Nathalie Huerta's Queer Gym Is Honoring (and Transforming) LGBTQ+ Bodies

Photos courtesy Haley Seppa
Photos courtesy Haley Seppa

On a bright Friday morning in May, I walk up to The Perfect Sidekick Queer Gym in Oakland, CA. Outside, a garage door proclaims "You know you're curious . . ." and a rainbow flag hangs on the door. Owner Nathalie Huerta, an NASM-certified personal trainer and self-described "CEO of Making Sh*t Happen," and her wife, MJ, are waiting for me under the pull-up bars between clients.

A heavy tire rests in front of the closed garage door near the weight benches and battle ropes. Black floor mats absorb the sound of my steps, and not a single mirror reflects back at me. In the back room, a few early attendees stretch and bob along to the playlist blaring through the spartan space — even the music is on beat with the exercise reps. In a half hour, I'll have my ass thoroughly kicked in that room by trainer James Cooley during a strength-training class called Hard Core Homo.

"Our first location was previously a therapist's office . . . I thought, 'If I do push-ups here, now it's a gym.'"

Nathalie, a queer woman of color whose business caters to the LGBTQ+ community of the Bay Area, goes through the workout with the rest of the class, looking just as tired as I feel. Halfway through, when James accidentally addresses the group as "ladies," Nathalie gently corrects his verbiage — "No 'ladies.'" During my chat with her, she mentions that we all have a lot to learn, even when we might think we already know enough.

Photos courtesy Haley Seppa

"Us being the first queer gym in the nation, there's an expectation that's like, 'You better get it right.' We're almost held to a higher standard. You can expect a straight person to f*ck up, but as a queer person of color doing this, it's like, 'Oh, what do you mean you weren't inclusive of transgender people at first?' The misconception there is that we're gonna get it right at the beginning. We're gonna f*ck up way more than anyone that comes after us."

When gym members informed Nathalie that the language used during workouts wasn't inclusive of transgender folks in the early days, Nathalie immediately went to the Lyon-Martin Clinic in San Francisco to learn more about how to fix that. It specializes in health care for the LGBTQ+ community, especially transgender and genderqueer folks, making it a perfect resource for Nathalie.

After the director took her through the clinic's sensitivity PowerPoint, Nathalie decided to develop her own version for the Queer Gym. Her biannual Queer 101 community training emerged from those efforts to educate herself. Soon after her Lyon-Martin visit, she held the first session with her trainers; she realized afterward that in order for the gym to be totally in line, the members needed the training as well. In fact, the community as a whole could benefit from it. Now, even the tourism bureau of Oakland has come to Nathalie for Queer 101 training.

"Queer 101 is like my golden child," she tells me, explaining that while it started with just language and cultural information, it now also includes practical things like how to cue someone for their pronouns, how hormone therapy affects training, and how to prepare for top surgery.

Photos courtesy Haley Seppa

Nathalie works hard to make Queer Gym the safe space her members need. Each class begins with introductions — name, pronoun, injuries, and an icebreaker, like your biggest change of the year — and every new member receives pre-workout homework in the form of educational videos. Nathalie vets each potential client herself, explaining, "If our main gym is a safe space, we have to hyper protect that. We don't sell memberships online."

It's just one way Nathalie pours herself into the gym. "A new member recently asked me, 'What do you do for fun?' 'This,' I said. 'No, this is your job. What do you do for fun?' 'This!'" she says, laughing.

Starting Queer Gym

Queer Gym was founded in 2010. Nathalie, who studied sports medicine in college after years of playing basketball, took up a gig as a personal trainer in a gym after graduation. Even as an instructor, the stereotypical gym atmosphere got to her. She began advertising on Craigslist's "women for women" page as a trainer for lesbians specifically instead, leading her to the idea of Queer Gym while getting her MBA. "The Perfect Sidekick was the original concept, which was half trainer, half wingwoman," she explains, ruefully confessing that the fitness part is going strong but she never reworked the wingwoman aspect back in. "There have been four marriages that have come out of the gym, though," she points out.

Photos courtesy Haley Seppa

"I started with $50 and went to Target — bought what I could afford. In terms of challenges or difficulties, I never really stopped to think about it, which, in hindsight, is pretty f*cking crazy," she admits. "Our first location was previously a therapist's office . . . I thought, 'If I do push-ups here, now it's a gym.'" Eight years, a few moves, and a name change later, Queer Gym is pulling in more and more members. Nathalie and her coaches even offer a six-week challenge, which is FREE if you manage to stay on track and meet your goals. "We made it so far, I think, because of the niche and serendipitous events."

As the first in her family to graduate college, Nathalie mentions numerous times that her MBA actually provided little real help when she started Queer Gym. Instead, she relied on "a lot of googling" and pushed through on her own — "That Mexican muscle, that's all I've got."

Photos courtesy Haley Seppa

At first, the struggle Nathalie wanted to address was the need for a safe space. "A lot of the comfortable stuff kind of comes from my own sh*tty experience in the gym. You know, I hated mirrors; I hated being misgendered; I hated the locker room situation," she explains. Nathalie, a college athlete and personal trainer, recognized that others must share her need, and thus Queer Gym emerged. The clientele, of course, play a large role in maintaining that feeling, but the all-gender restroom/changing room, no-mirror policy, and required sensitivity training reinforce it.

"First problem was we need a queer gym where we feel comfortable: check. Now we need to find a program that gives people results. Having a queer gym is cute, having members is cute, but I want to change lives. How do we get to that?" she asks. For now, the answer lies in that highly successful six-week challenge. "People are coming because of the results," she says, but she wants more. "I don't want to be known just as a queer gym. I want to be known as the best gym."

Queer Gym and Its Community

In addition to that goal, though, Nathalie connects it to the larger community we both belong to. Specifically, she wants to impact more nonprofits and work with LGBTQ+ spaces to improve lives. Gaining more members ties into this handily. Despite the rising price of living in the Bay Area (and the price of being queer), memberships at Queer Gym are on the rise. "Part of the reason I want to kill it is because you can make a bigger contribution when you have something to contribute. You can donate time, but really what nonprofits need is monetary funding. That's when it gets really fun. Sure, I can donate a certificate or get some volunteers, but the impact is economic. I would like to get us to the point where 10 percent of our revenue is donated."

That tie to the community connects many people in Oakland. The doggy day care next door to the gym is run by a queer friend of Nathalie's — they cohosted a puppy happy hour the Friday after my visit. Queer Gym also hosts a 5K run during Oakland Pride. Nathalie's job, friends, and family all converge where Queer Gym is concerned, as do the lives of its members. The day after the shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL, for instance, surprised her by being one of the busiest days at Queer Gym.

Photos courtesy Haley Seppa

"People told me they needed this more than any other day ever. It's our human nature to be in a tribe," she tells me. "We have members whose kids have kind of grown up with us — so many different types of families."

It certainly rings true for Nathalie herself. "I proposed to my wife at Queer Gym's five-year anniversary party," she says. "The fact that I shared that moment with my family and our members and our community . . . it just tied everything together." It stands out as one of her favorite moments and reinforces everything she and the gym stand for.

What's Next?

"This is about fulfilling needs."

"We always get [negative] emails from people in like Mississippi and Alabama and these places. That's where I really want to open the next [gym]," she admits, acknowledging that MJ finds the idea surprising as well.

"This is about fulfilling needs. A queer person in Alabama probably has a bigger need for us than someone in Miami or Los Angeles. Yeah, I'm worried, but I'm more worried to continue to allow people to think that's OK. It's a big agenda."

"That's a lot on your plate," I tell her.

"Yeah," she says, smiling. "Change the world."

Robyn Von Swank