Interview: Al Hopkins speaks about running free from titles…

Go Title Free is no newcomer to the world of gender identity equality in sport.

Our June 2020 article on the long awaited change in usage of titles for female tennis players covered the end of the Wimbledon tradition of referring to female players as ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ (with no ‘Ms’ as an option), in favour of title-less play. 

The profile of the GoTitleFree™ campaign has recently been heightened by the coverage on Women’s Hour in August, however the problems for women, and for those who don’t want to be defined by marital status, is only one half of our campaign. 

We have until now been yet to properly explore the challenges and experiences of people who are non-binary.

Currently, around 0.4% of the population, that’s around 240,000 people, identify as neither male nor female according to Practical Androgyny, and for those who do not wish to be defined by binary gender, the ceaseless and unnecessary demand for marital status titles present a huge problem.

Our interview with Al Hopkins, the Diversity & Equality Officer of Edinburgh Frontrunners took place after National Inclusion Week 2021 came to a close and in the middle of marathon season, which felt like the perfect time and opportunity. 

Al came out as non-binary in 2016. Having already appeared in Runners World (May 2021) speaking in interview about the demand of race organisers on runners to state a gender, as well as titles, when entering a race, Al is very passionate about creating a world where non-binary people have equal opportunities to participate in an authentic way.

The Runners World interview with Al resonated with us so much. The multiple barriers to participating in running events meant that runners identifying as non-binary, intersex, gender fluid or gender queer are not made to feel like they have an equal place in sport. Al quoted that requests for unnecessary information meant that they were often ‘forced to choose the best way to lie’.  

We started by asking about the Edinburgh Frontrunners running club and how their involvement started:

I’ve been with  Edinburgh Frontrunners since day one, so I’ve had a variety of roles over the last 8 years. It was as President that I introduced the pronoun sharing alongside names when we meet, and started our Edinburgh Pride Run while talking with ScottishAthletics about non-binary inclusion”.

Al was fundamental to ScottishAthletics introducing a new non-binary category in their race entry system in 2017 after being unable run as neither male nor female. This new categorisation meant that those who don’t identify as a woman or man can feel wholly welcome amongst other runners.

After running the Jedburgh Half Marathon, Al felt a huge sense of achievement having raced in their true identity for the first time.

Asking about the major challenges Al had experienced, this feeling of ‘welcomeness’ was an important one, given the range and frequency of times that people are assumed to have a binary gender. 

“There are significant issues with facilities being divided into female and male, particularly toilets and changing rooms, but also gym spaces. 

It just doesn’t work for so many people. As well as non-binary people, there are many who are uncomfortable with communal changing facilities, for religious or cultural reasons or body image issues, or parents with small children.

Gender-neutral areas with private changing and showering are much better, with some segregated areas for anyone who’s more comfortable with them. The changing villages at modern pools are an excellent example.

By not providing a workable, inclusive solution, a lot of people are  easily  put off sport by barriers that simply don’t exist for others.”

It very quickly became clear that Al doesn’t just fly the flag for non-binary people, but for anybody excluded in sport because of non-inclusive systems and facilities. 

We discussed our personal feelings on the situations with athletes like Caster Semenya, Christine Mboma and Annet Negesa, and how their endogenous (natural) levels of testosterone meant they were unable to compete.

Basically they were ostracised because of binary gender categorisation, interpreted with misogyny and racism, suggesting that they take hormones or have surgery in order to be eligible to proudly represent their country.

…Suddenly it feels that much would be solved by a relaxation of this ‘either/ or’ rule, and that there is a great opportunity for the sporting world to demonstrate better inclusivity. 

Our conversation returned several times to the many ways in which people are restricted by our learned patterns of language use, as well as sporting rules, facilities and systems. 

Reflecting on usage of gender in language, Al recalls: 

“There was a period of time while I ‘tried non-binary pronouns on’ and a few friends used them for me so I could feel how they fitted.”

There are several other pronouns available to use if ‘they/ them’ aren’t right for a person’s description of themselves (neopronouns). Many also use ‘ze’ or ‘per’ to name but two. 

“I’ve received some push back on the use of the ‘they/ them’ pronouns because some people say it’s a plural, when in reality the singular ‘they’ has been around for at least 400 years and predates the modern spelling. And all of us use the singular ‘they’ every day.

For example, if someone leaves their running shoes behind, you’d say, ‘they left their running shoes behind!’, and we would all recognise that as perfectly normal and correct!”

The pronouns issue is an inescapable one, because whilst ‘sirs’, ‘madams’ and titles are not built into our language structure, pronouns are much more so. 

The challenge with language Al faces makes us again return to the inadequacy of ‘Mx’ as at title, because even slight changes to our common language seem to be such a stretch for so many people. 

Despite famous faces such as Demi Lovato, Sam Smith and Asia Kate Dillon announcing and living their non-binary status, there is still plenty of misunderstanding about the status, and a lack of acceptance, and the issue of titles remains a barrier to true authenticity. 

Race organisers, and any organisation adding a ‘prefer not to say’ field regarding gender, should perhaps consider that some people are non-binary and WANT to say it! – Parkrun’s categories for instance say ‘Female’, ‘Male’, and ‘Another gender identity’, which is highly progressive, however, there arguably needn’t be a ‘third category’ for race organisers at all. 

In the same way that we champion the removal of all title fields, is there any reason at all to demand a ‘male/ female’ selection? Can the asterisk, or even the drop down list itself be taken away? 

The time to ask our ‘big question’ came. 

“So… when asked for a title, what do you provide?”

Al answers:

…It depends on how political I’m feeling to be honest! 

Most of the time I prefer to have no title at all, but if I’m filling out forms where I feel like the organisation needs a little prompting I’ll insist on Mx. 

Sometimes it just seems better than appropriating another gender-neutral title like ‘Professor’, ‘Reverend’ or once, accidentally, ‘Baroness’ when the forms are badly designed.

Sometimes it’s because banks and records don’t understand a lack of title.”

For those who think that titles are a minor problem, and that issues of gender identity are small in a world of bigger struggle, Al speaks painfully of a time when a friend  was physically dragged out of some toilets by a male bouncer because he saw a masculine presenting lesbian and assumed he’d seen a man. They have several friends who have been challenged similarly in womens’ toilets for not fitting binary stereotypes. 

And for those who think that titles are more a problem for women than they are for our non-binary community, remember that whiles Germany, France, and many other countries have left titles relating to marriage behind, they still do refer to people by gender, and with masculine and feminine nouns, have much further to go linguistically in some respects. 

The advice from Go Title Free to those who are nervous about saying the wrong things or getting gender references incorrect:

  1. Keep having conversations about gender, gender fluidity and the whole LGBTQ+ spectrum.  
  2. Research and learn, accepting your pockets of confusion and lack of knowledge. This is the difference between ‘not prejudiced’ and ‘anti prejudiced’, and a true ally.
  3. Go ‘Title Free’. Wherever and however you can. x

SLS

Related Links:

Runners World article/ Interview with Al Hopkins (May 2021) – The life of a non-binary runner (runnersworld.com)

Sport England’s Commissioning of Pride Sports to produce non-binary policy guidance: Non-binary.pdf (pridesports.org.uk) 

BBC article on non-binary pronouns (December 2015): Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she’: The rise of non-binary pronouns – BBC News

The Frontrunner, By Patricia Nell Warren: The Front Runner – Wikipedia

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