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Training / juni 2020
Lisa Buco, Reebok Editorial

A Trainer Shares How He Cultivates a Thriving LGBTQ+ Fitness Community

Will Lanier creates safe spaces and inclusion through a commitment to his community that goes beyond Pride month.

Trainer Will Lanier was an avid athlete throughout his life who amassed support and acceptance through team sports. After college, he discovered CrossFit and became a coach in 2010, building a large New York City fitness community where he could share his love for the sport – at a time when very few people knew what it was. As a trainer and founder of OUTWOD, his fitness worship extends beyond box jumps to form a tight-knit community where those that may have lost their way can be found. 


In 2011, Lanier founded OUTWOD, the OUT Foundation’s largest LGBTQ+ group fitness initiative, supporting the LGBTQ+ community worldwide. After the lockdown, OUTWOD’s mission to help its community was hard to maintain since all of its outbound events are in person.  Through multiple silos, Lanier and his team have been able to help the community, either helping trainers who can’t work or simply embracing safe spaces for those in the LGBTQ+ community. “We're providing access to fitness, which is our main tenet. Our next silo is helping our LGBTQ+ community who may be suffering, which is fitness instructors who can't work right now. So we pay the instructors that come and teach for us.” Another tenet important to OUTWOD is outreach and community building. “Beyond the safe space that people can come and know that they are working out with a bunch of other LGBTQ+ folks, they're [also] being taught by a LGBTQ+ instructor. And, there's no barrier to entry for that.”


In partnerships with gyms all over the country, Lanier has created the yearly OUTAthlete program, where young adults can find solace when participating in fitness. “We kind of call it a success program,” he says. “[Athletes] apply for the success program and when they get accepted into it they get a year-long membership at a community-based fitness facility. Coaches essentially work with each athlete on their nutrition and also make sure that they're getting the proper fitness from their facility. We also work with a meal prep company so the athletes all get a month of meals to kickstart their nutrition.”
Lanier isn’t just paying lip service when talking about his programs – the success of each athlete is essential.  Athlete gym attendance is required three days a week at a minimum to maintain their place in the program, and group calls give them an inclusive environment through helpful dialogue. “We do monthly Zoom calls… Back before Zoom was cool,” he jokes. “We do Monday calls with everyone and we hit on different success topics. So, we'll have a resume writer or resume reviewer come and talk to them and make sure their resume looks right for [when they are] potentially looking for a job. We have coaching, goal setting, and some mental health professionals.”
This laser-focused guidance is even more meaningful during a time when cultural shifts or discord can make many can feel lost or angry. “The call we had yesterday was kind of an open forum and it was very pertinent. We have a couple of people of color in the program and they just expressed their distress with what's going on in the country right now. It was an open conversation that we were able to have with all the athletes about race, race relations and education.”
Athletes have the ability to reapply to the OUTAthlete program each year, and it is open to anyone who wants to participate and apply. “We get people from across the US involved. It's a great little community,” Lanier says. Athletes that have completed the program as “graduates” still have access to alumni programs - the support system doesn’t go away. If athletes want to attend the Zoom calls every month, they are welcomed. Lanier says, “They can still receive benefits and support from us without actually being in the program.”


After a year of working at a gym in New York – a micro-community he helped build from the ground up as General Manager – Lanier was diagnosed with cancer. The fitness and LGBTQ+ community rallied around him to get him through a difficult time. “That community we built was so strong that they really just rallied around me.” Lanier also continued to work during this terrible time. “The minute I would be home from the hospital I would go back to the gym and work. I still worked while I was going through all of that.”
While some might not fully comprehend the rationale of working when their body is weak or unsteady, Lanier explains that his connection to the gym gave him purpose and a feeling of control.  “I like to be in control of everything, and I wasn't in control. The one thing that I could control is my work and my dedication to my community. This is something that I'm passionate about and people I care about. That dedication is what gave me a reason to get up and do something.”  He continues, “There's a bond there. It was just like a very safe space, and people were free to be what they wanted to be, which you don't find in a ton of [gym] spaces. There are some special spots. Because it's a really special place for a lot of people and I was the mayor of the town, they rallied around and it really helped get me through everything.”
The underlying effects of fitness go beyond a trimmer waistline or a calmer mind.  Sometimes, the experience of community and belonging through fitness builds something so valuable that it cannot be measured. “The reason I train is because I know what health and wellness has done for me in my life - and I want to be able to share that with as many people as I can. In addition to the health benefits, fitness has brought a community and family that I never thought I’d have. When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was my fitness community and family that came to my rescue and helped me conquer. I owe my life to this community and I will continue to give back every day.”


Visibility is a component to building inclusion, and Lanier threads this belief through everything he does. “As a foundation and with the work that I do, when we talk about inclusion in different fitness spaces,  it's a lot of nonverbal cues we can do that will make someone in the LGBTQ+ community feel safe.”  Whether it’s something as simple as having a pride flag, a non-discrimination gym waiver or simple colloquialism changes (for example, saying “y’all” to encompass all pronouns), Lanier points out that small things help uphold inclusion. “It’s the little things that aren't huge undertakings for gyms or fitness instructors that would make the community feel more accepted and seen.”
Lanier’s advocacy and boundless adoption of his community is simply what makes the world a better place. It means people can thrive with access to the necessary programs and resources needed to ensure safety and support. Galvanizing a fitness community through positive programs and establishment of understanding has the power to change lives.  “Fitness has changed my life,” Lanier says. “It has become my career. Fitness has shaped every aspect of my life. I owe my life to fitness. It has gotten me through so much and will continue to for as long as I’m living.”
Training / juni 2020
Lisa Buco, Reebok Editorial