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As more trans women, trans men and non-binary people join health clubs, it’s time to work out a system where everyone feels included, protected and safe in the locker room. Kath Hudson reports


Health club operators have been running into challenges around locker room policy. Planet Fitness saw US$400m wiped off its share price last month, received bomb threats and was subjected to a “go woke, go broke” campaign when a woman posted a video on social media of a trans person shaving in the female locker rooms.

The situation was further inflamed when the female member took to social media again about her membership being cancelled for videoing in the locker rooms and Planet Fitness co-founder, Mike Grondahl – who’s no longer with the business – took the opportunity to jump on board to criticise his former company with transphobic comments.

This situation could potentially occur anywhere, especially since Planet Fitness followed industry guidance – which is informed by equality legislation – to allow the trans woman to use the locker room of the gender with which she identified.

The challenges
Also impacted is David Lloyd Leisure, which follows UK Active guidance and has been criticised by a former member for allowing trans women to use the female locker room.

She says she was mis-sold and wants access to changing areas for herself and her two daughters that are allocated according to their biological sex at birth, saying she doesn’t feel safe in the changing rooms if trans women – or as she puts it “a man who says he’s not a man” – are allowed there. She has mounted a legal challenge in relation to this, which remains in progress.

A spokesperson from David Lloyd Leisure told HCM: “We always seek to comply with the current legislation and believe that we acted within the law, while balancing the needs of all our members.”

The way forward
Both Planet Fitness and David Lloyd Leisure acted in accordance with legislation and industry guidance, yet have still faced challenges. It’s such an emotive matter that it looks as though following the letter of the law is not enough to avoid issues arising.

HCM editor, Liz Terry, says: "We can all agree that the health club industry is in the business of making all members, guests, customers and staff feel safe and welcome.

"Current industry guidelines focus on outlining the legal position in relation to people who are trans, but existing legislation doesn’t take into account the human aspect for all concerned – trans customers, other customers and staff.

"We can go beyond the basic legal requirements as an industry by being smart about changing room design to ensure all feel safe, comfortable and at ease.

"It's important to also factor in training, so health club staff are fully equipped to deal with all queries with kindness and confidence and we’re fortunate that excellent trans awareness training is widely available.

"The numbers of people in the world undergoing gender reassignment, or identifying their sex in their own individual way is increasing,” says Terry. “Operators need to be ahead of this and ready with sensible, compassionate and effective solutions to ensure all customers are keen to return and enjoy the huge benefits of exercise and community that our industry offers”.

Smart changing room design
Keith Ashton, CEO at Space & Place architects believes that even where space is limited within facilities, the industry can find elegant changing room solutions that enable all members, visitors and guests to feel comfortable, safe and secure if decisions around design and provision are based on a spirit of inclusivity.

“Changing rooms can be redesigned to be gender-neutral, so there are safe spaces for everyone,” he told HCM. “As soon as segregation occurs, there’s potential to cause upset and division.”

To enable this, changing room technology also needs to evolve, says Ashton: “Changing cubicles also need to be designed to be easy for operators to clean, while also making it impossible for those with bad intentions to spy under or over them, to ensure everyone feels safe in the space.”

The university health and fitness and sports sector is ahead of the game in making these changes and Space & Place has been working in this part of the sector for almost 50 years, says Ashton: “Universities have been specifying inclusive changing spaces for sometime,” he explains, “so there’s a wealth of best practice in this area that health club operators can utilise when addressing this change to their own facility design.”

How the law is evolving
In the UK, ambiguities surrounding the definition of ‘sex’ in the Equality Act 2010 have led the government to call for changes to be made. The UK’s Equalities Minister wants to redefine ‘sex’ to specifically refer to legal protections relating to people’s ‘biological sex’ – the sex assigned to them at birth.

The likely future Labour government in the UK also intends to protect single sex spaces and agrees that legal clarifications are needed, but there are no details yet about how this would be achieved.

Until these changes are made, organisations are relying on the guidance published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and their industry bodies.

UK Active and CIMSPA have guidance that complies with the law and is revalidated annually. The guidance provides practical steps for operators when it comes to providing solutions for customers.

The Health and Fitness Association (formerly IHRSA) advocates that operators follow the law while also being welcoming. “We’re proud that our industry has built a legacy of understanding and a welcoming culture, building a sense of community in classes and programmes and other ways,” CEO Liz Clark told HCM. “We support and advocate that fitness facilities fully comply with local and state laws protecting access, which also includes many facilities’ use of equality and privacy policies.”

Ensuring awareness of the law among operators is vital. The trans community has been critical of those who ask for proof of their transition – such as a Gender Reassignment Certificate or an updated birth certificate – before allowing them to use the locker room of their choice.

Only a small proportion have this documentation because it’s difficult to get, so operators who ask for such proof are in danger of falling foul of the Equality Act 2010. Trans people don’t have to undergo medical interventions, or be diagnosed with gender dysmorphia, to be protected from discrimination.

Striking the balance
Sam Marshall, founder of the Be Trans Aware training course, says inclusion needs to start with policy and culture. If businesses genuinely want to welcome trans people they need to have trans and DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) policies in place and a culture which flows throughout the club, including representation in marketing.

She points out that many trans women are terrified when they come out and risk-assess places before they visit. Most trans women won’t use any locker rooms at the gym, as they fear being victimised in the female changing rooms and using the male locker rooms could put them at risk.

“In the light of these recent incidents, it would be worth operators sending out updates to their members highlighting their policies and showing they’re operating in accordance with the Equality Act 2010,” she said.

“There needs to be signage around the club showing it’s a trans-friendly space and these policies should be accessible online, so the trans community can see they're welcome and transphobic people are also aware,” she continued.

She also calls for the use of pronouns on emails, pronoun badges for the staff, enabling trans staff to feel safe working in the facility and for gyms to do something to give back to the LGBTQ+ community – for example, by allowing local trans groups to run sessions and supporting local pride events.

Most importantly, she says there should be access to lockable changing rooms rather than communal areas, which make many people self-conscious.

If this isn’t easy to offer, she suggests the accessible toilet could be used by anyone who feels uncomfortable: “Using the accessible toilet is a reasonable adjustment for any woman regardless of their trans status,” she says. “In these cases it becomes a safe space.”

The trans view
Vixx Thompson, Founder of Trans-Fitness

I transitioned from female to male in 2010.

When a person transitions it’s one of the hardest things to do in life, because of the discrimination and fear from parts of society. Often sport is not even considered as an option, as trans people are too busy trying to stay alive – up to 42 per cent consider suicide. However, given its benefits, sport should be for all.

There’s the constant fear of being called out, asked to leave, or the worry of having to use the changing rooms of their birth once they’ve started hormone therapy.

With regards to locker rooms, safety for all is paramount, which means more cubicles and private spaces. Birmingham City Council’s newer leisure facilities do this well, with many cubicles of all sizes, so everyone can use them safely and privately.

In terms of making the trans community feel more welcome in gyms, displaying trans-inclusion symbols and offering trans classes is a good start. Cost is likely to be a barrier, as many trans people are saving money for expensive treatment.

CASE STUDY
Ladywood Leisure Centre, Birmingham

Serco Leisure manages nine leisure centres for Birmingham City Council in the UK, including Ladywood, which is one of four facilities it has designed, built, operates and maintains. Dawn Page, deputy partnership manager for Serco Leisure, says this is the blueprint that will inform all Serco Leisure’s future new-builds.

“With the design of Ladywood we consulted with Birmingham City Council and Sport England to make it as inclusive as possible, which impacted the design, layout and signage,” says Page. “We went for a village changing room environment which takes away the fear of choice and means staff won’t be put into any awkward situations with trans people asking where they should change. We’ve had no challenges with this layout whatsoever.

“We have clear customer behaviour signage and an inclusive emblem for the private cubicles with showers. Staff patrol the changing rooms regularly and are all trained in trans awareness – the company runs its own course – some of them wear rainbow lanyards and display their pronouns. We also employ trans individuals and when the leisure centre first opened all our recruits had been long-term unemployed.

“There are many barriers to participation for the trans population, that we’re looking to tackle as part of our inclusion strategy. At the moment we’re working with Trans-Fitness CIC to run a trans-only session on Friday nights. The leisure centre will be closed to everyone except the trans community so they will feel safe and welcome to use the swimming pool, sauna and steamroom. We’re hoping that after attending a few of these sessions they’ll feel comfortable to visit at other times. I’ll be attending the sessions to meet with the community and ask for feedback.”

Birmingham City Council’s trans-friendly policy

• The LGBT+ and Allies’ Employee Network hold a number of networking meetings, or activities throughout the year. These are often themed around issues that affect the community, and are timed to coincide with other national campaigns

• The council organises various annual events, including Trans Awareness week in November, LGBT+ history month in February and International Day of Transgender Visibility

• The council also provides transgender training sessions that focus on understanding the correct terminology used to refer to transgender people, awareness of transgender issues, increased cultural competency and responsibilities towards trans co-workers and service users.

• It also undertakes general promotions on how to be a Trans Ally (a Health Education England initiative)

• The city council supports Birmingham Pride as a major event celebrating the LGBTQ+ community.

There are many barriers to participation for the trans population that we’re looking to tackle
Ladywood Leisure Centre has embraced all aspects of inclusion / photo: Ladywood Leisure Centre
Progress in the UK
View from UK Active

While not a regulatory body, UK Active does promote that all facilities provide a safe and welcoming environment for everyone wishing to access them.

UK Active and CIMSPA have created a document, Guidance for front line staff to assist trans people to access leisure facilities, in order to help operators establish their own policies based on best practice.

This guidance document was developed by standards and legislation experts and is regularly reviewed by Sport England and legal experts to ensure it complies with the latest legislation and best practice.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also considered this guidance in December 2021, during the development of its own guidance, Separate and single-sex service providers: a guide on the Equality Act sex and gender reassignment provisions. During the creation of this guidance, UK Active requested that EHRC include sector-specific examples for health and fitness operators, including on changing rooms and single-sex classes/sessions.

This guidance is not intended to provide technical legal advice on all scenarios and sectors. Instead, it encourages service providers to use the information to create policies that are both legal and balance the needs of the different groups they serve.

We recognise the complex societal challenges and different viewpoints posed by issues of access today, as well as the challenge facing many sectors and public spaces when it comes to navigating legal requirements while meeting consumer expectations.

Our sector is not immune to these challenges and we have a responsibility to promote the adoption of legal, balanced policies and procedures. At the same time, we’re working with other sectors and groups to seek further clarity from legislators and the Government on this issue.

UK Active continues to work with its membership council, standards and legislation committee, other membership representatives and consumer campaign groups, to share best practice, policies challenges and scenarios as the agenda evolves, to ensure the sector continues to improve services for everyone.

We have a responsibility to promote the adoption of legal, balanced policies
UK Active updates its guidance note for operators each year / photo: Shutterstock / antoniodiaz
Planet Fitness followed guidance but still encountered major issues Credit: photo: Planet Fitness
Birmingham has a strong trans ethos Credit: photo: Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Health Club Management
2024 issue 5

View issue contents

Leisure Management - All welcome

Insight

All welcome


As more trans women, trans men and non-binary people join health clubs, it’s time to work out a system where everyone feels included, protected and safe in the locker room. Kath Hudson reports

Health club staff should be fully equipped to deal with all queries with kindness and confidence photo: Shutterstock / nito
Planet Fitness followed guidance but still encountered major issues photo: Planet Fitness
Birmingham has a strong trans ethos photo: Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia

Health club operators have been running into challenges around locker room policy. Planet Fitness saw US$400m wiped off its share price last month, received bomb threats and was subjected to a “go woke, go broke” campaign when a woman posted a video on social media of a trans person shaving in the female locker rooms.

The situation was further inflamed when the female member took to social media again about her membership being cancelled for videoing in the locker rooms and Planet Fitness co-founder, Mike Grondahl – who’s no longer with the business – took the opportunity to jump on board to criticise his former company with transphobic comments.

This situation could potentially occur anywhere, especially since Planet Fitness followed industry guidance – which is informed by equality legislation – to allow the trans woman to use the locker room of the gender with which she identified.

The challenges
Also impacted is David Lloyd Leisure, which follows UK Active guidance and has been criticised by a former member for allowing trans women to use the female locker room.

She says she was mis-sold and wants access to changing areas for herself and her two daughters that are allocated according to their biological sex at birth, saying she doesn’t feel safe in the changing rooms if trans women – or as she puts it “a man who says he’s not a man” – are allowed there. She has mounted a legal challenge in relation to this, which remains in progress.

A spokesperson from David Lloyd Leisure told HCM: “We always seek to comply with the current legislation and believe that we acted within the law, while balancing the needs of all our members.”

The way forward
Both Planet Fitness and David Lloyd Leisure acted in accordance with legislation and industry guidance, yet have still faced challenges. It’s such an emotive matter that it looks as though following the letter of the law is not enough to avoid issues arising.

HCM editor, Liz Terry, says: "We can all agree that the health club industry is in the business of making all members, guests, customers and staff feel safe and welcome.

"Current industry guidelines focus on outlining the legal position in relation to people who are trans, but existing legislation doesn’t take into account the human aspect for all concerned – trans customers, other customers and staff.

"We can go beyond the basic legal requirements as an industry by being smart about changing room design to ensure all feel safe, comfortable and at ease.

"It's important to also factor in training, so health club staff are fully equipped to deal with all queries with kindness and confidence and we’re fortunate that excellent trans awareness training is widely available.

"The numbers of people in the world undergoing gender reassignment, or identifying their sex in their own individual way is increasing,” says Terry. “Operators need to be ahead of this and ready with sensible, compassionate and effective solutions to ensure all customers are keen to return and enjoy the huge benefits of exercise and community that our industry offers”.

Smart changing room design
Keith Ashton, CEO at Space & Place architects believes that even where space is limited within facilities, the industry can find elegant changing room solutions that enable all members, visitors and guests to feel comfortable, safe and secure if decisions around design and provision are based on a spirit of inclusivity.

“Changing rooms can be redesigned to be gender-neutral, so there are safe spaces for everyone,” he told HCM. “As soon as segregation occurs, there’s potential to cause upset and division.”

To enable this, changing room technology also needs to evolve, says Ashton: “Changing cubicles also need to be designed to be easy for operators to clean, while also making it impossible for those with bad intentions to spy under or over them, to ensure everyone feels safe in the space.”

The university health and fitness and sports sector is ahead of the game in making these changes and Space & Place has been working in this part of the sector for almost 50 years, says Ashton: “Universities have been specifying inclusive changing spaces for sometime,” he explains, “so there’s a wealth of best practice in this area that health club operators can utilise when addressing this change to their own facility design.”

How the law is evolving
In the UK, ambiguities surrounding the definition of ‘sex’ in the Equality Act 2010 have led the government to call for changes to be made. The UK’s Equalities Minister wants to redefine ‘sex’ to specifically refer to legal protections relating to people’s ‘biological sex’ – the sex assigned to them at birth.

The likely future Labour government in the UK also intends to protect single sex spaces and agrees that legal clarifications are needed, but there are no details yet about how this would be achieved.

Until these changes are made, organisations are relying on the guidance published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and their industry bodies.

UK Active and CIMSPA have guidance that complies with the law and is revalidated annually. The guidance provides practical steps for operators when it comes to providing solutions for customers.

The Health and Fitness Association (formerly IHRSA) advocates that operators follow the law while also being welcoming. “We’re proud that our industry has built a legacy of understanding and a welcoming culture, building a sense of community in classes and programmes and other ways,” CEO Liz Clark told HCM. “We support and advocate that fitness facilities fully comply with local and state laws protecting access, which also includes many facilities’ use of equality and privacy policies.”

Ensuring awareness of the law among operators is vital. The trans community has been critical of those who ask for proof of their transition – such as a Gender Reassignment Certificate or an updated birth certificate – before allowing them to use the locker room of their choice.

Only a small proportion have this documentation because it’s difficult to get, so operators who ask for such proof are in danger of falling foul of the Equality Act 2010. Trans people don’t have to undergo medical interventions, or be diagnosed with gender dysmorphia, to be protected from discrimination.

Striking the balance
Sam Marshall, founder of the Be Trans Aware training course, says inclusion needs to start with policy and culture. If businesses genuinely want to welcome trans people they need to have trans and DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) policies in place and a culture which flows throughout the club, including representation in marketing.

She points out that many trans women are terrified when they come out and risk-assess places before they visit. Most trans women won’t use any locker rooms at the gym, as they fear being victimised in the female changing rooms and using the male locker rooms could put them at risk.

“In the light of these recent incidents, it would be worth operators sending out updates to their members highlighting their policies and showing they’re operating in accordance with the Equality Act 2010,” she said.

“There needs to be signage around the club showing it’s a trans-friendly space and these policies should be accessible online, so the trans community can see they're welcome and transphobic people are also aware,” she continued.

She also calls for the use of pronouns on emails, pronoun badges for the staff, enabling trans staff to feel safe working in the facility and for gyms to do something to give back to the LGBTQ+ community – for example, by allowing local trans groups to run sessions and supporting local pride events.

Most importantly, she says there should be access to lockable changing rooms rather than communal areas, which make many people self-conscious.

If this isn’t easy to offer, she suggests the accessible toilet could be used by anyone who feels uncomfortable: “Using the accessible toilet is a reasonable adjustment for any woman regardless of their trans status,” she says. “In these cases it becomes a safe space.”

The trans view
Vixx Thompson, Founder of Trans-Fitness

I transitioned from female to male in 2010.

When a person transitions it’s one of the hardest things to do in life, because of the discrimination and fear from parts of society. Often sport is not even considered as an option, as trans people are too busy trying to stay alive – up to 42 per cent consider suicide. However, given its benefits, sport should be for all.

There’s the constant fear of being called out, asked to leave, or the worry of having to use the changing rooms of their birth once they’ve started hormone therapy.

With regards to locker rooms, safety for all is paramount, which means more cubicles and private spaces. Birmingham City Council’s newer leisure facilities do this well, with many cubicles of all sizes, so everyone can use them safely and privately.

In terms of making the trans community feel more welcome in gyms, displaying trans-inclusion symbols and offering trans classes is a good start. Cost is likely to be a barrier, as many trans people are saving money for expensive treatment.

CASE STUDY
Ladywood Leisure Centre, Birmingham

Serco Leisure manages nine leisure centres for Birmingham City Council in the UK, including Ladywood, which is one of four facilities it has designed, built, operates and maintains. Dawn Page, deputy partnership manager for Serco Leisure, says this is the blueprint that will inform all Serco Leisure’s future new-builds.

“With the design of Ladywood we consulted with Birmingham City Council and Sport England to make it as inclusive as possible, which impacted the design, layout and signage,” says Page. “We went for a village changing room environment which takes away the fear of choice and means staff won’t be put into any awkward situations with trans people asking where they should change. We’ve had no challenges with this layout whatsoever.

“We have clear customer behaviour signage and an inclusive emblem for the private cubicles with showers. Staff patrol the changing rooms regularly and are all trained in trans awareness – the company runs its own course – some of them wear rainbow lanyards and display their pronouns. We also employ trans individuals and when the leisure centre first opened all our recruits had been long-term unemployed.

“There are many barriers to participation for the trans population, that we’re looking to tackle as part of our inclusion strategy. At the moment we’re working with Trans-Fitness CIC to run a trans-only session on Friday nights. The leisure centre will be closed to everyone except the trans community so they will feel safe and welcome to use the swimming pool, sauna and steamroom. We’re hoping that after attending a few of these sessions they’ll feel comfortable to visit at other times. I’ll be attending the sessions to meet with the community and ask for feedback.”

Birmingham City Council’s trans-friendly policy

• The LGBT+ and Allies’ Employee Network hold a number of networking meetings, or activities throughout the year. These are often themed around issues that affect the community, and are timed to coincide with other national campaigns

• The council organises various annual events, including Trans Awareness week in November, LGBT+ history month in February and International Day of Transgender Visibility

• The council also provides transgender training sessions that focus on understanding the correct terminology used to refer to transgender people, awareness of transgender issues, increased cultural competency and responsibilities towards trans co-workers and service users.

• It also undertakes general promotions on how to be a Trans Ally (a Health Education England initiative)

• The city council supports Birmingham Pride as a major event celebrating the LGBTQ+ community.

There are many barriers to participation for the trans population that we’re looking to tackle
Ladywood Leisure Centre has embraced all aspects of inclusion / photo: Ladywood Leisure Centre
Progress in the UK
View from UK Active

While not a regulatory body, UK Active does promote that all facilities provide a safe and welcoming environment for everyone wishing to access them.

UK Active and CIMSPA have created a document, Guidance for front line staff to assist trans people to access leisure facilities, in order to help operators establish their own policies based on best practice.

This guidance document was developed by standards and legislation experts and is regularly reviewed by Sport England and legal experts to ensure it complies with the latest legislation and best practice.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also considered this guidance in December 2021, during the development of its own guidance, Separate and single-sex service providers: a guide on the Equality Act sex and gender reassignment provisions. During the creation of this guidance, UK Active requested that EHRC include sector-specific examples for health and fitness operators, including on changing rooms and single-sex classes/sessions.

This guidance is not intended to provide technical legal advice on all scenarios and sectors. Instead, it encourages service providers to use the information to create policies that are both legal and balance the needs of the different groups they serve.

We recognise the complex societal challenges and different viewpoints posed by issues of access today, as well as the challenge facing many sectors and public spaces when it comes to navigating legal requirements while meeting consumer expectations.

Our sector is not immune to these challenges and we have a responsibility to promote the adoption of legal, balanced policies and procedures. At the same time, we’re working with other sectors and groups to seek further clarity from legislators and the Government on this issue.

UK Active continues to work with its membership council, standards and legislation committee, other membership representatives and consumer campaign groups, to share best practice, policies challenges and scenarios as the agenda evolves, to ensure the sector continues to improve services for everyone.

We have a responsibility to promote the adoption of legal, balanced policies
UK Active updates its guidance note for operators each year / photo: Shutterstock / antoniodiaz

Originally published in Health Club Management 2024 issue 5

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