Al Hopkins: the life of a non-binary runner

David Smyth
·5-min read

From Runner's World

'Most races are for males and females, and those are the only options. When you’re non-binary, and don’t fit either of those, but you want to do a race, you basically have to pick a way to lie.'

Al Hopkins, a runner from Edinburgh who identifies neither as a man or a woman, is explaining the barriers that can appear well before they get to the start line of a competition. ‘It’s like there’s a race for dogs and cats and you’re a pine marten. I don’t feel comfortable in either category, so I feel like I’m imposing all the time, like I shouldn’t be there because there isn’t a place for me.’

Leading from the front

Hopkins has been involved with the Edinburgh branch of the international Frontrunners group since its inception, being one of three people who turned up to its first gathering, in November 2013. It’s a club for gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex and straight people that meets on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, and also organises an annual 5K race the evening before Edinburgh’s Pride march in June.

‘It’s a massive part of my life,’ says the 40-year-old. The club takes its social side every bit as seriously as its sporting side, and, with 20 or more members showing up every time, it has become a major focus of their week.

‘The thing with the queer community is, you’re either on the ‘scene’, so you’re out clubbing and drinking, or you’re at home. Frontrunners is part of a network of things that are outside the scene,’ they explain. There’s a walking group as well, and pre-Covid, the members would visit other clubs in cities such as Glasgow and Newcastle. ‘When you’re non-binary, or when you’re trans, it’s a lot harder to find a space where you feel recognised and comfortable and safe. Frontrunners has been a fantastic place for me to find support to be who I am. It’s basically my safe space and is very important to me because of that.’

Having grown up going to an all-boys school in the era of Section 28 (the law passed in 1988 by a Conservative government that stopped councils and schools ‘promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’), it took a long time for Hopkins to acknowledge that they were a gay man, never mind the next step. 'I’d built such a thorough closet that it took until I was 30 to start coming out to myself, 32 to come out to anybody else,’ they say. ‘I was 35 when I started coming out to myself as non-binary. There was this nagging feeling in the back of my mind, like I’d forgotten something. Something was not quite right. Eventually it came to the fore.’

When they were charged with organising the Frontrunners’ Pride-affiliated race in 2017, questions of identity arose again. In order to have the event recognised as anything more than a fun run, Hopkins needed to get a race licence from the governing body, Scottish Athletics, but also wanted to have a third gender category – non-binary – for potential entrants.

Making progress

Hopkins had managed to sign up to a race in the Scottish border town of Jedburgh in a non-binary category the year before, but this was unofficial. Since then, as a senior member of Frontrunners, in any conversation with representatives of the grassroots organisation Jog Scotland, Hopkins had raised the need for a more welcoming stance on non-binary runners. When discussing the possibility of having three categories for the Frontrunners Pride run in 2017, Scottish Athletics surprised them by saying it would adapt its rules to allow it formally.

Since then, Scottish Athletics has licensed numerous events that have non-binary categories and promoted the practice as part of its equality policy, stating, ‘We fully support and encourage any race organiser who wishes to include a third gender category.’ A few months later, in 2018, UK Athletics agreed that the Scottish guidelines were best practice and rolled out the same advice nationwide (with trans people continuing to have the right to compete in their affirmed gender).

It remains down to individual race organisers to make this change, which does involve doing more than adding an extra box to the entry form, not least arranging a timing system that can handle three categories. Gender-neutral toilet and changing facilities are recommended, as is as addressing any correspondence with neutral language such as 'Dear runner' rather than 'Dear sir/madam'.

Recognising that non-binary runners are a minority within a minority, Hopkins isn’t anticipating huge take-up immediately, but is delighted that the change has happened on their watch. ‘We’re changing society, creating a space for people to exist without prejudice,’ they say. ‘It’s the next generation that could come through in numbers because more people are growing up now knowing that it’s okay to be who you are.’

Al Hopkins is named in Lucozade Sport’s Movers List celebrating community leaders who are inspiring others to move. For inspiration and workouts from Lucozade Sport’s 2020 Keep Us Moving initiative, visit: https://www.lucozadesport.com/keep-us-moving/

You Might Also Like