The Risks and Responsibilities of Visibility in Marathon Running

A month ago, Cal Calamia made history by becoming the first trans runner to win the nonbinary division at the New York City Marathon, completing the race in a time of 2:48:46. The new gender category, established in 2021, has been added to hundreds of races nationwide. Recently, it was introduced in four other World Marathon Majors: London, Boston, Chicago, and Berlin, signifying an important commitment to nonbinary inclusion.

Assigned female at birth, Calamia had been running in the women’s division until 2022, when they made historic wins in the nonbinary categories at both the San Francisco Marathon and Bay to Breakers. Beyond their accomplishments in running, Calamia advocates for inclusive measures for nonbinary runners, such as media coverage, recognitions and awards, proper pronoun usage, and the provision of gender-neutral restrooms.

Jake Fedorowski, a nonbinary marathoner, actively engages with race directors and offers their insights as a consultant. Their goal is to assist race organizations in integrating nonbinary options into the registration process for runners. In 2022, Fedorowski created a guide to nonbinary inclusion in running and a database that tracks races that have publicized the addition of nonbinary divisions. This bottom-up approach has yielded success in promoting inclusion within marathon events, contributing to a notable increase in the participation of nonbinary athletes over the past three years.

Being the first nonbinary runner granted a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for testosterone in their gender-affirming treatment, Calamia stresses the importance of taking up space by being visible as a trans runner. Competing in the nonbinary category has allowed them to “show up as [their] authentic self”. By participating and winning in the nonbinary division, Calamia makes a statement that “we [trans and nonbinary people] are here, that we do want to compete in sports, and that we belong in sports.”

Despite concerted efforts to increase visibility for trans and nonbinary runners, the process toward inclusion is often nonlinear. Nonbinary activists find themselves engaged in constant negotiations with race directors, advocating for the incorporation of essential elements such as monetary prizes, awards, and a dedicated finish line ribbon for nonbinary runners. Currently, nonbinary athletes can “run in marathons, but they can’t actually win” because they are not recognized in elite races, confining them to lower-level competitions and hindering or preventing their potential careers as professional runners.

The introduction of the new gender category also raises practical concerns regarding gender equity, especially for nonbinary runners who were assigned female at birth. Anti-trans Olympian runner Mara Yamauchi claims that the nonbinary category creates inequity among runners. According to her, assigned-male-at-birth runners tend to dominate the division, followed by transmasculine runners like Calamia, and assigned-female-at-birth athletes positioned at the lower end.  She contends that the new category “conflates sex with gender identity and ignoring the fact that males run on average 10% faster than females”. This, in her view, makes it challenging for runners in the category to “compete fairly against each other”.

While Yamauchi’s discontent with the nonbinary division is often dismissed as transphobic, reductive arguments (on every side) prevent necessary conversations about what equity can look like in trans-inclusive sports. In fact, trans inclusion forces athletics to confront gender-based inequities that affect more than just trans people. In major marathons that offer a nonbinary category, almost all winners have been individuals assigned male at birth. As we’ve covered before, cultural factors such as sponsorship and training opportunities favor people assigned male at birth, and they play a pivotal role in one’s access and ability to thrive in a sport. Recognizing these structured inequities that are also affected by social class, race, nationality, and citizenship status, as well as sex and gender, no sport can be completely fair. In other words, we need more nuanced conversations about what kind of “fairness” we’re aspiring to achieve (which may differ depending on the context and level of the sporting event), and more research about what cultural and physiological factors affect that fairness.

Yamauchi’s controversy involving UK trans woman runner Glenique Frank during the London Marathon 2023 raises another crucial question about whether the creation of nonbinary divisions coerces trans women runners to choose between “male” or “nonbinary” categories. Frank, who placed 6160th with a time of 4:11:28, was accused of taking away the opportunity of 14,000 female runners who “suffered a worse finish position” by her participation in the female category without undergoing gender-affirming treatments. The event director of the London Marathon, Huge Brasher, clarified that Frank competed in the mass event of the marathon, designed to be inclusive “for everyone”, and did not “operate under previous World Athletics rules surrounding transgender athletes”.

While Frank did not violate the rules regarding female eligibility at the London Marathon, she suffered a huge backlash. In response, she issued an apology for entering the female category. Although Frank expressed that registering herself in the nonbinary category felt “quite sad”, she promised she would enter either the “male” or “nonbinary” category in future runs, “just to keep everybody happy”.

Frank’s story demonstrated that despite the availability of nonbinary divisions in marathons to promote inclusivity, trans women athletes often find themselves compelled to compete in a category that does not align with their gender identity. While nonbinary divisions recognize those who do not see themselves fitting into the binary gender of male and female, the visibility gained for nonbinary runners cannot come at the expense of trans women by coercing them to participate in nonbinary or male categories due to public pressure.

As such, a nonbinary category risks playing the same role as an Open or Transgender category. These categories often create a “harmful ‘othering’” by lumping trans and nonbinary athletes together and segregating them from cisgender athletes altogether.

Introducing a third category that allows nonbinary runners to compete according to their gender identity while excluding trans women runners may inadvertently create a new gender hierarchy within the spectrum of trans and nonbinary athletes. While the establishment of a nonbinary division in sports intends to enhance accessibility for gender-diverse communities to express their “authentic selves,” as advocated by figures like Calamia, Fedorowski, and other nonbinary runners, it is imperative for race organizers to actively engage in ongoing discussions with both nonbinary and binary trans athletes. These dialogues are essential in advancing inclusion for everyone, leaving no one behind.

Siufung Law (they/them) comes from Hong Kong, is a TEDx speaker, a nonbinary professional bodybuilder, and Ph.D. student at Emory University. They are a trans activist actively promoting the transgender-only bodybuilding competition in Atlanta, GA, organized by the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders and Powerlifters (IATBP). Website: IG@siufung_law