Story behind transgender-friendly gym featured in Google ad

This is a story that began for Drew Smith and Jake Nothnagel a few years ago, which is to say back when the world hadn't yet heard of Caitlyn Jenner -- just Bruce. And it didn't know as much about Aydian Dowling, either. He's in the news right now because he's by far the leading vote-getter in Men's Health magazine's Ultimate Guy Search. The winner gets a spot as the magazine's November cover boy.

Smith and Nothnagel live in the Kansas City area, and like a lot of guys, they were looking for a gym where they could work out. Nothing particularly distinctive about that, right? Not until you learn that Nothnagel and Smith, like Dowling, are transgender men who were either done going through their reassignment surgery or not quite finished with the process of transitioning from female to male when they began hitting the gym.

For many transgender men (and women), going to the gym is vital to their transformation and yet fraught with challenges the rest of us never face. Smith and Nothnagel faced the same dilemmas until Smith heard about Hailee Bland-Walsh, the owner of the City Gym. Then Google eventually heard about all of them and decided that a program at Bland-Walsh's gym is so remarkable and uplifting, the Internet giant chose to feature it in a 2-minute, 30-second TV spot that is more like a mini-documentary than your standard commercial. It has aired in recent weeks, including before Jenner was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award at the 2015 ESPYS, as part of a Google small-business ad campaign.

The commercial uses affecting interviews and vignettes to detail the transformative journey of Nothnagel and, by extension, the 100 or so other men who belong to The Union -- a support group/social network that the 30-year-old Smith founded about four years ago. The 26-year-old Nothnagel is a participant in the 90-day group fitness program called Momentum that Bland-Walsh created especially for transgender men.

Like a lot of transgender people, Nothnagel echoes what Dowling has called his "battle with the mirror." Not only do transgender men internally identify as being male, but it is also very important to them to look like a man. Nothnagel says early in his transition, he hadn't yet had "top" surgery to remove his breast tissue, and for the most part he feared interacting with anyone at the gym.

"I wasn't 100 percent passing as a male, [and] it heavily brought on the insecurities of having to out myself, and maybe creating an awkward situation," he said. "I just kept to myself, always wore a big sweatshirt, kept my hood up and didn't try to expose myself too much for the fear of someone noticing me. I never used the men's locker room or the restroom, in general just because I didn't want to get any weird looks or maybe end up causing a scene."

Smith first reached out to Bland-Walsh, a former University of Minnesota and pro soccer player, because he heard her gym (which was designed with private, gender-neutral showers and restrooms) and staff were LGBT-friendly. When Bland-Walsh did some Internet research to find existing training programs for transgender men, she couldn't find any.

"I thought that there had to be a group on one of the coasts who has the science background and fitness expertise," she said. "I was so disappointed to find nothing I could refer Drew to."

So Bland-Walsh developed the Momentum program, partly because she was also moved by what else her research revealed.

"The trans community is abused, victimized and murdered at remarkably higher numbers than other groups of people," Bland-Walsh said.

"Imagine you are a person who is transitioning and you go to the gym to transform your body. The male trainer you've been matched with says, 'OK, dude, let's do a body fat test. Take your shirt off.' But the client who is trans is wearing a [chest] binder because he has breasts. It could get uncomfortable and, candidly, really unsafe very quickly."

So what's different about Momentum?

"This group allows us to meet these men exactly where they are," she explained. "They don't owe us any explanations of where their body is or why their driver's license doesn't match the name they prefer to be addressed as. In addition, hormones and physiology plays into the way a person can get the most from their workout. If they are presenting as a man but have not begun taking testosterone, they will have different results than a man who has been taking T for five years. I can have those specific conversations with them in a 100 percent accepting environment. At City Gym, they can be themselves. They can feel safe."

That's important, because once such basic concerns are addressed, the participants can fully focus on working out to attain their goals. Smith notes that many fight feelings of gender dysphoria -- the formal diagnosis that describes people who experience significant discontent with the sex they were assigned at birth. There's also body dysmorphia, a condition where a person can't stop thinking about one or more perceived flaws with his or her appearance.

Dowling, a self-described workout fanatic who has the body to prove it, wrote in his Men's Health entry that "the battle that can come with the mirror can be completely dark and engulfing. As a Transgender Male, having a healthy body and mind is my ultimate goal to find peace within my soul."

Smith agrees.

"The physical aspect is absolutely as important as the emotional and spiritual," Smith said, "because the physical is the part that causes body dysmorphia/dysphoria and leads to many emotional and spiritual issues. Not all guys want to get into a gym and get cut, big. There are those that want to lose weight. There are those that need to gain weight to rid the view of themselves as small, weak. This fitness group isn't just about your body. It's about connecting us with our most authentic selves, no matter what and who that is. "

Nothnagel says that what led him to The Union group and later City Gym was indeed a longing to learn how to obtain "the masculine look I always wanted to see in the mirror." But not just that. Nothnagel says going public rather than remaining driven inward and isolated has been life-enriching and liberating for him, which echoes Jenner's sentiments. He also hopes the Google spot serves as another step in educating folks who didn't know much about the transgender community before.

"I took into serious consideration that this could and might potentially out me to everyone I know and meet in the future," Nothnagel says. "But if I am able to help someone else out or help make a change in the world, then that is completely worth it to me.

"The fellowship from the guys' group at the gym, it has been such an amazing opportunity to be part of it. During each of our [90-day workout] cycles there, we have grown and experienced important things together. I like to consider it a brotherhood of a sort."

Smith has created a website for The Union along with Facebook and Instagram community pages that connect men in all stages of transition from Kansas City and beyond in a "Midwest transguy coterie." Details about the Momentum program can be found there. But The Union also holds social events like beer tastings and cigar smoking nights out, even lessons on how to properly knot a tie.

Bland-Walsh says her interactions with men like Smith and Nothnagel dovetail with the sort of values she always had in mind when she started her business.

"At a basic human level, people want to feel like they belong," Bland-Walsh said. "For some, it's a church or a country club. At City Gym, we want to be that community to provide people the inspiration to be their best self. We get to bear witness to people pushing outside of their comfort zones during their workouts. Those efforts prove to them that if they show up, work hard and push themselves outside of their comfort zones, magic can happen.

"[Since the Google spot] we have had a lot of visibility, which allows us to talk about how people can change their community and maybe the world by acting on their values."

Bland-Walsh says that since the commercial began airing, she has received hundreds of messages of support via City Gym's social channels, and she and her marketing manager took a week and responded to every one of them.

"This commercial is personal for us," Bland-Walsh explained. "I wanted every person who reached out to know we see them, we hear them and we love them."