Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Gay Boy Walks Into a Gym

When you grow up as a skinny, red-haired, gay boy, like I did, sports and gym classes are not your favorite things. In fact, you grow to despise them, worry about them, and even fear them. I hated the idea of group sports from the time I can remember. This wasn't necessarily because I was bad at them, but because I never felt comfortable doing them. This probably had a lot to do with my own internal knowledge that I was not like other boys, and that somehow, even doing typical boy things, they would all find out what that something was, even if I couldn't yet name it.

This fear, in turn, never gave me the chance to be good at a sport. I worried too much. I didn't volunteer to play. I often took the route of acknowledging my own inabilities before someone could point them out. In fact, I recall spending many recesses sitting by the lunch lady who supervised us, which isn't a great way to make yourself fit in, but I did learn how to make middle-aged women like me, which is a skill that has come in handy from time to time.

While I did hate group sports and all gym classes, I wasn't an inactive kid. I spent my summers running around outside, climbing trees, and swimming. By the time I got to high school, it seemed like I had missed my chance to be good at sports or to enjoy gym classes. So what did I do? I put off my gym classes as much as possible. Well, that's not completely true.

I took my first one in the summer after my freshmen year and it was horrible. A particular kid made fun of me the whole summer because of my voice. The only part that didn't suck was the swimming part of the class, which was only a week or two. In those weeks, I shined. I was always put into the top swimming group, but this didn't seem to win me any points with the athletic boys (some of which weren't great swimmers). After this experience, I put off my other required gym courses until much later. This meant I was a senior still taking gym.

The last gym class I took was actually a weightlifting class with the football coach. It was the only one to fit in my schedule, and without it I couldn't graduate. There I was, in my final semester of high school, taking a weightlifting class with a bunch of jocks. In many ways, it was my greatest nightmare, but I was determined and was filled with a little bit more courage because I was about to leave not only high school, but my hometown. College was coming!

The weightlifting class wasn't as bad as I imagined. I actually realized it was better than the classes that required lots of group activities. I needed a partner and that was it. On the first day, I found the dorkiest kid I could and made him my partner. We barely spoke all semester long, but we also never made fun of each other. That's not to say others didn't. One kid repeatedly made fun of me every time we took roll and I said "here." He later called me a fag, which I think was the first time I'd ever been called that to my face. Looking back, I think he was probably a gay boy as well, but was taking the "gay hating" route to acceptance. He's probably running for office somewhere as a Republican right now.

I survived the class and graduated. After high school, I had other run-ins with physical activity. I went to a small liberal arts college that required gym classes to graduate, but they were more flexible and broad. I took folk dancing, tai chi, and life-guarding. Over the years, I stepped into gyms from time to time and worked out, but never consistently. The second I would step inside a gym, I would suddenly turn into that little kid again feeling awkward on the basketball court, the baseball field, or in the weightlifting room. I'd look around and see these macho guys with their muscles and their deep voices, and I would give in to my own fear and insecurities.

I've managed to survive without going to the gym on a regular basis. I stay active. I eat well. I've maintained my skinny gay boy body that, in my adulthood, I've realized people like. But at the same time, I've hated that my past has dictated my feelings about going to the gym and being accepted there. Gyms are a big part of gay culture for many people, but not for me. I've never felt like that kind of gay guy.

In May, I decided to try to change all of that. Through my work, I get a pretty good deal on a gym membership to the YMCA (insert gay joke here). I signed my partner and myself up and I've been going 1-3 times a week since. These are small steps, but I'm doing it. I've discovered I enjoy spinning classes, which has been a plus. It's not easy, because I've never made formal exercise part of my everyday life and, like many people, I kind of hate it. I also know that I'm approaching my 30s and I should start exercising more and keeping myself in shape. I also have an unhealthy fear of gaining weight, but that's another blog post.

I've upped my challenge by signing up for The Smart Ride, which is a 165 mile bike ride from Miami to Key West. It happens every November and raises money for people living with HIV/AIDS. This is a cause that my partner and I have been devoted to and we both decided to push ourselves and do this ride. This will help me with the gym, because I'll have a good goal to work toward. It will be a big challenge, but one I'm excited about. The ride ends in Key West just a day or two before my birthday, so we are planning to stay a few days and celebrate my 29th birthday in Key West, which sounds like a pretty great time (that is if I can still walk after the 165 mile bike ride). I will post again about the ride, but if anyone is interested in supporting me now, you can donate money here.

I know many people look at me as someone with a lot of confidence and courage, and I have some of both, but that doesn't mean I don't have insecurities and my own challenges. I've spent most of my life thinking I can't be good at sports or exercising without ever really having the proof. Here's my chance to prove myself wrong.

-Stephen (Spinning)


  1. I love this post, Stephen, and I'm so proud of you for putting your health before your fears! You're an awesome spinning partner!

  2. Loathed PE all through school. The only D I ever got was in a high school gym class. Very occasionally they'd offer something you could do at your own pace - like running round the track. That I could stand, if not enjoy.

    I tried a little running on my own. It shook my brain too much. I didn't keep it up. At jr college I took a weight training class and liked it, and a swimming class, which was OK ...

    Not till after my neck locked up a couple times and my arms ached constantly from my data entry job did I try yoga - a gentle class at the adult school. It helped my afflictions immediately, and it fucking kicked my ass.

    16 years later I continue to do yoga (mostly on my own) and go to the Y once a week for weights. Unlike normal people, exercise wears me down and I get sore and depressed. But if I schedule days off I bounce back stronger and more limber than before. I really quite like yoga. There are so many things to pay attention to and so many positions that it's not so easy to get bored.

  3. I wasn't a jock, but I was an avid bike rider. When I was a boy, we lived on the edge of town, and all summer long I'd get on my bike and disappear into the countryside for long sweaty rides. (I wasn't a jock but I was very physically aware, and aware of the sensuality of my body. So wearing a shirt in summer only happened when I absolutely HAD to.) I also swam a lot at our community pool. It was good.

    So I became a bit of a bike jock. I also practiced martial arts in my 20s and 30s. Ten years of Tai Chi and Ki Aikido have served me very well. Even when I've been unable to do much because of chronic illness, that training helped me in so many ways I can't even articulate, right down to having a much more self-confident walk. I don't get bullied any more, a nice side benefit. It's also helped prevent carpal tunnel, other sorts of things, and kept my posture good regardless of what else is bothering me. I owe Aikido a great deal.

    Now after my surgery I need to lose a lot of weight. So exercise is going to be come very important to me in the next few months. I'm still not able to do much, but walking will become key, and some other things. We'll see what I can add on as I continue to recover from the surgery.