Updated: Nov 10
Be yourself, they say. Is it just that easy?
I've been in the fitness industry for over 20 years as a personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and instructor trainer. I'm also a certified life coach and co-founder of How To Be Queer. We provide training and consulting to businesses assisting them in their understanding of LGBTQ identities in hopes to provide healing spaces. This is driven by the intention to improve one's sense of psychological safety and belonging for LGBTQ humans. In other words, we work hard to disrupt heteronormative culture because we have to. It's essential to grow and change.
I’ve performed on large stages as a drag performer, trained with Pepper Von, and performed multiple times to huge audiences with The Fitness Marshall, a well-known YouTuber. All of that gave me life. The courage it took to get up on a stage in front of thousands of people was nothing compared to what I was about to do. Performing, dancing, and teaching gave me an opportunity to invite other people in, empower them to rewrite their own narrative, reclaim their bodies, promote a healthy lifestyle and create an experience to encourage them to be their best selves.
The reality was I was not even close to doing that for myself.
I’ve been working at Life Time since 2008. It's been a second home for me. I was hired before our building was complete, before there were doors on the frames, before there was an office to have a meeting, and before any weights touched the floor. I was hired legally known as Sarah Vaughan Zook, my dead name. (A dead name is a name assigned to a transgender and/or nonbinary person at birth that they no longer use. )
Soon enough after the grand opening, my classes became a little bit hectic which was a good thing. For years, an average of 75-100 people showed up to dance, punch, kick and sweat with me. I taught multiple formats and I bantered with my classes that I told them all my secrets through the songs I picked and the movements I matched to those songs.
As I danced my way through my own coming out process, deciding when and how I should come out, and assessing my emotional and psychological safety, I started with the small moves. Leading up to sharing my name, Alex, I began to introduce myself as a last name I was using because it felt safer. At the time, it was still a part of the name everyone knew me as and sounded more gender-neutral than my birth name.
Then in 2018, 10 years later, with the help of my queer therapist, I finally got the words that I am transgender and nonbinary. And right away, I knew my name was Alex. The first person I told was my wife, Kim. Then I told my kids. It took me another 6-ish months to finally tell someone at work. Saying I was terrified was an understatement. I was worried I would lose my job despite being a top-performing instructor who had built a caring and extremely social fitness community within the club. I was worried about what life being trans really meant and looked like. The world taught me to reject being transgender and I accepted that as truth. Until I didn't.
One day, I walked into my class and said, "Hi. My name is Alex." A hundred faces stared back at me. I looked at my wife who was in class. She smiled and it gave me the courage to keep going.
"You knew me by another name but that's not me. I'm Alex..." Cheers and clapping erupted from the room. It felt like I ripped off a band-aid and I got a rush of relief. The discomfort of not being myself outweighed any fear I had of sharing. What I couldn't prepare for was the harmful remarks, comments, questions, and situations from well-intended people I encountered every day.
For months and months, I walked around like an oozing wound doing my best to hold in my frustration but the message was clear: keep explaining yourself when you get hurt because we just don't want to understand. And further, we aren't willing to actually unpack our own discomfort around transgender and nonbinary identity. We aren't willing to invest and want you to keep sharing your experience for free while we continue to benefit from your pain. Ultimately, we want to keep ignoring you because maybe if we do, you'll get tired and stop talking about it.
I wanted to go back into the closet. I wanted to quit. There were days when it felt like my skin was searing as people stared and gossiped. But being an athlete taught me something valuable: just because it's hard doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.
No one else at my location that I knew of had transitioned at work. As much as path pavers often reveal what they did was worth it, I felt pretty alone and it wasn’t smooth at all. Frankly, it was hell getting basic things done. I was spun round and round just trying to get the email with my deadname removed and changed. I showed up, continuing to reach out, advocating for myself, hoping they would see how emotionally draining it was to see my dead name on every email I got. After 7 weeks, they finally got it done.
In the process, I learned about a man up in Minnesota who transitioned and worked in the Life Time construction department. He seemed to be the one who kickstarted the company to even start looking at this. Overall, it felt like no one really seemed to know what to do, and then no one was even able to say that. Other instructors were coming to me saying, People are talking to me about you. What do I say? Managers told me that I didn't have to explain anything to anyone and to just be myself. That answer infuriated me because it was completely dismissive.
Translation: don't talk about it because it makes everyone uncomfortable.
There's no rainbow without rain and sunshine. Getting to know myself created an intense sense of joy and euphoria as I'd never felt before. I was uncovering the truth of who I am which gave me limitless energy. Contained within the studio walls, regardless of how I was treated on the outside, I made sure to create an environment on the inside where all bodies, all genders, all sexualities, and all humans could coexist in healing movement.
One of the things I love about dance is how it helps the body process trauma and emotion. We could say this is true of all movement and exercise which is why access to safe exercise spaces is so important for trans/nonbinary people. There were days of sitting in my car before I had to go in to teach, breathing, prepping myself for whatever I was going to have to face that day. It always came back to this, Tell them the truth or keep dying. What's your goal? (Truth!) And what’s it going to be today? (I choose living!)
Facing my coworkers as I transitioned inevitably meant I had to hold the things for them that they didn’t understand about who I am. I could feel how little someone knew but tried to pretend. Having to talk to someone who hadn’t a clue on how to be a trans ally feels like they pull a boulder out of their back pocket and say here hold this. Before I can say anything, they set it on my shoulders. Here are some examples:
Like the time when I circled back to a trainer and said, "Hi, yesterday you used she/her pronouns for me when we were talking, and actually those aren’t my pronouns. I use they/them. He said, “Oh, one of those things” and walked away.
A trainer laughed and waved her hand in my face after I corrected her about my name and pronouns. The other trainers witnessing, dumbfounded, jaws dropped open, staring at their phones, saying nothing.
I did what I was supposed to do. I asked for help and my managers, "We need you to be patient with us. Those trainers didn’t mean to do that. We’re working on it."
I don't talk about this to hurt someone's feelings. They certainly weren't considering mine but that's not the point. I talk about it because when we share our experiences with each other, and force ourselves to see someone else's reality, it has the potential to create a powerful, empowering connection.
Coming out was like this:
I imagine I’m standing backstage at the Pepsi Center. Everyone I know and or at least come in contact with in my entire life is there. I walk out completely naked, stood in the middle of the stage, and say, “Hi, I learned something new about myself and I need to share it with you all. I don’t use the name you all knew me as before. That name was never me anyway. My name is Alex. I use they/them pronouns. I’m nonbinary and transgender.”
Now imagine some of those people standing up and walking out, ignoring there’s a naked person on stage. Some of them just stare. Some of them start laughing. Some of them begin to yell horrible things. Some of them get angry that why didn’t I tell them sooner. Some of them clap. Some actually got up on stage with me and say, "Nice to meet you."
The comments and questions continued…
“Are you going to start taking hormones?”
How are you not a man or woman?
What does this mean for Kim?
Are you a straight man now?
Well, it’s going to take a while to change your email
Oh! I was wondering why you started dressing differently
Does this mean you’re getting surgeries?
I don’t get it. How are you they/them?
Okay, I know I knew you as Sarah and now you’re Alex but I’m going to do my best…you know I knew you as Sarah for just so long and I need you to be patient with me, I’m going to mess it up, and I’m really sorry in advance but gosh, I knew you as Sarah for so long…Sarah Sarah Sarah Sarah Sarah
I was learning so much. I was dealing with a lot of discomfort but had to show up every day to teach and train people. I worked in overdrive to befriend so many feelings around the entire situation. It can be easy to unleash on someone for not knowing something but it takes true strength to be compassionate. I was tired of buying into the false story I was sold being conditioned as female...don’t rock the boat, don’t be loud, don’t say anything that challenges anyone.
I made it a goal to be able to talk about it so I could be a part of the healing process. Not every transgender person wants to open up a vein but I decided I wanted to because maybe I would help. I also wasn't going to continue to put myself in harm's way anymore. If I wanted to be someone who leaves the workplace a little safer for the next person coming up, honestly, and out, I had to learn my own boundaries. I want to share my experience to humanize what being transgender really is. I'm a person. I’m not a bill you can pass to validate my existence. You don't get transgender "certified" though somehow people want to debate whom we say we are. And there’s no need to put a bouncer at the bathroom door before entering. I just want to pee.
I'm not the first person to transition within the fitness industry nor will I be the last. If the fitness industry wants to continue to say that it is in the business of taking care of people's minds, bodies, spirits, and wellness then I am adding to the call-in. Do better. Your businesses depend on it.
Being transgender and nonbinary is just one part of who I am. I dream of a day when we are all acknowledged for who we are which ultimately becomes the soil, roots, and grounds for building an even more beautiful life.