Finding common ground

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      I fiddled with my watch nervously. “You’re sure our spots are in the back?”

      “It’s fine. It’s a small yoga class. You’re going to be fine,” my partner Alexa reassured me as we took the elevator down from our little apartment in Olympic Village.

      I wasn’t so sure.

      Stepping out onto the sidewalk, I tugged at the straps of my sports bra through my Patagonia puff jacket. It was a crisp November morning that flirted with freezing, and the air smelled like Halloween.

      A few blocks away, we arrived at a set of glass doors emblazoned with the words “Cmmn Grnd — fitness and social wellness collective”.

      “What do you think ‘social wellness collective’ means?” I asked.

      “Probably a Borg thing, but like, not assimilation-y.”

      “How many people do you think call it ‘Common Grind’ instead of ‘Common Ground’?” I asked.

      “You’re stalling. You’ve got this.”

      I appreciated the support, but I could tell that Alexa was worried when I didn’t laugh at a Star Trek joke.

      I’ve never felt comfortable in fitness spaces. As a kid, my parents signed me up for plenty of sports classes and camps, but it wasn’t my thing. When I was seven, my soccer coach complained that I was daydreamy, and one time I got hit in the face with the ball while “counting the shades of white in the clouds.” I had an exemption from PE for a few elementary school years due to persistent bullying from classmates who had decided (without consulting me, the nerve) that I was gay. High school PE wasn’t any better, and my attempts to go to the gym in my early twenties culminated in a barely-used annual membership to Goodlife Fitness (which I no longer have) and a blender bottle (which I do).

      I found my own fitness in running, cycling, and dance. Running and cycling were solitary and focused, which meant no one called me “gay” because I couldn’t throw a ball properly. Dance was wonderful, although rife with its own gender role baggage.

      Then one day, a friend dragged me to my first-ever spin class at a little studio downtown. It was a revelation. Everyone in the dark, moving together, music blasting, and when the instructor played an Odesza song I loved, I cried with the sheer joy of letting go.

      I was hooked. I started with one class a week, then two, and before long I was participating in a 30-classes-in-30-days challenge.

      Even though this place felt more welcoming, and miles safer than the oppressive gym classes of my school days, I still found myself, on occasion, feeling like I didn’t belong. I didn’t fit in amongst the clientele—bombshell Yaletown fitness influencers in matching Lulu sets; muscled, gorgeous men with broad shoulders, waxed chests, and million-dollar smiles. And then there was me: a tall, gangly 27-year-old with a messy beard, a bright orange workout tee from 2008, and a bargain-bin Sport Chek gym bag from my failed Goodlife Fitness stint with a creaky plastic carabiner clip that I’d grip with one hand while I walked to prevent the squeaking.

      A men’s change room is just a boys’ locker room with bigger boys, and the side-eye was still unavoidable. Once, a man changing beside me said, “It’s just so brave of you to leave your chest hair like that.”

      Then came Covid. No more distractions, no more get-togethers, no more spin. My cat died, I was living on my own again for the first time in a while, I was lonely as hell, and I had a lot of time to think. Too much, one might say.

      I’m not saying the pandemic turned me transgender, but suffice to say that it somehow catalyzed what years of therapy had failed to do. I’d been running defense against my own intrusive thoughts about my gender for decades, and in the height of the horror of the pandemic, my defenses finally failed. I sailed into 2021 as a new woman—literally.

      I wasn’t alone. Elliot Page, Dylan Mulvaney, and scores of others with less famous names found themselves seeking out not just a new name and gender, but a new lease on life to boot.

      The coming out process itself is a tale for another time—one that’s often painted in media narratives with a happily-ever-after fairy-tale shine. 

      If transitioning is a fairy tale, it’s certainly not one of the Disney variety—in reality, it’s probably more akin to the darker Brothers Grimm flavour. Transitioning can be incredible, life-saving, and so, so worth it, but holy hell is it a rough and messy ride. After coming out in early 2021, I found myself in one of the lowest lows of my life. Sure, I’d found my gender, but I’d lost my confidence and optimism, found some of my closest relationships profoundly altered, and in many ways was lonelier than ever. 

      When you realize you’re trans, the decades of self-hatred, defense mechanisms, and internalized transphobia and anxiety don’t just magically fall away. For some people, those things get worse, because you can’t just put them in a denial box, close the lid, and put it on a distant brain-shelf like you used to. You have to put them out on the table for everyone (including yourself) to see. Following the journeys of other recently-out trans women online helped in so many ways, but one comment from someone about two years ahead of me rang in my ears a lot during this time: “The first year is brutal, the second year is hard, and then you come out of the woods.” Classic fairy tale stuff.

      I was lucky enough to have a partner who was one of the many people who helped carry me through the woods—but at the one-year mark, the challenges had really taken a toll on her, as well. Exercise is oh-so important for mental health, and I think when she saw I’d stopped going for evening runs due to a combination of the physical and social discomfort of jogging with brand-new, still-growing breasts, that was the last straw. Puberty isn’t any less awkward—or uncomfortable—the second time around.

      Before I knew it, we were signed up for a yoga class at a boutique fitness studio called Cmmn Grnd.

      Another friend had been encouraging me to join them for a spin class there for a while, and I’d even signed up once, then anxiety-cancelled at the last minute. Sure, I’d heard the studio was really diverse, trans-friendly, and inclusive, but it’s hard to know just what that means until you’re…well, the target audience, so to speak.

      Most people reading this won’t experience transitioning their gender, but there are so many times in life when our roles naturally change, affecting our perspective and experience. When I’m driving a car through the city, I only notice pedestrian- and cycling-related infrastructure when it gets in my way. A crosswalk I have to wait at here, an awkwardly-placed bike lane I need to turn across there. I know those things are important, but when late for work, it’s hard not to silently curse out the slow-walker sauntering across Kingsway toward Budgies Burritos, temporarily inconveniencing you. 

      But when you’re walking or cycling, everything changes. Dangers lurk everywhere, and there’s a constant risk of being killed for simply standing in the wrong place. Inconveniences to drivers are literal life-savers for non-drivers. Where the driver silently curses the slow-walking pedestrian, the pedestrian silently thanks some nameless city planner for allowing them to cross the road.

      And in so many ways, that’s how it feels moving through the world as a trans person. Little inconveniences to others are life-changing for you. I’ve heard plenty of cis people complain about how gender-neutral bathrooms have longer lineups, but I’ve heard even more trans people who’ve peed themselves rather than risk going into the “wrong” or “right” bathroom.

      And while I appreciate that some places are slowly slapping “Trans people welcome” signs on their gendered washrooms, we all know we’re looking at a retrofit rather than something designed with us in mind—a painted crosswalk in the middle of a busy stretch of Kingsway that half the drivers don’t even see, rather than a pedestrian-controlled traffic light or roundabout.

      What I expected from Cmmn Grnd was a painted crosswalk. As we walked through the doors, a bright-eyed 20-something welcomed us with a sing-songy voice: “You must be Jess and Alexa!”

      As they showed us around the space, I felt like Charlie Bucket’s Grandpa Joe walking into Willy Wonka’s Factory for the first time, agog at the facility. It was gorgeous: all bright, earthy colours and speckled tiles. The signage was gender-neutral, the spin shoe sizes were all universal UK numbering, and the washrooms and showers were single stalls. Perhaps even more strikingly, the folks walking about were not the homogenous jocks and Jills from my old studio. All shades of skin, sizes of body, and flavours of queer. One of the spin instructors strolled by with their headset on and smiled at us, buzz cut hair, clip shoes clacking on the floor, effortlessly oozing non-binary cool.

      Our yoga spots were in the back, but it hardly mattered. I’d spent the last year feeling like everyone was staring at me when I was out in public (and honestly, I wasn’t wrong), but in that studio, standing tall at 6’2” in my grey yoga pants and too-big highlighter-orange cycling shirt over my uncomfortably tight sports bra, I felt something I hadn’t felt since coming out: like I was invisible. It was magic.

      Soon, we returned for a spin class. The instructor shared her pronouns with us at the start, and as we sweated in the dark together, enveloped in music, surrounded by allies, I felt safe, and I sobbed. Somehow, Alexa and I reached out to each other and grasped our hands together during the stretch. It felt like something dormant within me had reawoken. I wasn’t whole yet, but as the doors opened at the end of class and the light and laughter from the hallway flooded into the spin room, I could finally see the light at the end of my own tunnel—the thinning trees at the edge of the woods.

      Over the next few months, we moved from the back row to the middle of the room, and eventually, the front. I started taking off my loose workout shirt during classes—finally at ease in my sports bra. Alexa bought me a matching workout set for my birthday that summer, and I wore it to every class.

      We got to know a few of the spin instructors whose classes aligned with our schedules. Sara: strong, stoic, and with a penchant for long endurance songs. Val: the operations manager, a fierce fireball of fitness energy, and that non-binary instructor who’d smiled at us on our first day. And Dylan: the tall, energetic, co-founder radiating beautiful queer energy with an infectious smile, who started the studio alongside his mother Cheryl.

      One day after a sweaty class, Alexa and I sat outside the studio, catching our breath, when Val came up to me.

      “Have you ever thought about teaching spin?” they asked.

      It was a total surprise, because while I had thought about it pre-pandemic, I’d let go of the idea when I transitioned. When I was younger, I used to want to be a singer, an actor, a news anchor, and even toyed with the idea of getting into politics one day, but those secret dreams had felt like they’d died when I decided to shed my mask and opt for an honesty less palatable to the general public. Nonetheless, I gave Val my email. 

      As Alexa and I walked home, she said with a grin, “See? People like you! No one is asking me to teach spin.”

      “I don’t know,” I mused. “I think I’ve just done spin for a long time, so I look like I know what I’m doing, and besides, what if they just want me to teach because I’m the only trans woman there?”

      “Who fucking cares? Wouldn’t you have been more likely to start going sooner if your instructor was a trans woman?”

      I’d never seen a transfem fitness instructor before in my life. I hadn’t ever seen an out trans woman until I was in my twenties. But I knew there were plenty around.

      I went in for an interview with Val and Dylan the next week, and one thing that stuck with me was the conversation we had about body neutrality—a term I hadn’t heard before. Whereas I knew about body positivity—unconditionally loving your body just as it is—the concept of body neutrality spoke to something that’s often a core of the trans experience: the idea that it’s okay if your body is not the way you’d prefer it to be, and that we can both accept and appreciate what our bodies can do and how they look, without applying judgement to the longing for certain things to be different.

      It seems counterintuitive that by making it okay to want something different, you can begin to accept what you have, but that’s just what happened.

      Dylan and Val asked me to start training, and over the next few months I’d head to the studio for a few hours of sweat and music after work. Roughly a year after first walking into the studio, I taught my first class. Dylan, Val, and Alexa were in the front row, hooting and hollering and dancing on their bikes to the playlist I’d spent hours putting together with a meticulousness I hadn’t experienced since making my first girlfriend a mixtape CD-R back in high school.

      During the time I taught at Cmmn Grnd, I found myself growing from an anxious and tentative, early-tran to a confident, optimistic, life loving trans woman—a reflection of the man I used to be instead of his faint echo.

      Every time someone told me they loved a playlist, that they felt challenged, that they felt safe, that they felt welcome, that they loved their first class and couldn’t wait to come back, and that they felt like they belonged—this was the gold, and it made my day, every time.

      I started to see more and more trans people in my classes. Walking out of one particular Sunday morning, a gaggle of trans girls passed me, thanking me for the class. One turned to me, saying, “It’s so nice to be able to come out and do this.”

      I don’t remember how I replied, because there was something about that phrasing that caught me in my throat—a hidden meaning below the surface. It was nice, I thought, to be able to go to a spin class, but it was even more incredible to be able to come out, and to do this. If I played even the tiniest part in either of those two things for anyone, then it’s all been worth it.

      Countless businesses opened just as Covid hit, and Cmmn Grnd was among the unluckiest. After an extensive, expensive renovation of the prime-real-estate spot in Olympic Village, they had the misfortune of being ready to open as the world went into lockdown. When they did finally open their doors, it was to reduced capacity, restrictions, and a jittery unease around the safety of gathering indoors.

      My own business was lucky enough to benefit from some of the government pandemic relief in the form of programs like CEBA and the CEWS—programs that, in many cases, saved businesses from drowning completely. But one of the key requirements was that companies had to show a fall in revenue from previous years—something that brand-new businesses like Cmmn Grnd were obviously unable to do.

      And yet, through the tenacity and resourcefulness of Dylan and the rest of the team, they survived through the worst of the pandemic by the skin of their teeth.

      Sometimes when you’re on the back foot, it’s just not possible to catch up. On March 12, 2024, Dylan posted on Cmmn Grnd’s instagram account that they would be closing their doors for the last time at the end of the month.

      “Despite pouring our souls into this endeavour, we must acknowledge the reality that we haven't reached a sustainable state where our business could thrive while also repaying the debts incurred during our tumultuous initiation amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” the post read.

      I taught a spin class that day. If I was just attending the class, I probably would have bailed, and stayed home with ice cream so I could cry alone. But alas, 36 people were counting on me. Sad and stunned, I put on my workout set, slipped my feet into my size 14 Ugg boots, and made the two-block trek to the studio.

      Grief and despair were in the air. Everyone in the studio seemed in a trance, reeling from the news—and from what they knew would be limited time together in this unique space.

      Dylan was in the front row of my class. We rode, we sweated, we screamed, and we cried. I played the Odesza song that hooked me on spin all those years before. I hadn’t even thought about the lyrics when I queued it up in my playlist, but as it blared through the speakers, I realized what I’d done.

      “Everybody falls down, all the way down/You just gotta hold on tight/You gotta get up, gotta get up/Gonna make it through this time.”

      As each person passed me on their way out of class, they all took time to say something kind. Eventually, almost everyone had left, and I noticed a woman hanging back. I’d seen her in my classes for the last few months, always on the middle-left of the room, always near the wall. She approached, eyes welling.

      “I just wanted to say, I love your classes so much, and I wasn’t going to say anything, but—my son is trans, and we moved here from Nova Scotia this year so he would be able to grow up around more people like him,” she said. “I tell him about your classes, and he wants to come to one when he gets older.”

      We hugged, both crying in a sticky, sweaty embrace of exhaustion and grief and gratefulness. She added tearily, “I hope you had someone in your life like that for you.”

      I burst out laughing, and sputtered, “I didn’t! That’s why it took me so long.”

      Eventually, it was just Dylan and me.

      “I’m so sorry.”

      “No, I’m so sorry.”

      He all but whispered to me, “I’ve been running defense for so long.”

      I knew exactly what he meant. We hugged.

      Somehow, it feels fitting that this story should end with two queers and a sports metaphor, so I’ll lean in: I’m done with running defense. I think we all are. I’m out of the woods, and while the landscape out here is still terrifying, and even more so to the south and the east, I’m ready to play offense. I want to be up at the front, with dreamers like Dylan, with trans people like Elliot Page, Laverne Cox, and all the other courageous people who stood at the front of the line and took the heat so the rest of us could get back on our feet and stand tall. 

      Cmmn Grnd gave me the space, time, safety, and spark to get up and stand on my own, fully in the light. I’m ready to pay it forward.

      Jess Lupini is a trans woman, and taught spin classes at the fitness collective Cmmn Grnd, which closes its doors this week.