Be Fit. Be Well. Belong.
by JOEL BARRETT
This summer, City Gym’s second location opened in the historic Pickwick Plaza in downtown Kansas City. The gym is located on the second floor of what was once a bus terminal and garage. After a $65 million renovation, the elegant building produced residential lofts, retail and office space, and a parking garage. Natural light streams into the space through enormous skylights that were once boarded up.
The energizing, signature City Gym lime green color that is found in abundance throughout the facility. Large, vintage letters painted on the back wall still read “Bus Parking Only.” Large murals by a local artist brighten up otherwise mundane hallways and parking areas. The entire feeling is one of positivity, light and life. It is sure to encourage health and wellness.
“City Gym is me,” explains owner and founder Hailee Bland-Walsh. “Everything we do at City Gym is a reflection of my core values and the fabric of who I am.”
The words “Be Fit. Be Well. Belong.” sit beneath the logo and are ever present in both facilities. Hailee embodies all three. While she is obviously fit and healthy, it is her warm and welcoming spirit that speaks the loudest. “We don’t market City Gym by showing naked bodies or by promoting the lowest deal. We’re really trying to create community and an inclusive space where people can transform their lives,” she says.
Hailee, a Kansas City native, left for college with no intention of returning. She became an athlete and personal trainer, working in the fitness industry all of her adult life. “The reason I became so passionate about the fitness industry didn’t have anything to do with looking great,” Bland-Walsh says. “It had to do with the transformations that I saw people having when they were in a welcoming environment, where they accomplished something they hadn’t accomplished before.”
Seven years ago she left a successful career in San Francisco to return to her hometown. “When I moved back, something was happening. I could really feel that there was a resurgence downtown,” she says. “Lots of my cohorts were also moving back from LA, New York, Chicago, and other major cities.”
Shortly after moving back, friends introduced her to Tiffany Spriggs. They got married two years ago on New Year’s Eve. Spriggs is employed as the marketing manager for City Gym.
As Bland-Walsh became reacquainted with her hometown, she found inspiration in the neighborhood feel of the Waldo/Brookside area. Her dream of opening a different kind of gym began taking shape.
“Gyms are scary and intimidating places,” Bland-Walsh says. “We work very hard to create an environment where people are met and made to feel welcome from the moment they walk through the door. In the gym industry, the people who need us most are the least likely to take advantage of what we do.”
As a lesbian, she understands the trauma that many LGBTQ people carry with them in their bodies. “There’s a certain amount of phobia – transphobia, homophobia, body shame and guilt,” she says. “That stuff sticks around and stays in our body and creates blocks. As we create capacity and feel stronger, those emotions begin to go away. When those blocks go away, people’s lives transform. I watch people go from not being connected to their body to being connected. That transformation is what I am really passionate about.”
Four years ago, a transgender man checked out the Waldo location. He had heard it was a different kind of gym and one that might better suit his needs. When Bland-Walsh showed him the all gender-neutral restrooms, changing and shower rooms, he turned to her with tears in his eyes. “This is going to change everything,” he said.
He was right. That man was Drew Smith, founder of The Union: A Midwest Transguy Coterie. Smith asked Hailee to consider starting a trans men’s fitness group. Hailee was convinced there must be such a program already in existence somewhere. Her search yielded little more than homemade YouTube videos riddled with misinformation and examples of poor form—which lead to less than desirable or even damaging results.
With Smith’s help, she went to work designing a program specifically tailored to meet the fitness and health needs of trans men. “I’m a firm believer in ‘if you build it, they will come’ and I had the scientific information they needed.”
The program, called Momentum, is the first of its kind in the United States. In partnership with The Union, the health and fitness group caters to the unique needs of the female-to-male sector of the transgender community. The program provides a safe and welcoming environment, which allows members to focus on getting in tune with the changes happening to their bodies as they transition and providing them the education necessary to build the body they’ve always desired.
When asked about a program for trans women she responds, “We don’t have a specific program for trans women, but if we had enough women express an interest in that we would definitely do something!” The gym already has members who drive from exceptionally long distances to work out in an inclusive, safe space.
“As a cis person, we take a lot for granted. All of the systems we use, whether that’s the doctor or the gym, are set up for us,” she says. “If you really want to work out, and you are in the beginning stages of your transition, you may have a driver’s license and a credit card that may not match the way you appear or the name you use. That might prevent you from going in and purchasing a membership. That’s a barrier. At City Gym we use whatever name and pronouns you choose.”
She explains that the gym staff makes no assumptions about the comfort level of members. “When we do a body fat test, we don’t require our clients to take off their shirt. We can do a body fat test around a binder or whatever the person feels comfortable with.”
“My relationship with the trans community has continued to influence my activism and the way I do business,” she says.
Bland-Walsh is involved with a trans youth group as a leader and advocate. “I believe that when trans youth are safe, we are all safe. They are the low hanging fruit. They are children. They are among the most marginalized of the LGBTQ community.”
She sees her advocacy and involvement in the community as a way to create capacity in the next generation. “What I can do is create the capacity in trans young people to grow up fierce, resilient, empowered, educated, and allow those young people to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, and presidents.”
“I’m so inspired every day by their fierce authenticity. It pushes me to be as open and authentic as I can. I’ve learned so much from my journey with that community,” she says.
City Gym’s relationship with the trans community is just an example of the inclusive culture that Bland-Walsh works hard to instill in everything the gym does. “We’re very clear with the staff that we are a mission-driven organization. People who work at City Gym know exactly what they’re getting into.”
She is quick to point out what the gym is not. “City Gym is not a meat market. It is not evangelical in its approach. We believe there are many paths to fitness, rather than just one way. It is not exclusive, intimidating or overwhelming.” She notes that some people feel that City Gym is not the place for them. With a smile, she says, “And that’s okay!”
It is obvious that Bland-Walsh loves her business and her community. “There’s something exciting happening in our LGBTQ community” she says. “I think it was more fragmented, but I’m feeling now, more than ever, that there is a drive to be a community with a capital C instead of the individual L-G-B-T-Q communities. We are becoming a united community.”
Joel Barrett of JoelSpeaksOut.com is an LGBTQ writer, speaker and gatherer. He is a former conservative Baptist pastor who shares his colorful, inspiring story of surviving ex-gay therapy with audiences everywhere to encourage living an authentic life not controlled by fear. Watch for the release of his book “Godly, But Gay”