Queer and nonbinary athletes call out Philadelphia Marathon

Athletics people running on the track field. Sunny day
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Although the Philadelphia Marathon — which occurred Nov. 22-24 in neighborhoods throughout the city — has made progress in making its races inclusive of nonbinary participants, nonbinary elite runners are still unable to win prize money in their respective category. Instead, they must be classed in the women’s or men’s category to win a monetary award as elite runners. Queer and nonbinary athletes in Philly have been working to change this. 

“It’s a problem because it’s inequity,” said Josh Fernandez, a nonbinary runner who serves as executive chair of the group Queer Run. “Also because I know that our city is not just capable of doing better for nonbinary runners, especially nonbinary runners at the elite level, but there are already examples of us doing it.”

Fernandez and C.C. Tellez, who founded the LGBTQ+ running group Lez Run, have been meeting with Philadelphia Marathon Weekend leadership for more than a year, including with director Kathleen Titus. Fernandez and Tellez provided the leadership team with suggestions for best overall practices for nonbinary runners, and encouraged the team to allocate prize money to elite nonbinary participants — something that other local races have already been doing.

“Up until the last moment, we were like, ‘no, this isn’t right,’” Tellez said. “Even the elite runners that were participating were saying, ‘this is confusing, this isn’t right. This feels awful.’ They [the Philadelphia Marathon team] wouldn’t listen. They [said] ‘well, it’s too late now. Let’s continue talking.’ We said, ‘no, we’ve said what we needed to say. We’re done talking.’”

Last year, nonbinary runners were able to register for the Philadelphia Marathon as nonbinary, but were ultimately classified in men’s and women’s categories upon completing the races. The need to rectify that issue initiated the meetings between Titus, Fernandez and Tellez.

“[Kathleen] was very apologetic about that happening, and she wanted to hear ideas for not just improving that, but also what can be done experience-wise overall,” Fernandez said. “We both said to her in several meetings that having prize money, awarding the top nonbinary runners, helping make Philadelphia a destination race for elite runners by dangling a carrot in front of them, giving them incentive to want to register for and come to Philadelphia for this race –– that was going to be one of the biggest things that would really help improve things.”

Tellez and Fernandez believe that this lack of equity for nonbinary elite runners violates Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance, which includes gender identity as a class protected from discrimination.

“Our next step really is to file a claim with the City to say that they’re in violation of that policy,” Tellez said.

Tellez added that the Philadelphia Marathon has to “take that next step towards doing the right thing and become the leader in your industry, set that progressive example, encourage talent and participation from all runners, not just some chosen individuals.”

In response to these concerns, a spokesperson for Philadelphia Marathon Weekend said in an email, “we understand your concerns about the current policy around elite non-binary and prize money. We know this is an important and complex issue, and our goal has been to create a framework for today while building a road map towards greater inclusion and equity for the future.”

The spokesperson added that the City of Philadelphia follows the policies of USA Track and Field (USATF), which does not designate a separate nonbinary category for elite runners.

“While elite athletes must choose to compete in the two binary categories in alignment with USATF guidelines, they will always be acknowledged as non-binary individuals,” the Philadelphia Marathon spokesperson said. “Their times will be posted as non-binary racers and they will be celebrated and medaled as non-binary individuals.”

The Philadelphia Marathon team also made a number of enhancements to the race weekend, including establishing a nonbinary category for all races, equally distributed prizes and awards for non-elite participants in all races, all-gender bathrooms and changing rooms, private lactation stations for chestfeeding athletes, employing security guards who have undergone gender-centric sensitivity training, providing official race merch for gender-expansive bodies, updating inclusive website language, and accurately collecting, recording and displaying participation data to correspond to nonbinary runners’ gender identity.

In creating their nonbinary elite prize money policy, Philadelphia Marathon leadership took into account the fact that their policy aligns with other organizers of other big races that are “spearheading change and championing inclusivity,” including the New York Marathon, Chicago Marathon and Boston Marathon. Other factors in shaping their policy include the need to ensure that nonbinary athletes are eligible for national rankings and championships and the Olympics trials, as well as allowing time for “a thoughtful, caring and deliberate approach to policy beyond registration.”

“We can’t be leaning on antiquated rules by the USATF,” Tellez said. “They’re not paying for the event. They’re not paying the prize money. To use them as an excuse, it’s awful.”

A few blunders occurred over the marathon last weekend that further exacerbated the issue of a lack of full inclusion for nonbinary runners. As the first elite nonbinary runner was about to cross the tape, the announcer acknowledged that they would receive $1,000, but then corrected themself to say that the first Masters Runner who is nonbinary, or a runner over the age of 40, gets the $1,000 award. The runner who was announced was not in the Masters Runner category, though ended up winning a prize in a different category.

At the conclusion of the half marathon, when awards were being distributed, photos of five runners in the men’s category and five runners in the women’s category were taken, according to Tellez.

“But for the nonbinary folks, one was only pictured, one was only celebrated,” Tellez said. “The other participants watched, waited and questioned, ‘am I going to be called up for the picture? Am I going to get the same opportunity as everybody else?’ And when that didn’t happen, they left upset.”

For Fernandez, the need for elite nonbinary runners to be able to win prize money in a nonbinary category is tied to representation for queer and gender-expansive youth.

“Even though it’s 2023, they’re still facing a lot of hardships about being young and queer,” Fernandez said. “A lot of times they’re operating in survival mode. What if they saw role models in sports that they could look up to?”

Even though they discovered running in their thirties, Fernandez didn’t see any outwardly queer or nonbinary athletes who they could look up to as a younger person.

“What would my running career have been like if I had started early, if I had seen people like me on podiums and said, ‘I can be like that person,’” Fernandez said.