Sick of being bullied and excluded in mainstream gyms, two gay men decided to open their own

Daniel Browne and Chris Woods of the Leeds People's Gym pictured in their gym posing with a dog.

Like many people, Daniel Browne first got into fitness during lockdown, but he later learned the hard way that gyms aren’t always safe spaces for queer people.

“All the ones I went to, I hated,” he tells PinkNews. “They were so exclusionary – actively exclusionary – and nothing was particularly comfortable. There were public-address announcements saying: ‘You’re in a safe space’, which is really quite gaslighty.” 

One day, he went to his local gym with his nails painted and wearing rainbow laces. “The looks you get immediately,” he says. “The only difference between being able to go under the radar and people now giving me weird looks is that I’ve got rainbow laces on, which is nothing, or a bit of nail polish, which wasn’t even brightly coloured, just grey.”

For Daniel, the final nail in the coffin was when he was “bullied off” a hammer curl, which work the biceps, by two men who simply went over and told him they were taking it. “I just had to walk away,” he says.

Daniel isn’t alone. Many LGBTQ+ people will at some point have felt pushed out of sport or fitness by cis, straight men who tend to dominate those spaces.

In his quest to find a more welcoming space where he could truly be himself, Daniel joined an inclusive rugby club in Leeds. There, he found the freedom he had searched for in gyms.

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Daniel and Chris pictured outdoors posing for a photograph
Chris (R) and Daniel grew increasingly frustrated by mainstream gyms. (Supplied)

And that’s where he met Chris Woods.

Much like Daniel, Chris had struggled to find a gym where he could express himself openly as a gay man.

“I used to go to the gym at two or three o’clock in the morning because I was so terrified. That was the only time there was no one there,” Chris says.

Eventually, Chris became a personal trainer, but even then, he struggled to find accepting spaces. In one gym, he watched as a group of cisgender, straight men intimidated others until they stopped going to the gym entirely. Even worse, the gym’s management did nothing to resolve the problem.

“When I started at the gym, I vowed to myself I’d never go back in the closet again… I went back in the closet for the gym and it wasn’t even a conscious decision. People walked in and assumed. It was so unpleasant, and having that sudden slingshot moment back to when I was at school, I immediately suppressed everything.”

The problem, Chris says, is that most gyms have a pack of “hyper-masculine members” who walk around “setting the precedent for what the expected behaviours are”. Too often, younger members aren’t pushing back against that toxic culture – they’re emulating it.

“They’re developing the next generation to do the exact same thing: making people feel a certain way, and if you’re not part of that group, [they make] sure you understand the second you walk in the door that you don’t belong in that area and that area’s not for you.” 

Daniel Browne (L) and Chris Woods (R) pictured at their gym.
Daniel Browne (L) and Chris Woods decided to take action after a series of negative experience in mainstream gyms. (Supplied)

Chris and Daniel, who had become friends, decided it was time someone created a gym where queer people – and others who don’t quite fit the mainstream gym mould – could work out in peace. Instead of just talking about it, they actually did it.

“It got quite real when we both left our jobs in June not yet having secured a space for the gym, but at every point along the way, we both realised that this is the right thing to do,” Daniel says.

Leeds People’s Gym has anti-judgment mirrors and mood-lighting

After months of planning and preparation, The Leeds People’s Gym opened its doors on 30 September. Underpinning the project is the need for a gym where people can grow in confidence. Daniel and Chris have installed mood lighting so the space doesn’t feel as intimidating, and they’ve also put in what they call anti-judgment mirrors.

“Up close they’re fine, so you can check your form, but from a distance they’re all warped like funhouse mirrors,” Daniel explains. “So, if you clock yourself from across the room, it is impossible to judge yourself because everyone looks stupid in them.”

They’ve also removed gendered stickers on gym equipment which show male figures, and the changing rooms are gender-neutral, with enclosed cubicles. 

A picture of the inside of the Leeds People's Gym, which was set up by Daniel Browne and Chris Woods. It shows purple hued mood lighting in the weights room.
Daniel and Chris have introduced mood lighting and funhouse mirrors in their gym to make it a more comfortable space. (Supplied)

“We’ve tried to deconstruct where there might be arbitrary gender divides everywhere,” Daniel says.

Ultimately, they want to give people the chance to “change their relationship with fitness”, to make it a healthier experience for everyone.

“We accept too low a standard of what we have to cope with and deal with,” Chris says. “We have to go to the gym because it’s what we have to do, but it doesn’t mean we have to choose a gym that’s awful and unpleasant and makes us feel uncomfortable.

“Instead of going: ‘Oh I need to go to the gym’, it becomes, ‘I can’t wait to go to the gym’. That immediately changes everything about the whole conversation because it’s not this arduous task. It’s something you can enjoy.

“You spend enough time doing it, enough money on it, why shouldn’t you enjoy it too?”