Chicago marathon adds nonbinary division in quiet manner some runners find ‘hurtful’

The move to include a nonbinary race division in the Chicago marathon has been hailed as major progress, but some worry the changes, made without public announcements, are only superficial.

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Jessica Gorden-Song, founder of TransRun, jogs Tuesday afternoon in Warren Park on the North Side.

Jessica Gorden-Song, founder of TransRun, decided not to run in this year’s marathon because she felt uncomfortable running in the male or female category.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is one of the most prestigious races, drawing runners from around the globe. So when Cal Calamia heard that the race on Sunday had opened a nonbinary runner category for first time ever, they were ecstatic.

“It’s really exciting. It feels really good to choose nonbinary in my hometown race,” said Calamia, who does not identify as either male or female and uses the pronoun they.

But Calamia grew concerned when they realized there was no “elite” nonbinary division, as in the male and female races, or any finish line ribbon or monetary prize. Calamia then noticed there had been no public announcement to promote the division.

“Personally, it feels hurtful because it feels performative, or brushed under the rug, because it really is a big deal,” said Calamia, a teacher in San Francisco who grew up in Grayslake.

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is the second major marathon in the country to open a division for nonbinary runners, following the New York City Marathon last year. Two other World Major Marathons, London and Boston, will host nonbinary divisions in their 2023 races.

The move to include nonbinary race divisions has been hailed as major progress by LGBTQ activists who have been pushing for races to be more inclusive. But some worry the changes are only superficial, made without public announcements that would welcome nonbinary runners. The Chicago marathon opened its first-ever nonbinary division without any statement to the media or public.

“As a trans athlete, showing up and registering for these races is a hard thing to do, because there’s not usually space,” Calamia said.

Cal Calamia running in the San Francisco Marathon.

Teacher Cal Calamia running in the San Francisco marathon.

Provided photo

“What makes it easier is when big organizations with a lot of power say, ‘We’re adding this category and we’re proud of it, and we’re doing what it takes to celebrate these runners who are now being invited to our event,” Calamia said.

North Sider Jessica Gorden-Song learned about the Chicago marathon’s new nonbinary division Tuesday morning when reached by a reporter.

Gorden-Song founded the group TransRun. She is taking medication for her gender transition and decided against running the marathon this year because she felt too uncomfortable to race in the male or female category. She ran the marathon last year and would have signed up this year if she had known about the new division.

“This year would have been perfect for me to participate in the nonbinary category,” Gorden-Song said. “Not having any races I could participate in really took a mental toll on me this year.”

Jessica Gorden-Song, founder of TransRun, jogs Tuesday afternoon in Warren Park on the North Side.

“This year would have been perfect for me to participate in the nonbinary category,” says Jessica Gorden-Song. Seventy runners are registered to run in the marathon’s nonbinary division.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On Sunday, more than 40,000 runners are expected at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Only 70 of them are registered for the nonbinary division, according to marathon spokeswoman Alex Sawyer.

Asked about the lack of an announcement or parity with the gendered races, Sawyer wrote in an email: “While we’re excited to introduce the nonbinary division, we recognize the opportunity for continued dialogue, learning and progress with our event. Discussions are ongoing with non-binary participants and leaders within our sport to work together towards our goal of creating more inclusive event experiences.”

Nonbinary runners are still eligible for age group awards, Sawyer said.

Bank of America, which organizes the Chicago marathon, has already offered nonbinary categories in its two other major races, the Shamrock Shuffle and Chicago 13.1.

Having nonbinary divisions is crucially important for the mental health of runners, according to Jake Fedorowski, a nonbinary runner. Fedorowski spearheaded a grassroots movement to push races to include nonbinary divisions and runs a website that tracks races with nonbinary divisions.

Runners at the start of the Chicago Marathon on Columbus Drive Sunday morning, Oct. 10, 2021.

Runners at the start of last year’s Chicago marathon on Columbus Drive.

Mark Capapas/Sun-Times file

More than 1.2 million people in the country identify as nonbinary, according to a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, which researches sexual orientation and gender identity law and policy.

“When runners show up to a race, there’s so much going through their mind: ‘How am I feeling today? How am I in tune with my body?’ They’re going through this whole checklist in their brain, as every athlete does,” said Fedorowski, who was hired by the Chicago marathon as a consultant.

“But for those who exist in between the gender binary of men and women, they have an additional part of that checklist. They think about, ‘Am I going to be misgendered today? Will I feel safe? Will there be a restroom for me?’” Fedorowski said. “My goal is to advocate for those folks so these events can create more inclusive spaces ... so they can show up to these events and not worry about those things.”

For now, the nonbinary divisions in Chicago and other races are missing the same status and benefits of the gendered races because of politics and international governing bodies, like World Athletics, which creates the rules of the elite divisions, Fedorowski says.

“It’s harder for [the Chicago marathon] to stray from those guidelines because there’s that larger governing body overseeing them,” Fedorowski said.

He hopes the pressure will continue to grow against the major athletic groups now that four of the six World Major Marathons have added nonbinary divisions.

“If we can really build up a division of nonbinary athletes, that gives us the power to go to those governing bodies and say, ‘Hey, it’s time for change.’”

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