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Prayer and Transgender Issues Hit the Fitness Industry

When you operate a fitness facility, you think that your days are going to be filled with issues such as dirty locker rooms, broken equipment, trainers who quit without notice or member complaints about dues increases. It's unlikely that you would put praying members or transgender members on your list. However, after two recent incidents at fitness facilities received media attention, it's clear that health club operators must think about how they will deal with issues beyond fitness.

The most recent attention-grabbing incident occurred at a Planet Fitness in Midland, MI, where a woman reported to the front desk and to the corporate office that a man was using the women's locker room. It turns out that the man self-identified as a woman, so it was Planet Fitness' policy to allow him to use the women's locker room. In a video interview with the woman who complained, she says that the transgender member looked like a man, so she had no idea that he identified as a woman when she complained.

If someone who appeared to be a man walked into the women's locker room at your gym, I think most of the women in your locker room would be alarmed. I commend Planet Fitness for being sensitive to the transgender member, but someone also needs to be sensitive to non-transgender female members. Women have safety concerns that should not be ignored, and women feel especially vulnerable in a place where they undress and shower. Should women assume that anyone who appears to be a man who enters the women's locker room self-identifies as a woman and therefore is harmless? Or should they assume what most women will assume: that this man identifies as a man and may be in the women's locker room to do harm? Planet Fitness eventually revoked the complaining woman's membership because it said she complained inappropriately. 

Most club operators likely have never thought about how transgender people, who some estimates put at 700,000 or 0.3 percent of the population, might be uncomfortable in locker rooms or how they might affect the dynamics within the private space of a locker room. Even though the number of transgender people is small, this incident makes it clear that we need to start thinking about it so that we can find a solution that is fair and comfortable for everyone involved. 

If the transgender member had physically transitioned to a woman, then this likely would not have been an issue because no one would have known. So, is the answer to ask transgender people who have not physically transitioned to use a family locker room? Does that needlessly draw attention to the transgender member? Is the answer for clubs to slowly transition locker rooms from big open spaces divided by gender to individual changing rooms with showers and locked doors? Is the expense of a change like that too great? What other ways can fitness facility operators accommodate transgender members while not making non-transgender members wonder why someone who appears to be of the opposite sex is in the "wrong" locker room?

If you have a transgender member at your facility, share in the comments below how you have accommodated this member, particularly if he or she has not physically transitioned to the gender they self-identify.

The other incident that received media attention recently involved an American Muslim man who was praying in the men's locker room at an LA Fitness in Cincinnati, OH. The member, Mohammed Fall, filed a lawsuit last month in which he asserted that he was banned from praying in the men's locker room after doing so many times since joining the gym in 2013. He typically said his prayers while standing in a corner of the locker room with his eyes closed, the lawsuit states. He did not use a prayer mat or kneel as is typical during Muslim prayers.

An article on Cincinnati.com states:

"The LA Fitness workers, the suit said, told Fall to never again pray at LA Fitness, saying that decision had been made by a corporate manager who was at the gym that day. Fall believed if he continued to pray, he would be kicked out of the gym and subjected to 'harassment,' so he left."

However, Jaymes Thomas, an American Muslim who works at that LA Fitness location and says he prays at the facility, stated in a written declaration submitted to the court that he and two other employees spoke to Fall after receiving complaints from members that Fall was praying by the coat rack, which made it difficult to access coats without disturbing him. Thomas says the three waited until Fall was finished praying before telling him about the complaints and suggesting other places for him to pray in the facility, including places that Thomas prayed.

Regardless of which version of events is true, the fact is that the Muslim population is growing in our country, and praying five times per day is important in this faith, so the likelihood that you could face this issue is increasing. How will you accommodate these members? If you are in an area with a large Muslim population, you might already have options in place. If so, I encourage you to share what you are doing by commenting below.

What other unexpected issues have come up at your fitness facility, and how have you dealt with those?

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