“The number of people who’ve been murdered in an Equinox locker room,” I speculated to my then boyfriend as we lay in bed one night last fall, “is probably zero.” He nodded; we agreed we’d likely have heard about it, as tragedies (and harassment and missteps) at the upscale gym chain seemed to make the news. At the time, I’d been vacillating over joining for more than one calendar year, ever since a friend had told me that the locker rooms have eucalyptus steam rooms. This, finally, was the clincher: murderless.
Yes, it is a cliche for a man who was born with a vagina to be afraid of men’s locker rooms. And yes, my terror was still justified. When my friend had first told me about her fancy membership, I’d made an appointment for a tour, and the slab of a cis white dude working that day became instantly condescending and confrontational when I told him I was trans. Later, while he was showing me around the facilities, another large male stopped his workout to slowly drink from his water bottle while giving me a long, cold glare. I didn’t want to be naked in a room with either of these people. Ever.
There were queerer, more-trans-populated gyms in town. But Equinox was the only one within walking distance of my house, which for months I’d mostly stopped leaving as I struggled to survive crippling dysphoric depression. Regularly steeping my challenged nervous system in aromatherapeutic hot fog in the gleaming building blocks away sounded like a legitimate lifesaver.
Also, I just wanted to have and to give myself this nice thing, OK, goddammit, because why can’t trans people ever have the nicest thing? “People are protesting that place because the owner’s a Trump supporter,” my friend Rice pointed out. I replied that I’d heard. And I supported them. And my entire body was a protest. So despite a year-long contract that altogether added up to a preposterous proportion of my income – “Two thousand American dollars?” Rice exclaimed – I finally signed one.
I signed the contract, though it was actually more than two thousand dollars, and though I was afraid of the cis men. But as it turned out, I needed them, even more than the refreshing, enveloping steam itself. My God, I could never have known how I needed them.
It’s not that I was remotely unfamiliar with cis men. I’d been friends and roommates and co-workers with many; I’d dated plenty, and married two. Some had been lovely. Not enough. I’d also experienced how thousands of cis males all over this world had interacted with me when they’d perceived me as female for 39 years, which, let’s be honest, often ranged from less than ideal to much, much worse. Patronization and underestimation; invasion and violation and threat – both physical and emotional; rape. And no doubt I was frequently getting the better end of the female-treatment spectrum afforded to conventional-looking white ones. I didn’t know, experientially, how men would interact with me as a male in an intimate men-only club setting, but my guess was: bad? Of my early experiences of being read as male by other males in public, several had immediately preceded my getting gay-bashed, and those guys didn’t even know I was trans, too.
When I called the gym back, hopefully, tentatively – determinedly – a year-plus later, the membership jerk didn’t work there any more. The gem of a human who answered instead, a different man who turned out to be Black and also built but infinitely friendlier, told me that if anybody made me uncomfortable I could come directly to him and he would handle it.
“I got you,” he said.
It was, I am almost positive, the first time in my life a man said that absent sexual interest.
So thrilling was the exchange that I told everybody I knew about it. And it was only the first of so many. The scented steam was, indeed, even more glorious than I’d prodigiously imagined. But also, as I gushed with the rambling, breathless joy of a child to my friends, to my therapist, to every person who asked me how I was doing, I joined Equinox, and when I go into the men’s locker room, nobody does anything, like it’s totally fine that I’m in there. Or today, at Equinox, I walked up to a bench by one of the lockers, and this other guy was standing there, and he was really big, and when he saw me he said in this really nice voice, “Sorry man,” because he had some stuff on the bench, and then he moved it out of my way, even though it wasn’t even in my way, or One time, at Equinox, I went into the steam room and this giant dude who was covered in tattoos, like marine tattoos not hipster tattoos, was sitting next to me, and when it got crowded, he got up and stood instead of trying to crowd or intimidate me into moving, and this one time, at Equinox, it was dark and steamy and hard to see in the steam room and it looked full so when I walked in I just stood, but then this guy who was sitting down tried to catch my eye and when he did he gestured that there was an empty seat next to him that I could take so I did but on my insides I fell to the floor and SOB EMOJI.
These interactions may not sound like a big deal. It was all a big enough, world-altering-enough deal to me that I cried through writing that entire paragraph. At the time, in public, fully clothed, much less in the waist towel I was wearing around the locker room, people more often than not called me “ma’am”. I had had the incredible privilege of being able to get my breast tissue removed, but if anyone in there had looked at me close for one full second they’d have noticed a multitude of not-subtle markers of my chromosomes, the ones everyone else, outside, did. But in that locker room, I was a man.
Perhaps counterintuitively, that’s partly because it was so straight. There were other gay men in there sometimes, but always a steep minority, and as a cis gay friend complained, there was no cruise culture; the etiquette (at that location anyway) was strictly against sex and staring. But I wasn’t there to cruise, or to be cruised. I had long suffered female objectification. And as a then-unwillingly-gender-ambiguous male who caught stares and scowls every day, I was tired – I was so, so, so, so overwhelmingly tired – of being assessed.
That’s not to say my inclusion in this environment depended on hiding. One day, I brought my boyfriend, and I touched and kissed him as we were changing next to our lockers. He gently pointed out to me that romantic contact didn’t really fit in the sex-free space. But nobody looked up, or at either of us, then or as we walked around and steamed lengthily, though as a couple we were clearly gay and, both trans, only magnified one another’s trans visibility, too. Early on in my membership, when I walked into the steam room alone, I sat quietly, like everyone else. But soon, I would stretch widely if there was room, or stand and do yoga poses, or breathe, deep, exhaling loudly, exhaling with sighs or horse lips, doing mudras with my hands in my lap or at my chest, and even some of you reading this now are like, “Ugh, this guy,” but it was an absolute revolution for me that I could be in there at all, much less authentically. That I could not just fit in – it was nearly heart-exploding news, after what felt like a fucking eternity of female socialization, that I could fit in – but I could stand out.
Safely. And not just be allowed, or tolerated, but comfortable. Not just comfortable, but welcome. As a white trans person in this almost entirely cis (and racially diverse, younger-skewing) group of men, I was not once looked at hostilely or even passive-aggressively. Instead, they made space for me, this weird femmey dude in their midst, respectfully, sometimes almost reverently. That they were accepting felt like a miracle, every second, and their acceptance of me, crucially, fed my own. And then they weren’t just accepting but embracing. Actively kind.
There was no better embodiment of this in the building than one Mark Munguia. The first time I saw this trainer, I was leaving the locker room as he was coming toward it. If there was one thing I had learned about male socialization, it’s that when cis men assume I’m one of them, they don’t smile like they did when I had boobs, but set their faces to stoney.
But not Mark. He walked toward me with his black hair slicked and fade tight and muscles bulging out of every edge of his strained shirt and flashed full, happy, friendly teeth at me.
“That guy, please,” I said, scheduling my new member’s free personal training session. When we met for it, he was as darling as he’d seemed. When he directed me to do a couple of exercises that I didn’t want to do or needed more time to get ready for, I told him so, at one point taking a break to shake it out by shimmying my shoulders. Rather than pushing me, or shaming me, or whatever it is straight cis men do when other men aren’t being manly enough, he said “OK” or “Take your time” in low, gentle tones, and, smiling at me, started shimmying his shoulders along.
I bought a package of sessions. I didn’t even tell my friend Rice how much it cost. After we’d been seeing each other for a few weeks, Mark plopped down next to me on the stretching mats at the beginning of a session one day and said: “I missed you.”
I froze like I’d been slapped. What did he say? Was this a way that male acquaintances were allowed to talk to each other? “You always brighten my day,” he continued. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond.
“It was too long since the last time I saw you,” he said another time, a few sessions later. “Five days!” He counted them on his fingers. “The other day I thought, ‘Aw, that’s too long without Gabriel.’” I laughed. I deflected.
“He doesn’t have to be so nice,” I kept telling my boyfriend, coming home awed, delighted, confused. Sometimes I would add – betraying what sort of ideas I’d absorbed about expected male behavior – my reasoning: “He’s hot, and big enough to kill most people.” I eventually asked Mark if he told all his male clients, largely straight cis guys like himself, that he missed them, and he said oh yes he did. Their reactions betray what they think is expected or appropriate male behavior, too, because they also just sort of stare at him and smile. And if any of that sounds strange– or, be honest, a little gay – to you, you know how limiting and limited acceptable “male” expression is, too.
Here’s the thing.
Yes, it is a cliche to say that Real Men are comfortable with their emotions, and even more cliche and reductive and problematic and gender-binary-reinforcing to talk about Feeling Like A Real Man, but yes my whole particular sense of identity and existence also depended on it. I will go ahead and argue here that that feeling, hard as even cis men seem to be striving and suffering for it, is harder yet to come by when the very first thing anyone said about you the second you entered this world and then reiterated ever after was: “It’s a [not man]!”
Part of me had given up on the idea that I could be male and be sweet – expressive and platonically affectionate and earnest; part of me thought, in some traumatized, tragically socialized place, that I had to give up the latter in order to really be or become the former; that one canceled out the other; that I, having literal child-bearing hips to boot, could never be both.
But in this locker room, my sweetness made me one of these men more than it set me apart. (Not all of them, of course; there was, once, the obligatory pair of jerks talking about what a shame it is that women in their late 20s start to let themselves get fat.) One day in the steam room, it wasn’t steamy enough, and one of the guys stood up to mess with the thing that usually restarts it. When he sat back down, he seemed tense while he waited to see if it would be successful, if he’d tried to fix it only to fail in front of all of us, letting out a self-conscious sigh, trying to look casual and not awkward by drumming on his thighs, awkwardly. Even this very white, very tall, married, straight-presenting, likely wealthy man with a standard-issue set of penis and balls, who was so inherently valued by society – the most valued by our current, hopefully crumbling structures of society – fidgeted uncomfortably as the thing he’d stood up and put himself out there to do continued to not work, and I understood absolutely that he was as desperate to belong as I was.
There are safety and validation in belonging. If manhood contained sweetness, then it contained a place for me as well. And if I could feel safe here, in this high-stakes sea of muscle-jacked, mostly heterosexual naked cis men, I had hope – new, precious, life-giving hope – that I might belong in others.
Not all others. Not even close. My feelings of safety and belonging are still highly provisory. My fear of cis men in locker rooms was, and remains, part of a much broader threat, of their having shouted slurs or hurled a weapon at me from passing cars, of one of them leering scarily at me in a locker room in another state, of another shouting to a group of other men in a park within my earshot that some annoying lady deserved to be raped “into next week”. I knew trans people who’d had wildly different or dangerous experiences in men’s rooms just miles away from my gym. My non-trans friend Rice, who’d so laughingly, endearingly balked when I told her about the membership fees, was, a few months after that conversation, murdered in the street by a man in broad daylight.
Rest in peace and power, dear friend. There aren’t words for how I miss you.
My fear of the whole cis world, which is most of the world, also went beyond physical violence to hate and rejection and discrimination and ostracism and rampant misunderstanding. Many of which I’d previously been protected from, and some kinds of which I still was, as a white person. But all of which were so hurtful and scary that my inclusion at Equinox became, at that point in my transition, the sole steady source of relief outside my living room.
One of the last days I went to the gym before the Covid shutdown, the thing I’d feared would happen happened. An enormous, highly dysregulated white man suddenly started yelling and swearing at me for being too close to him at our lockers. I was startled, and I was scared. But I also gently, verbally defended myself. He only started yelling harder then, and I did hate it, and I was angry and incredulous and afraid but I wasn’t, in this particular room of men, the most terrible thing I could be, what I feared I’d always be in cis-world spaces. Because I was certain that if I called Help – and not despite but especially if I called Help I’m Trans, making myself even more visible and vulnerable and known – enough other sweet men would rise quick to protect me.
I was not, finally, what I’d been every time I was in public by myself since the moment I’d started transitioning: alone.
Gabriel Mac is an award-winning journalist and author
The post The straight cis men at a corporate gym helped save my trans soul appeared first on The Guardian.