How Health Clubs Can Approach Transgender Issues

Health clubs are finding themselves playing referee between the rights of their transgender members and the privacy rights of other members. What can they do, especially when the law isn't always clear?

What do I do if a transgender person joins my club?

I get this question a lot from health club owners and operators. Circumstances, unfortunately, puts fitness industry professionals in the tricky position of being the referee between two essential rights.

These fundamental rights are the human rights of transgender members and the privacy rights of other members.

A big issue for clubs and one of their number one concerns that I hear about is what to do when a transgender individual wants to join a club.

The first thing you need to know is that more and more states are passing laws protecting gender identity. Meaning, the law in these states says that you cannot discriminate against someone based on their gender identity. Clubs in these states must allow their members to use the locker room of the gender with which they identify. Currently, 21 states have passed gender identity protection laws, and this trend is not going away.

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States with a public accommodation gender identity protection law.

Many clubs may be worried about being sued over this issue. The fear often expressed is that a person may pose as transgender and come into a club to cause problems with other members, paving the way for a lawsuit against the club. The good news is that we haven't seen that materialize as much as was feared.

We've talked to transgender people about the locker room issue, and hear from them that they simply want to work out safely and without a fuss in your club. They do not want to—nor are they trying to—make a scene.

How Can Clubs Approach Transgender Issues

Make sure you know what the law is in the state(s) you operate. Ignorance of the law won’t be a defense and could mean the difference in your action being helpful or discriminatory.

Beyond the law itself, when it comes to transgender issues, there are no hard and fast rules. We wish we could publish a briefing paper detailing the actions you need to take with clear guidelines on how not to get into trouble.

The trouble is that these guidelines do not exist. The Massachusetts Attorney General's Office developed the closest thing to any government guidance on this issue. However, these do not apply outside of Massachusetts and are not always as clear as a club owner would like. Nevertheless, as the only guidelines issued, they may be worth a look

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So without a clear checklist on what to do, where do you start?

Start by putting on your best customer service hat and really listen to your members while trying to address the situation. Try to be as empathetic as possible with your transgender members while genuinely listening to the concerns of your members worried about privacy.

Next, think about your facility.

Do you have places that your members can change or shower in privacy? In states that prohibit transgender discrimination, you cannot tell a transgender member:

  1. that they have to use the family or private locker room, or
  2. that they must use the private shower area.

What you can do is make sure they know it's an option when you give a club tour.

If you don't have areas for private changing—whether as a separate private family changing area or changing stalls in your locker rooms—consider how to add those areas when you renovate.

“Beyond the law itself, when it comes to transgender issues, there are no hard and fast rules.”

Only have group shower facilities? Consider rethinking that so that there are places where any member can change and shower without having to show their nudity.

Should You Develop Company Policy?

Some gyms with a long history of working with transgender members have found it helpful to develop and publish company transgender policies consistent with state law. One example from a club operating first under city-based anti-discrimination provisions and then state developed the following company policy: "Company policy is that employees, guests, and customers should use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity."

Company policies may be helpful as a training tool for frontline staff so they don’t take discriminatory action against a transgender individual. However, these policies are not a guarantee that you will not be sued.

One suit currently under consideration is looking at whether a club misrepresented a membership by not disclosing its no-judgment policy. We will be watching these cases so we can provide clearer guidance in the future.

Transgender issues and locker room privacy are topics of great concern for health clubs. These issues catch many clubs between a rock and a hard place.

When the law is clear, you risk a lawsuit by not letting your transgender members use the locker rooms of the gender with which they identify. Although allowing transgender members to use the locker room of their choice, runs the risk of violating the privacy rights of other members, potentially leading to the loss of their business.

As more information and best practices become available, my team and I will continue to add more resources to help you improve your club. If you have any concerns, please email us. In the meantime, put on your best customer service hat and remember to try and be empathetic.

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Helen Durkin @HADIHRSA

Helen Durkin, JD, is the Executive Vice President of Public Policy for IHRSA. She is a champion of the health club industry and a committed advocate for physical activity, primary prevention, and public policies that promote wellness because it will take more than personal responsibility to get the world active. Helen lives to ski, dreams of knitting nirvana, is a mom, wife and springer spaniel owner.