By Jen A. Miller for RRCA
When Zackary Harris started running, they were the only out LGBTQ student at their Missouri high school. They quit after two years. Bullying from their teammates made running a burden instead of a joy.
They re-found the sport while a student at the University of California, Berkeley, right around the time they realized that their gender is nonbinary.
“When I signed up for my first marathon, I still couldn’t identify as nonbinary but made a conscious decision that no matter what, I’m still going to participate because that is more important than all else, even if they’re not going to recognize my identity. I know I’m going to be present,” they said.
Harris and other out nonbinary runners are present, and more often being recognized too. LGBTQ races have offered nonbinary entry as an option for years, but now mainstream events are catching up, with road races from New York City to Texas to Toronto allowing nonbinary runners to run as themselves.
Nonbinary visibility is growing too, in and out of the sport. Celebrities like singer Demi Lovato and Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness are openly nonbinary, as is track runner Nikki Hiltz. According to GLAAD’s November 2021 Accelerating Acceptance study results, 81% of non-LGBTQ people expect that nonbinary and transgender people will become a more familiar part of life, just as gay and lesbian people have. Also, 21 U.S. states offer gender neutral driver’s licenses, and in early 2022, Americans will also be able to get gender neutral passports, according to the U.S. State Department.
So why not road races?
“We know that sport has always been a sex segregated space, and one where these kind of rigid binaries exclude anyone who doesn’t fit into antiquated ideas around gender norms,” said Joanna Hoffman, director of communications of Athlete Ally, who is also a member of Front Runners New York, an LGBTQ running club. “We have policies governing sport, including running, that don’t reflect the lived experiences of the athletes participating.”
In September 2021, the revitalized Philadelphia Distance Run half marathon became the first major U.S. race to have a gender nonbinary category, with equal elite prize money. They recruited elite nonbinary athletes like Harris, who is also a member of Front Runners New York, to compete in their event.
“It’s really important for people to run as they are,” said Ross Martinson, elite athlete coordinator of the Philadelphia Distance Run and owner of Philadelphia Runner. “Running has been such a great part of my life, and I want that to be something for everybody.”
Conversations about adding a nonbinary category, with prize money, came from conversations with Lez Run, an LGBTQ Philadelphia running club, and Students Run Philly Style, which pairs student runners with volunteer mentors. Ninety percent of the group’s mentees are student of color, Martinson said, and “would go to events and say ‘no one here looks like us except us.’ We want someone to come to our races and see whoever they are, whether that’s pace or race or sexuality or gender.”
It’s not just big races in major coastal cities that are now allowing nonbinary registration either. The Richmond Road Runners Club in Virginia added it in 2021. Nikkia Young, who spearheaded the effort before recently stepping down as president of the Richmond Road Runners Club, said that conversations about gender inclusion sprung out of overall discussions of diversity. Young reached out to Diversity Richmond, an LGBTQ organization in the city, which helped the club figure out how to best to add nonbinary registration options, including allowing runners to register as nonbinary but not have that information made public in published race results.
“It was a lot easier than we had originally thought” to make the change, she said. There hasn’t been any backlash, though the organization also hasn’t had someone sign up as nonbinary yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not necessary though. “If you’re not seeing a population [at your events,] it might be because that population doesn’t know about you or you’ve not made yourself available to that population,” she said.
Run for the Water, a 10 miler and 5K in Austin, TX, and the second largest charity produced road race in the city, was set to include a nonbinary registration option to their race in 2020, but it was cancelled due to COVID. They added it for the 2021 race.
“Race organizers had to think through how a nonbinary option would work,” said Courtney Waldren, executive director of the Gazelle Foundation (Run for the Water is a fundraising event to support their mission of bringing clean water to people in Burundi). “It’s more than altering registration platform radio buttons, its waivers, timing, race day announcements, award ceremony, etcetera. But having an inclusive event is important to us.” She added, “there also isn’t clarity about gender inclusion at sport governing bodies, like USA Track and Field and USA Triathlon.”
Indeed, it was GLAAD who published their own guide to covering LGBTQ athletes, including nonbinary athletes, at the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympics, and responded when nonbinary skateboarder Alana Smith was mis-gendered on air by broadcasters (NBC apologized).
In September, Harris, who is now studying at Brooklyn Law School, finished second in the gender nonbinary category at the Philadelphia Distance Run. They went on to win the New York City Marathon’s first nonbinary category that November.
“That level of recognition really propelled me to run some of my hardest runs that I’ve ever done,” they said. They notched a three minute half marathon personal record in Philadelphia, and battled through an injury to win the nonbinary category in the New York. They then also won the nonbinary category at the New York Road Runner’s Joe Kleinerman 10K in January.
“By recognizing nonbinary runners, we can help create a more inclusive space and more people can feel welcome to join,” they said. “I may not always be running for the top runners, but I can still achieve greatness in the sport.”
Photo: Thousands of runners from around New York City started their 2022 racing seasons on Saturday at the NYRR Joe Kleinerman 10K with a full-lap course around Central Park. This marked the first NYRR race where the top non-binary finisher was recognized with a finish-line tape break and an award on site, as part of NYRR’s commitment to increase inclusivity and representation in the running community. Zackary Harris, representing Front Runners New York, was the top non-binary finisher in a time of 40:59. (Image – New York Road Runners)