In celebration of Pride Month 2022, ACE recently hosted A live chat on Facebook discussing LGBTQIA+ youth and their relationship to physical activity. Before delving into this discussion, let’s start by defining each element of this acronym:
L – Lesbian
G – gay
B – bisexual
T – Transgender
Q – homosexual or interrogation
I – hermaphroditism
A – asexual or ally
+ – Heterosexual people
Moderate the conversation by Fred Hoffman, ACE Board Member who has been an ACE Group certified fitness coach for over 35 years. Fred is the founder and owner of Fitness Resources, an education and consulting firm for health clubs, fitness centers, boutique studios, and personal training businesses. Joined by Scott Greenspan, Ph.D., A Nationally accredited school psychology. As a practitioner, Dr. Greenspan works with youth, families, and schools to develop systems that promote mental health affirmation and behavioral support. He has led several research projects focusing on LGBT youth’s experiences in school sports and physical activity. He published his work in refereed journals, including LGBT Youth Journal, Adolescent Research Review And the Psychology in schools.
The World Health Organization recommends that young people do about 60 minutes of physical activity each day. While most health coaches and exercise professionals know the sad truth that the vast majority of America’s youth fall short of this goal, LGBTQIA+ youth actually engage in less physical activity than their non-LGBTQIA+ counterparts.
“It’s not because they can’t exercise or they don’t like sports or physical activity,” Dr. Greenspan explains. “It’s really that a lot of physical activity settings [are places in which they have to navigate] Lots of discrimination, abuse and harassment, and many LGBT youth feel insecure. The environments in which we encourage and promote physical activity do not allow young people to feel safe and supported, so unfortunately it is predictable.”
To be more specific, LGBTQIA + Young people often feel 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, along with very little interference from staff or other students, leaves LGBTQIA+ students insecure. Dr. Greenspan explains that this not only negatively affects their desire or ability to participate in physical activity, but also their mental health and life satisfaction. [and] confidence, which will lead to a host of negative mental health outcomes.”
It is important to note that creating a welcoming and affirming environment and culture will bring benefits beyond participating in physical activity. According to Dr. Greenspan, LGBTQIA+ youth who participate in school sports typically also participate in other extracurricular activities, which means that they may feel a sense of belonging and have a positive relationship with their school. What comes first, participation or positive feelings, is likely difficult to measure, but there is no 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 viewed as “unsafe” by many members of this community into environments that welcome, affirm and empower LGBTQIA+ youth. While Dr. Greenspan researched the topic of Youth and LGBTQIA+ physical activity has focused on the school environment, much of which can be translated into the world of fitness. Here are some suggestions on how you can become an ally:
- Involve young people in the conversation about what it means to be an emphatic place: If you have the opportunity to connect with local LGBTQIA+ youth (for example, through a high school club or community center group), ask about the 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 promote more holistic practices. Then, translate what you’ve learned into visual changes in signage and representation. Dr. Greenspan highlights the importance of emerging as an ally for LGBTQIA+ youth. The changes that happen behind the scenes are big, but visibility is vital.
- Connect with schools that have Gender and Sexual Alliances: Do some outreach and explain how your fitness facility is a welcoming, safe and affirming place, and introduce Alliance physical activity events. These student organizations may not currently think much about physical activity, so asking them what types of events they would like to see in the community and then showing them to the group is a great way to start a supportive relationship.
- Pay attention to the language: People often underestimate things like using appropriate pronouns or choice nouns when talking to others, but we know that when young people are approached by their chosen pronouns, it lowers their risk of depression and suicide. So, add pronouns to your name card to indicate that We share our consciences here. And normalize that conversation. Then take the time to learn the pronouns and nouns people choose.
- Take a closer look at your facility: Is your staff LGBTQIA+? Do your banners use gender-neutral language and feature LGBTQIA+ athletes? What types of uniforms are employees required to wear? Do you provide locker rooms or gender-neutral 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 fellow LGBTQIA+ community member to visit during office hours and provide some feedback.
Nobody wants to exercise in a fitness facility where they feel unwelcome, and LGBTQIA+ guys are no different. Unfortunately, many communities, recreation centers, fitness facilities, and schools are not seen as safe places, and it will take a lot of work to change not only the reality of this situation but the perception as well. Therefore, if you are interested in making a difference in the lives of LGBTQIA+ youth, reach out to existing resources, from school guidance counselors and psychiatrists to local community centers and national organizations such as Trevor Projectthen collaborate with like-minded individuals to make a meaningful change in the lives of these children and teens.