Virgin Active Trans Uproar: “Where Am I Supposed to Change?”


A transgender activist says that Virgin Active’s latest statement on trans women using women’s changerooms is a nod to inclusivity but also deeply problematic for transgender people who are transitioning.

On Thursday, the South African arm of the international gym chain sought to again address the wave of transphobic outrage at it’s earlier confirmation that trans individuals who have transitioned can use the changing rooms that align with their gender.

“Virgin Active is committed to creating safe and inclusive spaces for all of our members. To ensure that we achieve this, access to change rooms needs to correspond to a member’s legal gender identity. We welcome members of the transgender community at all our clubs and allow those who have completed their full medical transition to access bathrooms that correlate with their changed legal gender,” said the company on X.

It further stated: “Male members cannot access female-only spaces if they are still in transition. To ensure that we maintain this policy, members who have completed their transition will need to provide official identification documents reflecting their changed gender issued by an appropriate authority. We also provide special needs / gender-neutral ablutions and facilities at most of our clubs for those who prefer a private space to change.”

Transition is on a Wide Spectrum

Responding to Virgin Active’s declaration and stated commitment to inclusivity, Leigh-Ann van der Merwe, Director of Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women (SHE), told MambaOnline that the gym’s position failed to account for the diverse realities of transgender experiences.

“While I respect Virgin Active’s statement, it is to be noted that transition is on a wide spectrum, and coupled with lack of access to gender-affirming surgery, ‘transition’ may be a lifetime experience for transgender South Africans. In the meantime, how do we deal with transgender people’s health needs and wellbeing?” she asked.

Van der Merwe added that “as a Virgin Active member pre and post-surgery, I have always used the women’s bathroom, and guess what? The world didn’t end!”

It’s unlikely that a transgender woman who does not meet the gym’s criteria of having transitioned would be welcome in a men’s changeroom, and could well be put at risk of discriminatory abuse. Van der Merwe also highlighted that as a paid member of the gym, she has an equal right to access a changeroom where she feels both safe and comfortable.

“Where do they want me to change?” she asked in exasperation. “What harm have transgender people brought to anyone in the bathroom?”

Undermining Trans Bodies and Their Agency

The fearmongering and hysteria around the issue are predicated on the deeply biased assumption that transgender people are inherently perverse or predatory rather than just people who simply want to get changed when they go to the gym. “It is gravely concerning to see this level of transphobia in 2024,” asserted Van der Merwe.

“Ultimately, this has little to do with safe spaces and more to do with bodily control and undermining trans bodies and their agency,” she said.

A 2018 American study found that laws allowing transgender people to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity are “not related to the number or frequency of criminal incidents in these spaces.”

Additionally, the study found that “reports of privacy and safety violations in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms associated with inclusive spaces are exceedingly rare” and that “fears of increased safety and privacy violations as a result of nondiscrimination laws are not empirically grounded.”

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