Meet the Trainer Who Created the First Queer Gym in the US

Oakland's Coach Nat is shaking up toxic gym culture for good.

Photo: courtesy Nathalie Huerta; design: Davianna Absera/Thrillist
Photo: courtesy Nathalie Huerta; design: Davianna Absera/Thrillist
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Nathalie Huerta is shaking up toxic gym culture one drag workout at a time. Also known as Coach Nat, Huerta is the founder and owner of the Oakland, California-based Queer Gym, the first of its kind in the country. Since opening in 2010, the gym (which now operates 100% online, a pivot made due to COVID) has welcomed hundreds of LGBTQ+ members with open arms, zero mirrors, and a few "Oakland Booty'' classes to boot. 

"You can totally gay it up here," Huerta, 36, tells Thrillist. "In fact, we prefer it."

Whether it's preparing transgender individuals for gender affirmation surgery or connecting clients with peers who understand what they’re going through, Queer Gym's mission is to make everyone feel safe, seen, and loved for exactly who they are.

The gym is queer-owned and operated, and staffed with predominantly queer team members and coaches who take LGBTQI+ sensitivity trainings. Gender-neutral bathrooms, support for people navigating body dysmorphia, fundraisers to help clients pay for gender affirmation surgery, and volunteer sign-ups to ensure clients receive assistance during post-op are just some of the resources the gym community offers. During COVID, the gym even held weekly virtual social events to keep the good vibes going — like drag brunches gone digital. 

"It's not uncommon for people to cry during yoga. It's not uncommon for people to have an emotional release," she says. "[That’s] not necessarily welcomed or seen as a positive thing if you go to a regular gym."

"When we bring new people on board, somebody has to lean in like, 'It's okay, be hella gay. Yes, come to do your workout in drag. Yes, we can do the lower body workout in heels.'"

Huerta, a former college basketball player who has a degree in exercise science and sports medicine, makes sure that ongoing feedback from members influences Queer Gym's services. She relies on these surveys to hire trainers and staff that reflect the identity of members. According to Huerta, around 25% of members identify as transgender, and 25% identify as polysexual. This attention to recruiting team members who have shared lived experiences helps clients feel like they can be vulnerable, a vital pillar of the gym.

"When we had the physical space, I would see somebody come to the gym who is feeling a little tender, a little shy, and then I've seen them just flourish because they had community and because they were able to explore in a safe space and find that connection to themselves," she says. 

Queer Gym’s online group exercise classes are anything but basic. Class types range from weight workouts paired with meditation, to classes targeting specific body areas such as "hella arms and abs," or a full-body cardio workout during their "dancing queen" class. The theme of "come as you are" is intrinsic to Queer Gym because they believe there is no right or wrong way to work out. 

"When we bring new people on board, somebody has to lean in and be like, 'It's okay, be hella gay,” Huerta says. “Yes, come to do your workout in drag. Yes, we can do the lower body workout in heels today. Yes, we can do the Cha Cha Slide for the warmup.'"

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Huerta’s decision to found Queer Gym in June 2010, like many other entrepreneurs who identify as LGBTQ+, came from a lack of resources.

"Back then, queer gyms weren't a thing," she says. "Now you can Google 'queer gyms' and 'queer fitness,' and you actually can find queer trainers and queer resources. That's a huge highlight for me." 

At the time, Huerta was working as a personal trainer at a local gym while pursuing an MBA at Mills College in Oakland. Already out as a gay woman, she cut her hair and started to present more masculine — and then felt the atmosphere at the gym shift, to somewhere that felt unwelcome, uncomfortable, and even unsafe at times. When she looked for an inclusive gym and couldn't find one, she knew she had to create one herself.

"It just clicked for me one day,” she says. “I was like, 'I don't like coming here, I just wanna work out.’ I knew I couldn't be the only queer feeling this way. Like, where are all the lesbians working out? They gotta be somewhere."

Huerta wanted to create a space that serves everyone in the LGBTQ+ community, free from the micro-aggressions in the locker room, harassment, and even violence that can be present at non-inclusive gyms. This included focusing on developing resources for transgender individuals who are disproportionately impacted by violence — especially Black and Latinx transgender women. 

"There is no transgender personal training certification for coaches," she says. "Being in the industry, it's been a lot of, like, 'Okay, there is nothing like this that exists yet, so we have to put together what we have experienced, what we've been able to learn and start it from somewhere.'"

"I knew I couldn't be the only queer feeling this way. Like, where are all the lesbians working out? They gotta be somewhere."

The gym currently serves over 100 members and it is now entirely virtual. The digital shift during the pandemic also made the one-hour, booty-shaking Zoom classes more accessible to a worldwide LGBTQ+ community. This new reach also included recruiting coaches across the country; similarly to clients, team members and trainers also find community and acceptance at Queer Gym.

"I recently interviewed a coach, and they're coming to us for the same reasons that our members often do," Huerta says. 'I don't feel safe at work. My work isn't inclusive. It's not diverse. I don't feel seen.' There are queers that wanna make a living helping others while also being themselves."

If a space like this existed when Huerta was younger, she says the effect could have been life-changing. She hopes Queer Gym's community will provide younger clients with positive, loving mentors that she wishes she had growing up.

"I probably wouldn't have spent so much time in [the nightlife scene]. As a queer person, that was pretty much the only space we had up until recently. Which is great when you're discovering yourself and looking for community… but, it's easy for a lot of our brothers and sisters to get caught in it,” she says. “I probably would have hit the gym a little bit more, probably would have hit the bars a little bit less, and have a better connection with my body and my self-esteem. Now, I want to create something that can have an impact on people who need help."