It seems every day lately there’s some new attack on transgender people, misgendering them, denying them equal rights to healthcare among so many other things. We’ve been covering them all for you at Outsports.
But imagine our surprise to learn that a trans athlete’s personal exercise equipment was being transphobic.
Hold on now. Before telling you more, I’m pleased to report there is a happy ending: Outsports and Athlete Ally teamed-up to help this popular fitness brand understand why this was a problem. And the people who work there not only listened, they fixed it.
Not right away, mind you.
This all started in December. Erin Parisi, whose aim is to be the first out trans climber to reach the summit of each of the highest peaks on all seven continents, saw a question pop-up as she started to program the $3,000 NordicTrack treadmill she had purchased at Christmas to train during the shorter winter days.
“Within a few minutes of setting up the treadmill, I got stuck on a screen requiring me to disclose my ‘biological sex,’ words I often see leveraged to keep me out of sports.” Parisi wrote. “It’s my belief that in doing so they are making trans and nonbinary folks choose to participate in fitness on a level that is automatically exclusionary from step 1, which subsequently assists in denying us safe space to move. It also furthers stereotypes in the larger population using iFit enabled machines that contributes to ‘othering’ of trans folks.”
Parisi said she had first reached out to Athlete Ally, as she is one of their pro athlete ambassadors. The organization’s director of communications, Joanna Hoffman, arranged a conference call with the company in late December to raise the issue. ICON Health & Fitness, the company that manufactures NordicTrack exercise equipment and since 1999 has offered users an interactive workout via its iFit app, promised Parisi a review by Feb. 10.
That was late December, and I only learned about this on Jan. 22. Hoffman and I talked about joining forces, and so I contacted ICON Health & Fitness, telling them I was writing a story about Parisi’s complaint. I explained that “biological sex” was a controversial term utilized by opponents of transgender equality and inclusion, a phrase which has fallen into everyday use, despite its discriminatory roots. ACLU attorney Chase Strangio summed it up best in a tweet last year:
The notion of "biological sex" was developed for the exclusive purpose of being weaponized against people. Courts are recognizing it. Now you should too. pic.twitter.com/pZzHdMQPOP— Chase Strangio (@chasestrangio) August 26, 2020
A full week passed without a response or acknowledgement, and so I emailed again. This time we heard from the vice president of marketing for ICON Health & Fitness, which to be clear is the parent company of iFit, NordicTrack and two other brands, Proform and Freemotion. The VP wanted to know what we were looking for, and so I laid out our first set of questions:
- What’s your response to Erin and Joanna’s request that iFit’s reference to “biological sex” be dropped and replaced by something LGBTQ affirming?
- How did that phrase “biological sex” get there in the first place? As I think you saw in my email last Friday, it’s a phrase specifically coined and used to discriminate against and separate transgender individuals from the rest of society.
- Where does NordicTrack stand on transgender inclusion and LGBTQ rights?
- If you’re planning to change the “biological sex” terminology, please explain why, and what NordicTrack is doing to find an alternative term?
And that’s just the first four questions. Zoom meetings followed, and on Feb. 10, as promised, Athlete Ally received an update letting us all know they were working to correct the problem and it would be a few more days before we learned more.
The next day, the VP told me her team was working on a software refresh that would eliminate the term “biological sex” from their equipment, and that a new version of iFit was 8 to 10 weeks away from launch.
Then came March. ICON invited me to a Zoom “fireside chat” with their employees to help them better understand why “biological sex” is problematic and to answer any questions they had about trans and nonbinary athletes and individuals. Everyone listened attentively and I felt they learned something they didn’t know before. But there was still no fix. And no word on when.
I used the time to research Parisi. She had already climbed three of the seven summits — Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, South America’s Mount Aconcagua and Europe’s Mount Elbrus.
While I enjoyed reading Outside magazine’s profile of her, I shuddered that the cisgender reporter deadnamed her in the fourth sentence.
Nonbinary journalist Vic Parsons did a much better job for Pink News; I literally got goosebumps reading how Parisi took a pink, white and blue trans flag out of her bag and held it aloft at the summit of Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in Argentina, the highest she’d ever climbed.
“Climbing is everything,” Parisi later told me when I asked her why she did it. “It’s mental health and fresh air, it’s meeting people and developing deep friendships, it’s been a way to focus outward when I’ve been overwhelmed in life, a rebellion, and now a way to grow as a person. And... I guess also because I like it.”
Monday, April 19 was the day I decided I would wait no longer. Considering it had been four months since Parisi complained, it seemed only fair to set a deadline for the VP to update us on what was happening or we’d report what we knew with or without their cooperation.
Within a little over two hours, however, she responded with good news: Changes had been made across the board, to the company website, the iFit app and the tablets on all their exercise equipment. And she sent us an image showing that users are now asked, “What’s your gender?” Possible responses are: “Female,” “Male,” “Nonbinary” and “Prefer Not To Say.”
Here’s the official statement from ICON Health & Fitness:
“We have recently updated our platform to ensure that iFit members are better able to express their gender identities. This change has been rolled out across the entire iFit platform and can be updated in the user profile section. We appreciate hearing from our iFit members, as well as the support of Outsports and Athlete Ally, who have together ensured that we remain inclusive for all of our members.”
Hoffman told Parisi the good news, and she shared it with her followers on Instagram. “Athlete Ally and I partnered to reach out to NordicTrack, and their team listened and acted,” she wrote, explaining the four new options in her post. “It’s a seemingly small step that proves NordicTrack was willing to put the work in, to understand and change.”
In collaboration with Outsports, Athlete Ally issued this statement:
“It is critical that sport and fitness spaces examine whether the language they use meaningfully includes and respects the LGBTQI+ community, and take action accordingly. Athlete Ally is grateful to NordicTrack and ICON Fitness for hearing the concerns of Athlete Ally Ambassador Erin Parisi, Outsports, and our own, and incorporating that feedback into system-wide changes to ensure that the gender identities of all users are respected.”
Follow Erin Parisi on Instagram (@erinsends7) by clicking here.