LGBTQ People Need Massage Too: 4 Ways to Welcome a Diverse Clientele

I opened my massage studio, Soma, when my son, Max, was in first grade.

A year later, we had practically doubled our staff and our clientele, which meant that I was twice as busy as before. Picking Max up from school on time was proving to be a challenge, so I asked a friend if she could drop him off at my office so I could have just a little more time to work each day.

She was more than happy to help, and for months I watched as my son would rush inside, practically trip over himself as he ran down the hall, fly right past the women’s bathroom (even though it was closer), and slam the door to the men’s room where he finally got the chance to go potty. What seemed like forever later, he’d emerge, grab a snack from the break room, and sit down in the lobby to color and tell me about his day until it was time to go home.

This might not seem all that unusual to most people, except that back then I thought I had a daughter.

My child had been trying to tell me ever since he was 2 years old that he was a boy, but I didn’t, or didn’t want to, believe him. Witnessing this painful and concerning bathroom ritual every day after school finally led to a conversation I knew we needed to have, but had avoided for years because I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear him speak his truth.

What he told me, though, changed everything: he had not been using the bathroom at school because he felt uncomfortable going to the girls’ room. When he’d go to the boys’ room instead, he was told by others that he was in the wrong place. So rather than being a bother to everyone else, he just held it.

But holding it in all day led to some pretty significant changes in his health, his attitude, his happiness and his grades. Imagine trying to spend all day at school more focused on your bladder than on your books. It broke my heart, and I started thinking of all the other ways I hadn’t been supporting him at home, at school, and even at my office where I want everyone —- most especially my son — to feel welcome.

Shortly after that coming-out conversation, I started making some changes at work to reflect this new perspective. Today we are widely known in our area for being a welcoming and inclusive massage studio, and it’s not just because we have a rainbow sticker in our window — it’s because we’ve made meaningful changes to the way we do business, which signifies to others our commitment to equality.

Whether or not you are a solo practitioner, an employee at a massage studio, or the owner of a large corporate spa, it is our responsibility as therapists to ensure that our clients feel welcome before they even pick up the phone to book an appointment.

If you’re looking for ways to welcome a more diverse clientele and show your support for the LGBTQ community, here are four important things you can do.

1. Change the signs on your bathroom doors. This seems obvious, and was one of the first things I did after my son came out. After all, the bathrooms in my office were just one-seaters anyway. Why did we need a “Men’s” room and a “Women’s” room when both functioned equally well? I ordered a couple of simple “All Gender Restroom” signs, finding those to be more respectful than the quirky signs that show “Man / Woman / Centaur (or Alien or Mermaid)” — which are intended to be humorous, but (un)intentionally make fun of nonbinary people as if they are some sort of mythical creatures found only in people’s imaginations.

Almost as soon as I swapped out those gendered bathroom signs for gender-neutral ones, I noticed that my child began using the facility that used to be labeled “Women.” Not only is it closer, but it’s also larger and a little nicer. Simply changing the sign let him know he was welcome, and I’ve heard other clients say the same thing.

“Restrooms are HUGE!” Cal* told me. A transgender man himself, he said, “In my early transition days, we often drove out of the way on trips just to find a business with a single bathroom — even if it was still men/women.  Having gender neutral restrooms with accompanying signage is a bold statement that all are welcome at Soma and no one is defined or judged by gender.”

His wife has been a client here for years, but Cal admits that he often feels hesitant booking massage appointments for himself.

“We so often neglect our health and self-care due to being self-conscious about appearances, being judged, or just being nervous and uncomfortable about ourselves in general,” Cal said. “Knowing that a business like Soma is here and welcomes my transgender friends for medical treatment means the world.”

“I knew I wanted to try Soma Massage before I even had my first appointment there, because of their reputation for being welcoming,” said Maggie*, a 40-something administrative assistant who experiences migraines and finds relief through massage.

“Then when I saw the bathroom signs on my first visit, I knew it was the place for me,” Maggie added. “Even though I’m cisgender, I’m gender nonconforming, which means that I don’t fit the gender stereotypes of what a ‘typical’ woman ‘should’ look like. So even using a gendered bathroom makes me feel vulnerable sometimes.” She added, “Seeing something as simple as a gender neutral bathroom sign makes me feel more comfortable, which is definitely important in massage!”

If your bathrooms have multiple stalls and your company doesn’t want to ditch the single-gender restroom, consider putting a sign up near the door that tells people that your business allows people to use whatever restroom they feel comfortable using (and to basically mind your own business), and that a gender-neutral single-stall restroom can be found down the hall if that suits them best. (Because even cisgender folks like a little more privacy now and then too.)

2. Be mindful of your language. I live and work in Texas, where Sir and Ma’am have historically been words of respect. But if you’re transgender or nonbinary, it can be triggering and disrespectful to be misgendered if someone gets those honorifics wrong. When speaking with someone on the phone (or, really, ever) try to avoid using these terms, since their voice or appearance may not match our culture’s stereotype of what sounds or looks masculine or feminine.

Instead of “Yes, Sir” try “Yes, of course.” Rather than “Have a good day, ma’am,” just drop that last word. You don’t know someone’s gender or pronouns unless you ask, after all. Making assumptions about this, quite frankly, is cisgender privilege, and has no place in the massage industry, which is meant to be accessible to all.

Speaking of pronouns, what do your intake forms say? Are there only two boxes: female or male? Is this a required field in your online forms? If so, why? It’s not necessary to know someone’s gender in order to address the tension in their scalenes, heat up those hot stones, or adjust the face cradle, so why ask?

If it’s currently a required field, find a way to remove it entirely, make it optional, or add more options for people to fill in. Nonbinary, genderqueer, or simply “prefer not to answer” are all acceptable answers as well.

Angie*, a transgender woman who started her sessions here about 18 months ago, has a deep voice and feels frustrated when people get her pronouns wrong, even when it’s unintentional.

“When I’m calling to book an appointment and someone calls me ‘sir,’ it feels really awkward. I know my voice is deep, but that doesn’t mean I’m a man — I’m a transgender woman,” she said.  “Massage is a very vulnerable thing to participate in, and a word like sir can really make me feel exposed and uncomfortable, and makes me not want to come back as often as I’d like, because I’m afraid someone is going to misgender me.”

One final note about pronouns: I make sure to include mine at the end of my email signature. “Amber Briggle, LMT — she/her/hers” is one effective way of normalizing people’s pronouns, as well as indicating to gender expansive clients that we are a welcoming and inclusive studio.

3. Use inclusive language on your website and in your ads. A few short months ago, I discovered that I was guilty of cis-normative language on our website. I was reviewing our list of modalities, and realized that our section about prenatal massage used words like “benefits both mother and child” and “pregnant women,” when the fact is that transgender men and nonbinary people can get pregnant too!

A simple change of language to say “parent and child” and “pregnant clients” reflects our inclusive mission, and signals to everyone that regardless of their sex assigned at birth, we care for all of our clients equally.

If you offer couple’s massages, be mindful too of heteronormative language like “his and hers.” A eucalyptus scrub “for him” and a lavender scrub “for her” does not sound very welcoming for same-sex couples, for example. And besides, plenty of women would prefer any other scent than lavender — so why not give them the option to choose something else, too?

4. Walk the talk. Raising LGBTQ visibility is key to manifesting lasting change in our communities. After all, it’s hard to hate up close, and when someone close to you comes out as gay, transgender, nonbinary, pansexual or queer, we begin to re-evaluate ourselves and our relationships to others in the LGBTQ community (speaking from experience!).

That’s why I believe it’s so important for inclusive businesses to donate to LGBTQ-led organizations, like your local PFLAG chapter or other queer-focused support/network groups, and to have a presence at your community’s Pride festival. (Don’t have a Pride fest yet? Help organize one! I guarantee that people will come.) Supporting these organizations through your time or dollars can go a long way toward increasing visibility and building a more thriving and diverse community, which will benefit everyone.

And be sure that your business — large or small — offers the same opportunities for advancement and benefits as your straight, cisgender workers.

As a small business, I am unable to provide health insurance to my team of independent contractors, but I make sure to treat all our therapists equally when it comes to time off, bonuses and raises.

If you are fortunate enough to work at a spa that does offer health insurance, read the fine print to make sure that surgery and hormone therapy are available to your transgender employees as well. Because — news flash! — cisgender people need hormones and surgeries too, and if these medically required treatments are only granted to some employees but not all, that’s discrimination, plain and simple.

Support All Clients

As massage therapists, we are tasked to care for others and to meet our clients where they’re at, free of judgement. In this profession, we have the remarkable opportunity to work with people in very intimate, vulnerable settings, and that honor needs to be taken seriously and should be re-evaluated regularly to encourage a sense of safety, both physically and emotionally, every time a client is with us.

Ensuring that your website, language, and professional reputation in- and outside your studio reflect this will go a long way towards helping your clients feel more supported before they even pick up the phone to book their first appointment, and when they are in your studio as well.


This essay was first published in MassageMag

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