Jake Nothnagel had been hitting the gym faithfully, and it showed. On a recent shopping trip, while trying on clothes, he had reason to be pleased.
“This shirt really looks good on me,” Nothnagel thought.
Three years ago, Nothnagel began his transition from female to male, so that nod to himself in the fitting room had a deeper implication.
He was finally looking the way he had long wanted to look in a shirt.
Such simple moments for transgender people can be revelatory. Triumphant. They want to feel comfortable in their bodies — and at ease in public.
Fitness is an important component, and the gym is a place many transgender men want to spend time, changing and challenging their bodies. But it can also be one of the most uncomfortable.
Awkward, intimidating, unwelcoming.
And the locker room?
“I stayed out,” says Nothnagel, 26. “It would have caused a situation. I didn’t use the bathrooms or anything.”
That was earlier in his transition and before he learned that Hailee Bland-Walsh, owner of City Gym in Waldo, and Drew Smith, a transgender man, were working on a new option.
As Smith was transitioning, he, too, had felt uneasy at the gyms he tried. Sometimes he was “passing” — meaning others were clearly seeing him as male. But sometimes the room seemed full of questioning eyes.
A friend suggested City Gym, a small, neighborhood health club on Wornall Road. And on a tour with Bland-Walsh, he says, he felt relaxed.
“It was ‘Hey, can we talk?’” Bland-Walsh recalls about meeting Smith.
“I confided in her,” says Smith, 30. “I told her I was trans and looking for a comfortable space.”
Her gym had something she thought would be helpful: gender-neutral changing rooms. Each space is private, for one person, so members don’t change clothes or shower in front of others.
Bland-Walsh researched the workout needs of trans men — although not much was available, she says — and worked with Smith to help him get the most out of his gym time.
“We just really hit it off,” Smith says.
The gender transition typically includes a regimen of testosterone injections and “top surgery,” the removal of breast tissue. After Smith’s surgery, he felt ready to step up his workouts, with an emphasis on slimming his lower body and increasing upper body muscle.
“I wanted to build my body to how I always pictured it, how I always envisioned my authentic, true self,” he says.
It occurred to Bland-Walsh and Smith that other transgender men in the area could benefit from what they had learned, perhaps with a fitness group for trans men at a place that felt safe. Several of City Gym’s trainers were eager to help, she says.
In 2011, Smith had started a support group for transgender men called the Union. It began with “a few people in my living room” and has grown to more than 100. Besides meetings, they keep in touch using a private Facebook page. General information is available at theunionkc.com.
Interest for the fitness group was high among the Union group members, so Bland-Walsh created a 90-day exercise and nutrition program. It’s called Momentum, and the fourth session of the program starts in January. A session earlier this year drew 10 participants.
“They know coming in they’re getting expert fitness information but also that they can have candid conversations,” she says. “There’s strength in numbers. And we get to say to them, ‘We’re pumped you’re here.’”
Momentum participants appreciate the safety and camaraderie — transgender people can feel isolated even within the LGBT community — and they also appreciate the little things, she says. For instance, no one at the gym questions why the first name they use might be different from what’s on their ID.
“What I find with the guys in the group is a sense of relief,” Bland-Walsh says.
Nothnagel works in IT and is engaged to a kindergarten teacher. His first serious exploration of transitioning occurred at the Union support group, but his gender questioning goes back to childhood.
Nothnagel was 5 when he asked his parents to take him back to the hospital to be made into a boy. At 16, he came out as gay.
After talking with others at the support group, he contacted a gender therapist. After several sessions, she referred him to a doctor for transitioning.
Changes from his testosterone injections — one every other week — came fairly quickly, he says: body and facial hair, deepening voice, even changes in facial features.
“It’s basically going through male puberty,” Nothnagel says. “It’s definitely an exciting thing.”
Smith introduced him to the fitness group. Nothnagel had such a good experience, he agreed to be featured in a Google My Business video on YouTube about the City Gym and Momentum. The video has more than 1.45 million views.
And for Nothnagel, the effects went beyond the physical.
“People say I’m a happier person,” Nothnagel says. “I’m more open. I talk a lot more. It changed my life. Honestly, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”