The Hardest Part Is Simply Registering: The Challenges of a Transgender Runner

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Typically, most runners would consider the actual training thing to be the hardest part of running races. However, for those of us who happen to be transgender, sometimes the hardest part is simply registering.

This was something I first encountered when I ran the Richmond Marathon. I had been on hormones for a while, but at the time of registering I still hadn’t legally changed my name. I also didn’t even know where I’d be in relation to my transition come race day. I didn’t know if I’d yet be presenting myself as Amelia to the world, and if I was, whether or not I’d have the ID to prove it. I reluctantly registered under my birth name and checked the “M” box next to gender. It seemed like the safest option at the time. By race day, I was living openly as Amelia, but my name change was still in progress. When I picked up my race bib and was asked for my ID, I had to hand over a driver’s license that no longer corresponded with how I looked at all. There was a photo of me with short hair and a beard, my birth name and an “M” next to sex. On the plus side, however, Richmond Marathon has vanity bibs, and I was able to have “Amelia” on mine. This isn’t a luxury most races provide.

This race was otherwise uneventful. However, the experience was still traumatic for me and likely confusing for the person checking my ID. That was the first race I ran after coming out as transgender, and it was also the last one I registered for under my old name and as male.

While few races actually make any direct mention of transgender athletes, USATF officially follows IOC’s rules, which allow transgender athletes to compete under their true gender if they have 1) undergone gender confirmation surgery, 2) been on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for at least two years and 3) received legal recognition for their gender. These rules differ from the rules adopted by the NCAA, which simply require a year of testosterone suppression for trans women and have no medical requirement for trans men. While NCAA rules are in line with recommendations from science and medicine, it’s the USATF rules that most of us runners are stuck with.

This presents a tough decision for most of us to make. Do we strictly follow rules which may require us to register and run as a gender that is very much not in line with how we identify, present ourselves and are seen as by the world around us? Do we register under a name or gender we may not have documentation to support? Do we risk outing ourselves as transgender when we may not want that information shared?

In my situation, both my driver’s license and passport say Amelia Gapin and have an “F” next to gender. However, USATF rules state I should register as a male runner. This presents an interesting scenario — I can’t prove the identity I’m required to register as. However, depending on the state, a gender marker change may not be as easy as it was for me in my home state of New Jersey, so the game varies state by state.

The requirement for bottom surgery presents two major issues. The first is that not all trans people even want surgery — many do not. The second issue is that a surgical requirement is little more than a transgender tax. While the hormones our bodies run on tend to have a huge effect on strength, genitals are just along for the ride  again, science and medicine back this up. However, gender-confirming surgeries are extremely expensive and rarely covered by insurance. For the vast majority of trans athletes, following USATF’s rules means a cost starting at $20,000 on the low end. And regardless of how surgery is paid for, there are only around a dozen doctors in the U.S. who will even perform these surgeries, meaning there are long waitlists for surgery. According to current statistics, less than 1 in 5 trans women have had gender-confirming surgeries, and even fewer trans men have.

I typically advise other trans runners to register however they feel comfortable. This tends to be in line with presentation. For runners who are not winning races or placing in their age groups, this should be a non-issue as far as anyone else is concerned. Things do get murkier when you are in a position to win or place. In those situations, some runners choose to work directly with race directors beforehand to ensure there won’t be an issue running as their identified gender.

I register as a woman, and to be honest, it’s either running as a woman or not racing at all. Nothing could ever make me check the “M” box again — doing so would be humiliating. Lucky for me, I’ve yet to encounter a genital check or medical background check at the start of a race.

This may sound like more than enough to have to deal with, but being trans is the gift that keeps on giving, so it doesn’t end there. A few months ago while the lottery for the Chicago Marathon was open, I had the option to register for a guaranteed entry. I have a marathon finish from after I transitioned that is under the qualifying time for my age and gender. Unfortunately, this finish was from the Richmond Marathon in which I was registered under my birth name and assigned sex from birth. I’m very open about being transgender, but trying to explain this one was more than I was willing to do. I opted for the lottery.

For the most part, transgender runners just want to run, the same as anyone else registering for a race. No one has an advantage or is looking to gain one.

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