Josh Fernandez: Baby, they were born to run

Josh Fernandez

“The music of a marathon is a powerful strain, one of those tunes of glory. It asks us to forsake pleasures, to discipline the body, to find courage, to renew faith and to become one’s own person, utterly and completely.” ~George Sheehan

“Running is not, as it so often seems, only about what you did in your last race or about how many miles you ran last week. It is, in a much more important way, about community, about appreciating all the miles run by other runners too.” ~Richard O’Brien.

This week’s portrait Josh Fernandez knows this well. Starting their running career as a way to handle a “quarter-life crisis,” Fernandez has gone on to become the leader of Queer Run Philadelphia. I had a chance to chat with them about the sport that has always eluded me.

Tell me a little about your starting line and the family?
I grew up in Aston, PA about 40 minutes outside of Philadelphia. I’m the oldest of three kids. I have a brother, Adam, and a sister, Elaina. She’s the youngest. My mom’s a nurse manager. My dad is an IT specialist.

Oh, and you work in a digital medium. Is that where you got it from?
[Laughing] It is not. I love my dad to death, but he’s not the greatest teacher. I had the benefit of growing up in the beginning of the digital age — when people were using AOL messenger, MySpace was the thing, and Facebook was just getting started. I was an early adapter. 

So you threw dad under the bus. Who taught you to drive?
Haha! Okay, I’ll give him that. He was the one who taught me to drive.

What things were you into as a kid?
So the through-line is that it’s all stuff that I’m still interested in now. From the age of 10 through now, at the age of 36, I’ve loved superheroes. I love superhero mythology and all kinds of superheroes starting with “Power Rangers” and “X-Men” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which was super transformative. During the pandemic, I even got into Dungeons & Dragons, which isn’t necessarily superhero-focused but still contains that Euro mythology that I enjoy. I’m very justice-oriented and the idea of sticking up for people and giving a voice to the voiceless has been foundational from the time I first picked up a comic book or watched a Saturday morning superhero cartoon.

Did you have posters on your wall?
Yes, “X-Men” posters, and band posters, like Nirvana and blink-182. I definitely had my pop posters too — Britney Spears and I think I had a Destiny’s Child poster as well. I’ll have to ask my mom. She’ll remember better than I can.

Did you have to share a room with a sibling?
I shared a room with my brother. He was a great roommate. He and I have always been very close, still are. Actually I’m close to everyone in my family, [laughing] despite taking jabs at my father earlier. But I’m particularly close with my brother because he was my first source of comfort when I came out gay as a teenager and again in 2020 when I came out as nonbinary. He comes across sometimes as a hard-ass but in reality, he’s a soft teddy bear who is very supportive. He’s always got your back. The entire family is like that, but him especially.

What was your favorite thing to do with the family?
Our Sunday dinners. My mom is an uber Italian mom and she would cook pasta and gravy, or sometimes it would be tacos, or comfort food like meatloaf. That was when I ate meat. I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years now. Sometimes, she’d make Cuban foods for my dad. It was nice. I’m a big foodie, and I think a lot of it stems from those Sunday dinners with the family. Often, we’d play board games or watch a movie after dinner.

What’s your background and what traits do you think you get from them?
So my mom’s half Italian and half Irish, and my dad’s fully Cuban. I like to think I’m a kind person, but I can definitely see a little feistiness in me, which I get from all three. For both of my parents, culture was very important. My mom is very confident and is always an advocate for herself and others. [Smiles] I don’t have her confidence but I get the advocacy from her.

Do you speak Spanish?
I can sort of read it and write a little bit, but speaking it? Not so great. My dad spoke it, but again, bad teacher. What little I do know, I learned in school and a little from mi abuela! 

Que bueno! So what brought you to Philadelphia?
I came here for college. I studied journalism and women’s studies at Temple. I always knew I wanted to live in a city and Philadelphia always felt like home. Philly allowed me to establish myself here but because I was so close to my family, I could still make it home for Sunday dinner if I wanted. 

Nice. What extracurricular things did you do?
In high school, I was involved with the stage crew for the drama club. I was also in the art honor society and in college, I was very involved with the Temple student newspaper and Temple’s queer student union. 

What was a story that really moved you?
Probably a story I did about a gag clause that Temple University Hospital was imposing on the nurses. The story got picked up by City Paper. I think it may have even been on the cover. Shortly after, I was covering a student government meeting and there were some of the nurses in the room and they were asking to meet the journalist who did the story. It meant a lot to them and they wanted to meet the person who wrote it. It was really nice that it meant so much to them.

And you’re still doing some freelance journalism now, correct?
It’s more freelance writing. I had these plucky dreams of what journalism would be for me, uncovering the truth, giving a voice to the voiceless and being an advocate for people. I got my first job at the Inquirer. They had a special series about neighborhoods and I did the Mainline blog. I did it for about a year, but I was underpaid and overworked. A lot of it was covering town hall meetings, which could run really long. I went to one that started at 8 p.m. and didn’t finish until 1 a.m.! 

Low pay and long hours wasn’t too attractive, so I transferred into marketing, doing copywriting, social media strategy and management, web content, newsletter writing, etc. If it’s marketing with any writing functions, I do it. And I’ve sort of carved a path for myself with that. It still allowed me to help people through words and through the clients I’ve worked with.

Currently, I work with a company called Plowshare. They do marketing and communications work for government agencies and nonprofits, and I’m the senior writer for a project with the CDC’s “Tips from former smokers” campaign. It’s the longest federally funded CDC campaign. They’re really interested in smoking cessation and health equity, especially reaching diverse communities who are disproportionately affected by the effect of smoking. It’s very rewarding.

Oh, I’ve seen those commercials! Speaking of health, let’s talk about running! Something I never do unless I’m being chased or drunk, and I don’t drink that much, so that only happens on rare occasions!
You’d be surprised how much I hear that! There’s a time when I felt the same. But I’ve been running for about 15 years. I’d graduated college and was having, not a midlife, but a little pre-quarter life crisis! I had a job and was feeling like I needed structure. It wasn’t like school where I’d have a class at 10 a.m., then take a nap and have another class in the afternoon and I wanted a healthy outlet for stress. I tried going to the gym, didn’t like it; tried swimming, was not into that; biking? Well, think of the accident prone character Eugene from “Hey Arnold.” That’s me. I’d gone running a few times with friends only to find I was out of breath and out of shape, but I thought I’d try it again. I laced up my sneakers and went for a run. Then I started doing it 2-3 times a week. Slowly, I started getting into shape and fast forward a year to find me excited to wake up on a Saturday morning to run eight miles.

Josh Fernandez wears a Queer Run tank while holding their hands at their hips

Wow. So you started running and stopped eating meat at the same time?
Close, but that was more because I had roommates who were vegetarians. I tend to have people-pleasing tendencies. I didn’t want to be a jerk and bring meat products into the fridge, so I figured I’d only eat meat when I was out. But pretty quickly, after doing some research on what happens to the animals and the harm that farming factories do to the environment, I went full-on vegetarian. 

Got it.
Yeah, so from there, I decided to run my first race. Most people go from couch to 5K, I went right for a half marathon! I did my first full marathon in 2016 and really got into it. Then the pandemic happened along with several other things in my life. After the pandemic, everyone was feeling the need for community — especially queer people and especially in a way that didn’t have to involve nightlife. I was one of the people at the first Queer Run. At that time, there were about 11. 

The more I ran, the more I wanted to get involved in helping shape the organization. I joined the leadership team and when the founder stepped away to work on other things, I was able to step into his position. Not something I had on my bingo card for 2023, but it’s been great. And it’s really grown since the beginning, and at our most recent Monday run, which is the most popular, we had 67 people! We have three runs a week in different parts of the city. It’s been fun.

So do you get a runner’s high?
In the beginning, maybe, but now it’s more just a sense of calm. And a sense of accomplishment when I finish.

How many marathons have you run?
I’ve been in 15. The most recent one was Boston, which was really exciting. It’s a hard race to qualify for. It’s one of the six major marathons in the world. It was a big goal for me. After the first one I ever ran, I thought, “Wow that was hard, but I’m going to keep doing it because I want to someday run the Boston Marathon.” And I made it happen!

Bravo! Let’s talk about your queer life.
Like many of us, I always knew. I just didn’t have a name for it. And society tells us we should feel shame if we don’t go with the flow, that differences are bad, whatever they are. But I was 15 when I told my mom. I’d broken up with my girlfriend. I said, “We broke up but it wasn’t anything bad. I like her. I just didn’t liiiike her.” My mom just looked at me and said, “I’ve known since you were young.” I mean there are home videos of toddler Josh lip syncing to Madonna videos, so the writing was on the wall.

There were a few bumps in the road with my father. He also knew but growing up with that Cuban machismo background, it took him a little longer to adjust. But within less than a year, everyone was on board. I think my parents were concerned not just for me — because kids can be very cruel— but they were concerned that it could be weaponized against my siblings as well. It wasn’t. If they experienced any negativity from it, they shielded me from it, but I don’t think there were any problems.

Then I came out again as queer and nonbinary in 2019. I started working in corporate settings that were conformity land. You had to wear very gendered clothing, like suit and tie and I noticed that it seemed more suffocating than usual. I was realizing that I didn’t care for clothes that were so gendered on me.

And it wasn’t just the clothing. It was also where my politics were. I was evolving and thinking a lot about the queer community. I was reading a lot of Audre Lorde, or Judith Butler and Kate Bornstein and feeling like things were not aligning with me. I went to Triangle Tavern for pizza and cocktails with my close friend Jessie and told her that I wanted to start using they/them pronouns. She was the first person I told.

Then I told my family and unfortunately, the first thing was my Dad digging in his heels and saying, “Another thing! What now?” But as before, he’s on board now. And Adam is always the first one to correct them if someone uses the wrong pronoun. He’s a superhero. And I’m in a workplace now where when I started, my boss said, “Because your name is Josh I assumed that your pronouns were he/him. If that’s not correct, what would you like me to use?” How nice to be in a place where I can be me. It’s very freeing. Despite how scary things are politically, we’ve come a long way as a community. I live in a time where I can have a second coming out in my 30s! 

I read there was a protest regarding the Philadelphia Marathon?
When I came out as NB, there were only a handful of races that were offering nonbinary registration — mostly 5Ks. The Philadelphia Distance Run was the first major race in the country and maybe in the world to offer not just a register option but to offer equal prize money for the top nonbinary finisher, not just the men and women. That set the bar high for me in terms of what I expect. A lot of world races are starting to announce that they’re including nonbinary runners. Tokyo just started, so that’s all six worlds now.

Philadelphia Marathon offered a nonbinary option starting in 2022, but they didn’t market it. If I’m being honest, I think that they didn’t want to attract homophobes. They are the only race in Philly that had a nonbinary category but didn’t give any prize money to the top NB finishers. That’s something that Queer Run and our sister club, Lez Run, have been working on. They have made some steps — gender neutral bathrooms, adjusting language on the website — all great, but the thing that makes nonbinary people feel seen the same as men and women, is seeing that prize money!

We want to have the aspiration to achieve elite runner status too. We were having meetings but so far, haven’t gotten very far. The policy that they came up with was that NB people can win prize money, they just have to register as male or female. So last week, we decided to protest at their kick-off campaign. We did an email campaign and we’ve had a lot of support from allies in the community to create equity in the race. It’s a shame. Philadelphia is the city of firsts. We’re a city with great diversity, but guess who beat us to it! Missoula, Montana! Philly needs to get on board.

OK, just a few random questions. You hit the lottery. What sports team would you buy?
I probably wouldn’t buy a team, but I’d give the money to women’s sports because with all the moaning about trans people being in sports, the real enemy of women’s sports is lack of funding.

Three pet peeves?
Someone leaving the cap off of the toothpaste. Food waste? And people who aren’t kind.

Do you talk in your sleep and if so, what’s the funniest thing you’ve said?
One time after an all-nighter, I went to a friend’s to watch a movie. I passed out and apparently was saying in my sleep, “Oh no! The leaf bugs!”

Tell me about your tattoos.
I have six of them, [pointing to a large bird on the arm] this one was a post-breakup tattoo and it was my first. I really love phoenixes — the mythology and the fictional elements — like from “X-Men” or “Harry Potter,” even though J.K. Rowling has turned out to be a big jerk. There’s just something so powerful about the idea that you can be reduced to ash and then brush yourself off and become a newer, shinier, stronger version of yourself.

For more information on Queer Run Philadelphia, visit

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