Working, Out

Homophobia at a CrossFit is a good time to remember that gym culture wouldn’t exist without queer people.

Photo illustration: A man does a box jump at the gym. The boxes have been edited to reflect a rainbow flag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The latest CrossFit controversy is not about risk of injury or which Paleo recipes boost performance on the grueling “WOD,” or workout of the day. Lighting up the internet far beyond the fitness brand’s message boards, this month’s outrage came in two phases. First, the management of an Indianapolis CrossFit cancelled a Pride Month workout event with the coy justification that “pride” is a sin. Many CrossFitters were not pleased. And then, corporate spokesman Russell Berger tweeted his support of this brave resistance to the “intolerance of the LGBTQ ideology” and was promptly fired, drawing despair from celebrity Christian conservatives like Erick Erickson and Franklin Graham for Berger’s unjust “ruination” for “standing on God’s word.”

#IndyPride activists and their allies were ultimately affirmed both by swift corporate action from above—CEO and founder Greg Glassman told Berger to “shut the fuck up,” adding that he is “crazy proud of the gay community in CrossFit” —and from the grass roots: After days of sustained protest, the affiliate permanently shuttered. Will Lanier, founder of LGBTQ+ nonprofit OUTWOD, appreciated this “public display of support” as an optimistic sign that “bigotry is a way of the past.”

Let’s hope. But in 2018, LGBTQ people’s achievement of a basic level of recognition at the gym is tinged with more than a little irony: American fitness culture has always been bound up with gay identity, and today’s gyms, from CrossFit to Curves, would be unrecognizable without it.

In an era during which hitting the gym is all but universally celebrated, it’s hard to imagine a moment when seeking a sweat signified outsider status. Yet as recently as a century ago, having an attractive body meant looking like you could afford to unhurriedly enjoy then-scarce caloric foods, as well as a cerebral (i.e., sedentary) job. Unseemly sweating to appear otherwise could be cause for suspicion.

Concerned about the ill effects of urban life on young men, however, Christian reformers opened fitness centers throughout the late 19th century. One significant challenge they faced was deep skepticism of the idea that working on one’s body was a worthwhile—if not morally harmful—pursuit, especially among other often–scantily clad men. (Many YMCA pools required nudity to avoid clogging drains with fabric fibers.) Women had even fewer opportunities to exercise, for fear of their developing the unladylike attributes of competitiveness and bulky muscles, and most importantly, of threatening their fertility.

Regular exercise for its own sake was primarily the purview of “health nuts,” whose sexuality was often questioned because of these bodily pursuits. Take early 20th-century “Perfect Man” Eugen Sandow, who was promoted as a “living statue” and posed onstage at the World’s Fair in a fig leaf and gladiator sandals, a not-quite-human specimen profiled in the press as living with a male “bosom friend” who enjoyed playing piano for him shirtless. Strongwoman Katie Brumbach, still stranger due to her gender, had to work doubly hard to affirm her sexual normalcy: She often posed in frills and ruffles thronged by tuxedoed men (including her 5-foot-2-inch husband), as if to highlight the unlikely juxtaposition of her muscular body with such trappings of femininity.

Exercise would remain performative rather than participatory for most well into the 1960s, though by the late 1930s, Muscle Beach acrobats and weightlifters delighted audiences who thronged the oceanfront playground. Still, rumors of homosexual “perversion” swirled around these (mostly) men so attentive to their bodies, a preoccupation considered effete. In a historical moment when homosexuality and pedophilia were considered practically interchangeable, a 1958 statutory rape scandal led local conservatives to shut down the outdoor gym, denouncing it as “an attraction for perverts” and “followers of all three sexes” who frequented this “favorite haven of the sexual athletes and queers of Southern California.”

The assumption that men would find women who exercised unladylike persisted. Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, a rare female Muscle Beach star, endlessly assured women that beneath every desirable (to men) womanly curve actually existed a muscle they should sculpt at the Salon of Figure Development she founded in 1948. These attitudes endured in the early 1960s: Runner Lynda Huey recalled that the femininity of her fellow female physical education majors was so doubted—what normal coed would be so interested in exercise?—that they alone were required to wear skirts and sweaters. Huey disdained the dress code, but slept around in order to reassure herself that her athleticism hadn’t destroyed her heterosexual desirability, two things she had been taught were wholly incongruous.

While gyms were hardly the homosexual hunting grounds alarmists portrayed, it is true that in the pre–Stonewall Era, sex-segregated fitness clubs could be spaces of sexual and social discovery for LGBTQ people prohibited from openly socializing elsewhere. Historian David K. Johnson writes how the gym could operate abstractly through “physique magazines,” that enabled midcentury gay men living far from cities to participate in a national gay consumer culture that detractors derided as “the homo trade” degrading “clean physical culture by peddling pornography.”

In the late 1950s when “there were just the feelings… there weren’t any words,” the gym could also allow lesbians to explore their sexuality. Martha Shelley, later president of the New York City chapter of lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis, recalled:

Well, I had to join the first all-women’s judo class in New York City. I was wrestling around on the mat with women and, of course, I had a crush on the instructor. And later on I found out that this was common that young lesbians would have crushes on their gym teachers. But, at that point, I didn’t know and this one woman … one night she invited me over for dinner and we ended up making out on the living room rug while her husband slept in the other room and that was when I realized that I was a lesbian and that the confusion I had was resolved.

Gay liberation and the fitness craze simultaneously seized 1970s America, stripping gyms of their seediness and destigmatizing unfamiliar gay subcultures. Cal Pozo, a gay man who trained women in Pilates in New York City, told me that while his sexuality remained unspoken, “there was something understood” by his female clients’ husbands that made them comfortable allowing him to do hands-on bodywork with their wives.

Disco brought visibility to a gay dance-club aesthetic that infused the newly booming mainstream workout culture. Evoking this blissful abandon, in 1974 Richard Simmons founded the Anatomy Asylum, the Beverly Hills headquarters of a spangled fitness empire where those alienated from mainstream athletic and aesthetic culture—notably, many gay men and fat women—recall first feeling “seen.” Simmons, who often dressed in short shorts and full makeup, has never publicly discussed his sexuality, but many recall how his presence on VHS, morning shows, and later cruise ships demystified gay camp far beyond the studio.

The connections between gay nightclubs and health clubs could be explicit: Party promoter John Blair opened The Body Center in early-1970s Los Angeles, which he described as “the first gay gym: Nautilus machines, tiny shorts, tube socks, and Abba all day long.” He invited the best-looking members to his parties to attract crowds, which in turn sold gym memberships. In 1978, he launched a New York location and later told the New York Times he “would give one month’s free gym membership to every cute boy I met at Studio 54.”

Gay culture—in what some would call its most superficial form—flourished in fitness clubs, but also engaged straight men and women increasingly untroubled by the gyms becoming fixtures in liberal body-conscious cities. Rachel Sibony, a self-described club kid, remembered that as a teen in the 1970s, she was “just addicted to the whole experience” of going out dancing. After drifting between jobs in her early 20s, she only felt “so alive” in an aerobics class that recalled the dance floor. Choreography tucked into the belt of her blue leotard, Sibony soon began teaching and four decades later still manages fitness clubs.

By 1983, straight actor Richard Gere was photographed in the Los Angeles Times at the Body Center without any mention of its origins as a gay gym. The muscled “Chelsea boy” physique Blair took credit for popularizing became widely influential as new magazines like Men’s Health made rippling muscles de rigueur for straight men too. In Ms. magazine in 1981, Gloria Steinem celebrated the homosocial—but not at all homosexual—“casual togetherness” of women appreciating each other’s naked bodies in the “intimate company” of the gym locker room.

The instinctual associations between gyms and gayness died hard, however, dogging straight men who spent more time sculpting their bodies: In 1977, bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger explained defensively, “Men shouldn’t feel like fags because they want to have nice-looking bodies.” With no such caginess, fitness instructor Michael Perron told me that 1980s Los Angeles “was the only time in my life I was in the minority as a straight man.” Yet when Perron relocated to Texas, where he recently “hung up his sneakers” to found a church, his aerobics classes attracted straight men often first invited by their wives.

During the HIV-AIDS epidemic, studio owner Molly Fox explained to me, gyms became “third spaces:” Gay men were pathologized as their communities were ravaged by the mysterious “gay plague”—Blair recalls most of his original guest list died and he struggled with addiction—and the gym could provide brief respite from a horror the president refused to even acknowledge. “It was sexy, sweaty, and body-oriented,” Fox recalled, “like a daytime disco.” This solace wasn’t only emotional; displaying a gym-sculpted body wordlessly communicated a man was not (yet) afflicted, and many in the fitness community actively rallied to raise medical research funds.

Even today, the gym remains a refuge for some HIV-positive gay men: Bill, saved by protease inhibitors introduced in the 1990s, explained:

If anything is a church, it’s the gym for me. I go in there almost like I’m entering a temple and I love every minute of my body taking on a workout. I love the fun and the flirtiness, the cruising and it makes me feel energized and, you know, sexy. I have a very worked out muscular body. It’s kind of like armor almost. It’s a man trap, I hope. I have younger friends who prefer guys with HIV because they’re generally more healthier and muscular and look, you know, more manly…I’ve had that said to me directly… You’re a young person, you’re watching somebody who’s got HIV, they are living a fairly normal life. So they don’t think of it as the horror that it was when we were seeing all of our friends dying in the 80s.

Everyone from “drag queens to stockbrokers” was at Bally Fitness, the Village Voice reported matter-of-factly in a 1998 roundup of Manhattan’s multiplying fitness offerings. Indeed, by the 1990s, going to the gym was such an unremarkable aspect of a relatively affluent lifestyle that its roots in LGBTQ history could be easily forgotten. The last 20 years have only accelerated this process, which one might call progress, until, like this month in Indiana, LGBTQ people have to fight their way back into the very spaces they created.

CrossFit, with its swaggering, hypermasculine vibe might seem an unlikely vanguard in the struggle for LGBTQ equality (or to be dubbed the “gayest sport on the planet.)” But because headquarters only loosely controls affiliates, there are boxes where bigotry reigns supreme and others like Pioneer Valley CrossFit of Northampton, Massachusetts, where Dre Domingue, a “bigger, black, queer woman” and “others who feel marginalized” keep coming back because “there is just a value that you can be who you are here: whatever physical, age, race, gender, or sexuality.”

The events in Indianapolis affirm Will Lanier of OUTWOD’s observation that it sure isn’t “safe to say that ALL CrossFit gyms are accepting or even tolerant,” which is why his “fight is far from over.” And that fight demands summoning this past to shape a prouder future, at the gym and beyond.