a few hours at his gym two to three times a week. He considers himself lucky: he was able to find (and afford) a gym with a gender-neutral bathroom, a rare option in Hong Kong. This alternative lifts a little weight off his shoulders – it’s one less discrimination to worry about. 

“Gyms are very sex-segregated spaces. It’s difficult to feel safe,” he says. 

He recalls the ordeal of a friend, a transgender man passionate about fitness, who felt discriminated against at different gyms in Hong Kong.

Staff often banned him from using the changing rooms, bathrooms and lockers, forcing him to use a washroom in a nearby shopping centre. Personal coaches were often rude to him. He had to change gyms several times to work out safely “just like everyone else”. 

The transgender community also faces members’ prying eyes while working out. “If the gym doesn’t reject us, its users will,” Mak says. 

Law is a genderqueer advocate and professional bodybuilder who is an ambassador for the upcoming Gay Games in Hong Kong.

Instead of being a means of stress relief, working out can become an additional burden to the so-called gender-expansive community. The umbrella term encompasses people embracing a fluidity of gender identity, whether they are non-binary, genderqueer (someone who does not identify exclusively as a woman or a man) or transgender (someone whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex). 

Siufung Law Wan-ling, a genderqueer advocate and professional bodybuilder who is an ambassador for the upcoming Gay Games in Hong Kong, has been tackling the issue for years.

“Working out is crucial for both our physical and mental health. But we experience stigmatisation, rejection and discrimination from strangers every day, and gyms aren’t an exception,” Law says. That’s why Law started leading inclusive fitness workshops.

Once a week, the athlete welcomes a few members of the LGBT community for a safe workout session. For an hour, Law takes on the role of personal trainer to show them moves they can replicate at the gym or at home. Law notes: “As a trainer, it’s crucial to know how to communicate, touch, and interact with your client.” 

The sessions are meant to make up for the lack of education and inclusivity the gender-expansive community often faces. “To guide them properly, you need to be informed about the way their body works, if they’re taking hormones, if they’ve been through surgeries,” Law says. “Especially to recommend the right supplements, exercises and gear.” Trainers in mainstream gyms often overlook these points, Law says.

Body dysmorphia is another issue. Dr Michael Eason, a psychologist and clinical counsellor at Lifespan Counselling Central in Hong Kong, describes body dysmorphic disorder as experiencing an irrational hatred for a particular body part or section. It isn’t exclusive to the gender-expansive community, but it does affect its members more than others.

“Body dysmorphia is something I’m not out of yet,” says Mak. “I’ve always thought my hips and my chest looked too feminine. But I’m shaping my body with sport, it helps.”

Law explains that, because of this disorder, many transsexual men tend to hide their chest by binding it, or by hunching their backs. It usually results in bad posture, or in an incapacity to do exercises correctly.

“I have to encourage them to take away the binder when we’re working out, but I need to find the right words for it,” Law says. “The words need to come from someone who understands them.”

Understanding them also involves being aware of what’s happening in their lives outside the gym. “As a minority within an already marginalised community, the gender-expansive experiences anti-LGBT discrimination more intensely and more often in daily life,” Eason says. They experience higher rates of addiction, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies than other members of the population, and also higher rates of unemployment. 

That’s why Law made it a mission to offer affordable workshops. The average cost for a personal trainer in Hong Kong ranges from about HK$650 (US$84) to HK$1,000 a session.

Aware that transgender people are discriminated against in the job market, and may need to save money for surgeries, Law offers a package of four s

sessions for HK$600. 

Mak finds the time and money to go to these workshops almost every week. As someone who joined mostly out of curiosity, he found “so much more” than what he expected. “I’m more passionate about working out than ever before. And bonding with other transgender people through sports is empowering,” Mak says. 

Law hopes to make the workshops still more inclusive, saying: “I wish our sessions would appeal to more transgender women. They usually don’t want to build too much muscle, to appear ‘more feminine’. It’s a different approach to training that I’m willing to develop.” The goal is to welcome more people, as the need for safe workout places is becoming more urgent, particularly in the run-up to next year’s Gay Games. 

Founded as the “Gay Olympics”, the 11th edition of this international sporting and cultural event will be the first in Asia. It is held every four years to promote sexual diversity and inclusivity.

Earlier this month, Hong Kong legislator Junius Ho used “disgraceful” to describe the event, suggesting it would bring “dirty money” to the city. Ho’s reaction highlights the need for organisers to win over “hearts and minds”. It also reinforces the need for inclusive workshops, Law says, “providing a safe space for LGBT people to exercise, especially trans and non-binary people who are usually subjected to stigmatisation in society”.

Law remains optimistic that the workshops are making a difference, and that they will inspire local and commercial gyms to become more inclusive and more understanding of the LGBT community’s needs. Law hopes, too, that they will “embolden those who just want to enjoy the hardcore training at the gym like I do”.

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