In 2019, I cofounded OUTrun, an initiative aimed at empowering and connecting runners in the LGBTQ+ community. Our goal is provide race organizations, events, clubs, and race directors the tools to be more actively inclusive and welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community. And as a step toward that goal, our OUTrun team has been conducting a detailed research project over the past several months.
For nonbinary and transgender athletes, the lack of certain practices and policies is a very real barrier to entry. Runners often have to choose between being authentic and true to their identity, or competing and participating. We’ve found that many running organizations want to embrace changes to become more actively inclusive and inviting to LGBTQ+ runners, but they just don’t know which changes to implement. With our recommendations and best practices guide, we hope to remove lack of knowledge as a barrier to meaningful change.
For help with the project, we partnered with Chris Mosier, founder of transathlete.com. Mosier was the first transgender man to represent the United States in international competition, and we’re incredibly grateful for his insight. Transathlete.com provides athletes, students, coaches, and administrators with resources for trans inclusion at all levels of athletics. In many U.S. states, lawmakers are considering bills that would ban trans athletes from participating in high school sports as the gender in which they identify. Mosier is playing an important role in protesting these bills, and his knowledge and experience in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion will be instrumental in sharing recommendations for positive change.
As a first step, we created a survey and distributed it to the LGBTQ+ running community. We wanted to get a sense of just how included and welcome queer runners feel, what changes they’d like to see, and how those changes would impact their participation. Now, we’ve used data from more than 400 runners to compile guidance, input, and advice from knowledgeable LGBTQ+ athletes and advocates to create a list of recommendations. Here are some of the biggest takeaways:
Visibility and representation matter.
One of the biggest barriers to inclusion cited by LGBTQ+ runners is the lack of a sense of belonging. In many of the responses to the survey’s open-ended questions, the words “representation” and “visibility” came up the most.
When people don’t feel seen and heard in a community they want to be part of, they are far less likely to seek participation in it. Many queer runners are afraid to even try joining a local run club or going on a group run. While quite a few respondents reported not feeling represented, the number was much higher for non-cisgender runners. Over half of the nonbinary, trans, agender, two-spirit, and genderqueer respondents reported feeling “not at all” represented in the running community’s branding, marketing, and promotion. Intersectionality and the layers of diversity were powerfully evident: More than a third of BIPOC runners reported feeling “not at all” represented, versus 26 percent of white respondents.
A stereotypical image of what it means to be a runner—thin, white, and cisgender—was a theme mentioned frequently in the responses to open-ended questions. That stereotype is reinforced on a macro level in media stories, elite athlete coverage, branding, and marketing. It’s also present on the micro level: Runners who don’t identify with that stereotype may struggle to find inclusive environments or events that actively welcome them.
Creating visibility for runners who don’t fit the stereotype is absolutely key. One way we’ve worked on that in our community is by partnering with an existing, consistent group run to host an OUTrun event. So instead of having completely separate events that are oriented toward different groups, we create an event that includes people of various identities and backgrounds. Many different organizations around the country represent minority groups in the sport—such as OUTrun, Front Runners, and Black Girls Run, to name just a few of hundreds. Whether you’re a store, club, or event, you can reach out to those groups to collaborate and bring people together.
Many LGBTQ+ runners don’t feel welcome; even fewer feel invited.
When we asked LGBTQ+ runners how welcomed and included they felt in the running community, 47 percent of men reported feeling “mostly welcome,” while only 33 percent of women did. Rates were even lower for nonbinary, genderqueer, transgender, agender, and two-spirit runners.
It’s not enough for brands and race directors to say “we don’t discriminate”; being merely tolerant of the presence of underrepresented groups is the bare minimum. The best practices are actively inclusive and inviting. Many people indicated that they’re not currently out in their running community.
While this project is addressing many of the macro-level changes that brands, events, and corporations need to make, it’s up to us as individuals to make powerful changes on the micro level—that is, in our own local running communities. We do that by not only making everyone feel welcome but by earnestly encouraging people to join. Running groups can look at their own terminology and language, for example: Is there a “men’s” and a “women’s” group? That excludes a lot of people who don’t identify with either of those binary options. Those words come up often—on event T-shirts, race categories, and more. We also need to look at the safety and accessibility of events. What are the bathroom options? Are we holding group runs in areas that are safe for runners in a minority or marginalized community?
The biggest takeaway from most of the work OUTrun has done over the past year is that once LGBTQ+ runners find their way into a community, they feel quite welcome and accepted. Here’s what’s unfortunate: When queer runners don’t feel invited to be part of the community, they never find their way into it. A supportive running community could be just what an LGBTQ+ runner is looking for.
Transgender and nonbinary runners face systemic barriers.
Organizations, events, and races need to start recognizing that the lack of certain practices, changes, or policies are very real barriers for transgender and nonbinary runners. From the race registration process to apparel and shoes, the sport is very gender-binary. Right now, at the high school level in many states, laws and policies actively prevent trans athletes from competing. To combat this, races should develop policies for transgender and nonbinary athletes that help them feel safe and included.
To start, race directors should add a nonbinary gender category and be aware of the use of gendered terms and language on their website and promotional materials. In most levels of running competition, athletes are required to decide between entering the men’s competition or the women’s competition, which directly omits an entire population of runners who just want to participate without abandoning their identity.
Race and event organizers also need to go above and beyond to create a safe environment for trans and queer runners to participate. That means considering that...
There’s bigger meaning that comes with creating a safe space.
It’s not enough for a race, event, or organization to just slap on a rainbow sticker and stop there. Safety for runners is about so much more than verbal acceptance. Races and events need to take tangible action toward runner safety—not only to guarantee that LGBTQ+ athletes will be free from harassment, but also to ensure that biases won’t affect the quality of their medical treatment, their assistance from volunteers, or their access to race resources and support. (If a volunteer or medical staffer had political opinions or religious beliefs that were unaccepting of LGBTQ+ runners, for example, treatment or assistance for those runners could be compromised.) For many athletes, especially those in the trans community, inclusivity is more than just a matter of feeling welcome to participate; instead, it’s about feeling safe to do so.
A huge part of this is acknowledging and validating LGBTQ+ athletes’ concerns. Any kind of anti-discrimination policies that can be put into place will help. Volunteers and medical staff can sign a nondiscrimination clause; this would commit them to helping any athlete regardless of who the athlete is or what they believe. And all races should take the time to implement an inclusive and appropriate transgender policy. Not having such a policy creates the possibility that those athletes could be called out in a negative way.
Everyone who is part of our organization and each of the hundreds of people who have reached out to us over the years have done so because running and the running community has played a powerful, positive role in their lives. Our sport is one that has the ability to empower and change lives, and every single person who wants to join us should be able to do so just as they are. With just a few changes, we can make an already amazing sport and community an even better one.