It is often said that personal trainers are capable of transforming the lives of their clients. It isn’t often that the roles are reversed and the clients are the changing the lives of the trainers. Nathalie Huerta, Owner/Trainer and “Chief of Making Shit Happen” at Oakland’s The Perfect Sidekick has had her life changed simply by catering to the people within her own community.
Having the distinction of being the first and (still) only LGBTQ gym in the country, The Perfect Sidekick (TPS) seems less “in your face, gay” than you may expect. Sure, there are the cleverly titled group training courses like “Hard Core Homo” & “Oakland Booty” and you may spot the stuffed unicorn (hiding in the corner when I visited) acting as the unofficial mascot. However, make no mistake: this place is about loving to sweat, kicking your ass, and the community aspect that helps to hold each person accountable for showing up on the regular. I initially visited with Nathalie for a simple story about an Oakland business. After speaking with her for over an hour I realized 250 words couldn’t possibly do it justice. This place is a lot more than ‘just a gym.’
Oakland is not your typical LGBTQ community. Your sign boldly says, “An LGBTQ Gym. We know you’re curious!” How much of a deep breath did you have to take before saying, “Let’s do it!” <Nathalie> Actually, the Trans community is what sparked this. We claimed the title as we became it.
So, it wasn’t intentional it was just natural? It was the right thing to do. In the beginning I was just a really good lesbian. That is what I knew. That is who I knew to market to. As we started putting LGBT on stuff we also got more Trans members. But, as soon as we got them they left. I started to contact them to find out what was going on and they let me know that it didn’t feel inclusive. The first thing in my head was, ‘Yes, it is!’. They were able to show me that just because you say it doesn’t mean you practice it. They would refer to my using phrases like, ‘Come on guys!’ They would remind me that they aren’t trying to be a ‘guy’ and here you are calling me a fucking guy.
So they are really taking note of the pronoun usage even though it’s intended as general verbiage? Yes! The pronoun thing was groundbreaking for us.
Even though your intention was not to say something in a certain way they hear it another way. And being that they are your clientele you want to be accommodating, and respectful, and also learn. Exactly. So that’s when I started learning about pronouns and ways we can change our language to be more inclusive of members that are Trans.
So, what were the first steps you took to create that inclusive environment? Google! <laughs> Learning pronouns. That’s the thing, there’s no “Trans Certification” you can get. Especially 5 years ago. There was nothing out there for me to go search.
Was your Trans membership allowed to call you out while you were learning with them? What was that conversation with them like? That’s another thing I learned is that it is not a Trans persons responsibility to educate you. So, even now when we do training or workshops the first thing we have to lay down is a safe space for conversations to happen. Now we do a Queer 101 training with our trainers every 6 months. It’s mandatory for them and it’s also open for the community. The way we pitch this is we have 17% of our membership who are Straight and they don’t know what to ask. There’s a lot of Transphobia in the community. We have a lot of allies that want to learn more. When we announce when we put the workshop together is, all of those questions that you aren’t sure are ok to ask or are nervous to ask and you don’t know IF you should apologize for something, this is where you come ask. No one is going to judge you for asking those questions.
How does the community at large know this is taking place? Do you advertise it? Yep. We advertise it like any other event. It’s cool because we get members and they bring friends and they bring friends. The last time we did this we had 30-40 people show up. We do two things, one is culture sensitivity as in how to address a certain thing. The other is more on the clinical side. I can’t hire a trainer and expect them to know how to train someone on hormonal therapy or know how to prep someone for “top surgery” or something like that.
It’s one thing to deal with a Cis Gendered Male but when you have the male structure with the female soul and they are going through the transition to female how do you train them? And vice-versa! I am assuming there are differences that should be taken into consideration. How did you educate yourself? Indeed. What we did was to reach out to the Lyon-Martin Clinic in San Francisco and met with their Director and they put me through my first ever Queer 101 training. We sat in her office and went slide by slide.
How enlightening was that? Fucking mind-blowing! I would say that was the highlight as a trainer. The biggest takeaway I got from that is there is always more to learn about everyone. I love learning curves. The moment that curve ends I’m like, SQUIRREL. I remember feeling like a new lesson was coming. I was going on Trainer 2.0 with all of this new information I have. I didn’t know shit about the Trans community. And I didn’t know I was… I wouldn’t say I was Transphobic, but I just didn’t know that I didn’t know all these things.
Would you say Trans-Ignorant or Transphobic? Because there’s a big difference. Trans-Ignorant. I like that. I’ve never heard that. I’m gonna use it!
Ha! Please do. That leads me to ask, where is the line between calling someone ‘phobic’, which is a strong statement about intentionality versus ‘ignorant’ which speaks to their current understanding. I really like the word Trans-Ignorant. If I try to explain to my family what I do and how I include the Trans community, their reaction wouldn’t be Transphobic. They just don’t know. Hmmmm. I might blog about this. <laughs>
Six weeks after my initial conversation with Nathalie I resisted to see what has been going on and have a chance to meet some of her members and trainers.
Last time we spoke you mentioned how you wanted to expand your business. How, in only 6 weeks, has that progressed? <Nathalie laughing> We’re actually in a really good place to expand. The biggest obstacle has always been the funding. We’re overcoming that finding a few people fall into my lap that are interested in providing that. Two of them have been members who have always been supportive. I’ve also been able to find funding outside the club. I worked through a Stanford Fellowship Program that focuses on Latino entrepreneurship and the mentor that was assigned to me has recently joined a venture capital firm that also focuses on funding for Latino owned businesses. He’s expressed interest in him being my first call when I’m ready to put things into action.
Congratulations! What are we looking at then in terms of timeline and locations? We are really interested in West Oakland, somewhere near the BART Station. We want to make it easily accessible for people going in and out of the city for work. This also would help people to wait for traffic on I-580 to die out after work. They could simply pull off from the highway on their drive home and get a workout in.
Timeline? We want to do the grand opening Jan 1, 2017 with the reselling starting in September of this year. Before that happens I want to have this location pretty much with the bow on top of it meaning having it at full capacity, the staff in place, a manager overseeing things, a new paint job, and replace some equipment. I want to leave it nice and pretty and set. It’s important to me that this locations doesn’t feel abandoned or as though I am only thinking about the new one and forgot about them. This is the community that started it and I want to honor that.
Are you looking to recreate the cross fit style facility you have here but in another location or do you have any other grand ideas brewing? We are asking ourselves if we should add cardio equipment or maybe a juice bar or something like that. A big part of what we do here is community building and so we are brainstorming around what it would look like if we had a bar area that served coffee, juices, kombucha on draft, beer and wine and add to the social space for people after their workout. The question of making an exact copy or an expansion is definitely on our minds. The
Perfect Sidekick 2.0? I’m nervous and excited. I know that going into the second location will put me through a significant learning curve. After that, the third, fourth fifth locations come a lot easier just because you know what it takes and you have more of a blueprint. I look forward to it. I’m good at taking a punch!
Nicole Clausing, a 22 year Oakland resident originally from Massachusetts has been going to TPS since the very beginning. “My wife went to business school with Nathalie. I was just turning 40 and I was interested in making some changes and maybe it’s time to splurge on some personal training so I’ve been working out with Nathalie since she was training at the college gym. She was so young when she started this, it’s amazing how she’s gotten this whole thing together. She was just growing up and learning.”
How often do you make it to TPS? <Nicole> I come here 3 times a week, sometimes 4. I like it because it’s fun. I’ve never been to a gym that was fun before.
And you enjoy sweating? <Nicole> I do, yeah! <laughing> I’m not someone who can self motivate to work out and I knew that about myself. That’s how I realized I needed a trainer. It’s a true community here as well. I’ve never known anyone else that works out at the gym before. Especially female. I like that we’re encouraged to do things that aren’t “for girls”. In high school no one ever showed the girls how to do bench presses because ‘girls don’t do things like that’.
And now girls kick ass! <Nicole> Exactly! <laughing> I had to learn how to make noise when I got here. It was never a girly thing to do but it’s totally fine here. It’s not about being pretty.
Walt Smith, the self professed “Whitest Mexican you’ll ever meet” is one of the few gay men at The Perfect Sidekick. He had been a member at the “Mothership” gym, Fitness SF SoMa since it first opened in the 1990’s. “It’s like you were walking The Gauntlet every time you entered. It was a bit exhausting.”
After moving over to Oakland in 2008 he eventually found himself walking past TPS as he went to the Oakland Fitness SF location. “I kinda rolled my eyes at first. I was like, really? The first “gay gym”? I thought everyone was going to be really annoying”. Two years ago, after dismissing it for six months, he decided to step foot inside to see what it was about. “It’s in my neighborhood. I should at least walk in the door. So that’s what I did”.
All it took was a complimentary ‘Hard Core Homo’ session to know that it was not at all what he assumed. “I call it ‘Casual Queen’ when I’m tired. But, it was so intense I thought I was inches away from throwing up. I hadn’t worked out that hard in 10 years. I didn’t think I was capable of working out to that point! And I’ve been here ever since.”
It’s not just the fitness that keeps Walt coming back to TPS. “I’m 51, I’ve been out forever, I’ve done every damn gay thing you can imagine… I had zero experience with the Trans community or lesbians. I come here and I’m often the only guy. That said, people couldn’t be nicer! It’s very cool. I never would have known such great people if I didn’t start going here. I had never even spoken to a Trans person that I was aware of. I met Dane, a Trans Man who is no longer at this gym while he was transitioning. I saw him go through his top surgery while he was here. It was a completely new experience that I never would have had if I didn’t come here. To me that’s always a good thing.”
Learn more about The Perfect Sidekick
Or drop by for a site visit!
They are at 2706 Park Blvd, Oakland, CA 94606
Tel (510) 808-5057 Daily 6AM–9PM
The ONLY LGBTQ Gym in the Bay!
Group Sessions + Team Sessions + Individual Sessions