How an inclusive gym brand became a battlefield over LGBTQ rights

John Hart-Battles, a 17-year-old high school junior in Oklahoma, joined Planet Fitness last June to keep in shape as a member of his school’s color guard team. As a young gay man, he liked Planet Fitness’s focus on inclusivity, an approach that turned it into one of the leading fitness brands in the United States. He started going twice a week.

But for the past few weeks, he, like many LGBTQ Planet Fitness patrons and staffers, has stayed away, as at least 54 bomb threats have been made to Planet Fitness locations across the country, many of which led to evacuations. “It’s one of my worst fears, to be hate crimed, specifically in a locker room,” said Hart-Battles, who called the attacks on Planet Fitness “very unsettling.”

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Local police and the FBI say they have yet to determine who is behind the threats, which in some instances have forced the evacuation, police say, not just of Planet Fitness locations but of businesses nearby.

But the pattern is familiar to LGBTQ activists, who link the wave of threats to the far-right influencer Chaya Raichik, who runs the social media account @libsoftiktok. She has made Planet Fitness the object of critical posts since early March when Planet Fitness revoked the membership of a woman in Alaska who complained about “a man shaving in a women’s bathroom” and posted a photo of the person online.

Though the threats and evacuations have directly affected only a relative few of the chain’s 2,600 locations in the United States, the attacks have caused fear and anxiety among LGBTQ people across the country, some of whom said they are now too anxious to use their local Planet Fitness or set foot in the locker room.

“Our gender identity non-discrimination policy states that members and guests may use the gym facilities that best align with their sincere, self-reported gender identity,” a Planet Fitness spokesperson said in a statement following the Alaska incident. “The member who posted on social media violated our mobile device policy that prohibits taking photos of individuals in the locker room, which resulted in their membership being terminated.”

Raichik, who operates the Libs of TikTok account on X and Instagram, declined to comment for this story. She previously has denied responsibility for threats leveled at businesses, schools and hospitals she has criticized for LGBTQ inclusive policies.

After the Alaska incident, Raichik criticized Planet Fitness’ trans-inclusive policies and encouraged her more than 3 million followers to boycott the chain. She has posted dozens of times since, encouraging followers to protest the gym in an effort to “take back our country” and documenting updates in a thread that she titled “PLANET FITNESS BLOODBATH MEGA THREAD.”

In late March, she posted a video interview with Planet Fitness’s co-founder and former CEO, Michael Grondahl, who left the company in 2013. “I’d want to go in there and freakin’ take the guy by the neck and throw him out in the parking lot,” Grondahl said in the interview. “That’s the way that things would’ve been done a while back.”

Violent threats have followed Raichik’s tweets before, including dozens of bomb threats against LGBTQ pride events, children’s hospitals that provide gender-affirming care, drag queen story hours, and at least two dozen public schools and libraries. Schools in California, Colorado and Oklahoma have canceled classes and evacuated students following Libs of TikTok posts about them. Raichik recently compared her Planet Fitness posts with last year’s controversy after Anheuser-Busch paid a trans influencer to tout a beer brand in an Instagram post. “This might be the most successful boycott since Bud Light,” she said.

Planet Fitness’s stock price is down more than 7.5 percent since the incident in Alaska, but it’s unclear how much, if any, of that is due to Raichik’s call for a boycott. Its value has dipped over 20 percent over the last year, a turbulent period that saw top-level turnover and scandal before this controversy.

Planet Fitness declined to provide a count of how many locations have been threatened. The nonprofit media watchdog Media Matters has catalogued the attacks in its ongoing efforts to document anti-LGBTQ+ hate online, and that tabulation has been confirmed by police departments and local news accounts. “We have been working closely with local and federal authorities to investigate these threats and will continue to take action to ensure the safety of our members and employees,” a Planet Fitness spokesperson told The Washington Post.

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Bomb threats and evacuations

The 54 incidents are national in nature: Seven Planet Fitness locations in Virginia have been targeted, and at least two in Maryland, according to the tabulations. In Fargo, N.D., two locations were evacuated, and a franchise manager explained to police that “this has been happening across the country at their other locations” since the incident in Alaska, a police report shows.

On Friday, a bomb threat to a Planet Fitness location in Charlottesville caused a nearby street to be closed to traffic during rush hour, police said. It was at least the second threat to the same location. The Planet Fitness employee who answered the phone at that location shortly after the incident said they were “not allowed to say anything.”

“It’s not just disrupting Planet Fitness businesses; a lot of these locations are in plazas with multiple businesses,” said Lt. Nicholas Rankin of the Norwich Police Department in Connecticut. “We didn’t just evacuate Planet Fitness. We were forced to evacuate a Big Lots department store and a health-care facility.”

One transgender Planet Fitness staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for their safety, told The Post that they initially heard about the campaign when a member called the club “screaming and ranting heinously transphobic nonsense.”

“They were screaming about pedophiles, calling me a pedophile. I was misgendered over the phone. They jumped right into talking about men and women’s locker rooms, everything you’ve been seeing in comments online but directed at me personally,” the staffer said. “I don’t feel comfortable going into the bathroom now at my own job.”

Grondahl said he and Raichik deserve no blame for the rash of threats. “Number one, nothing’s happened,” Grondahl said. “It’s bomb threats, I mean, it’s crazies doing what crazies do ... I haven’t seen any violence towards anybody.”

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An unlikely ally

In Grondahl, the Planet Fitness founder who built the brand on inclusivity, Raichik has found an unlikely ally. Grondahl and his brother, Marc, bought their first gym in the early 1990s and parlayed it into the fitness empire branded as a “judgment-free zone” because it welcomed everybody - except for the bodybuilders to whom the industry had previously catered.

The Grondahl brothers cut membership fees to the bone; created a “lunk alarm,” a siren that would go off if weightlifters grunted too loudly; and hosted a monthly pizza night. They were all measures to make the gym feel like, as the company’s stock filings stated, a place “where anyone - and we mean anyone - can feel they belong.” The pitch worked, with the chain signing up millions of members. The company’s market capitalization is now more than $5 billion.

Grondahl said his downfall at the company began with the rise of an executive with a controversial criminal past. Richard Moore started as Planet Fitness’s chief administrative officer and general counsel in 2012, according to his LinkedIn profile. Twelve years earlier, Moore, at the time a North Carolina assemblyman, was indicted on charges of “crime[s] of nature” for allegedly engaging in oral sex with three former students at the high school where he taught, court records show. The youngest of the former students was 16, North Carolina’s age of consent.

Moore pleaded guilty to a felony count of crimes against nature, and two misdemeanor counts of attempted crimes against nature. That statute has been challenged for potentially criminalizing same-gender sex. In a later letter to the Massachusetts bar, which allowed Moore to be licensed as an attorney, Moore acknowledged that the relationships were “inappropriate.”

Moore said in a statement to The Post: “In retrospect, I regret the choices I made in my early 20s; however, there were no underaged individuals involved and all contact was consensual.”

“Richard Moore has not worked at Planet Fitness in nearly seven years and has no involvement with the company,” a spokesperson said when asked about the former general counsel.

In Grondahl’s telling, a clash with Moore was central to his exit from the company. He stepped down as CEO in late 2012 and left the company’s board the following year, he said, and he was paid roughly $140 million for his shares. In his interview with Raichik, Grondahl said he was “shown the door” when he tried to raise the alarm about Moore’s past.

By Grondahl’s own account, drug abuse played a role. He told The Post that as CEO, he was in a daily stupor from Ambien, other prescription drugs and booze - and that he believes the signature on his separation agreement was forged while he was impaired.

Planet Fitness disputes that claim. Since his departure, the former CEO “has had no involvement with the Company or insight into Planet Fitness’ operations, strategy, performance or culture,” a company spokesman said.

A reporter from The Post visited Grondahl last year at his mansion in Jupiter, Fla. Grondahl was in full war room mode, having put a team of lawyers and investigators on retainer to prove his allegations. Grondahl recently told The Post that he has spent roughly $100,000 a month over the last year-plus attempting to build a case, but his planned lawsuit has not been filed.

Then came the bathroom incident at the Planet Fitness in Alaska. Grondahl’s team reached out to conservative news outlets, though there are indications that they were wary of airing Grondahl’s claims. Grondahl said that Fox News arranged for Jesse Watters to interview him, but then canceled. And a Newsmax interview aired but was edited, according to Grondahl, to remove inflammatory comments concerning Moore. (A Fox News spokesperson declined to comment; Newsmax did not respond to a request for comment.)

But Raichik aired a mostly unedited interview with Grondahl. Flanked by his attorney, Grondahl alleged that the company harbored sexual abusers and that it was “devastating” to see the welcoming philosophy he coined now being made to include trans people. “Fast-forward to what’s happening today, and ‘judgment-free zone’ means that if you’re a man, you can use the woman’s locker room,” Grondahl said. “Just insane.”

Meanwhile, Raichik has continued to post. Last week, she lambasted the company’s new CEO, Colleen Keating, for signing onto “CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge,” which supports inclusive workplaces, claiming that the company was standing by its “woke policies.”

Haley Zapal, an LGBTQ Planet Fitness member in Atlanta, said that she hopes the company can remain publicly supportive of the trans community and not cave to online pressure. “If they’re prioritizing safety,” Zapal said, “I think they should keep in mind who is doing the aggression, and it doesn’t seem like it’s the trans people.”

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