Rach McBride on Gender Inclusivity in Sport

Rach McBride is the first openly gender nonbinary pro in triathlon. They share their experience navigating elite sports and look to a future where nonbinary athletes are included and celebrated everywhere.

Rach McBride is an accomplished triathlete and gravel rider, holding five IRONMAN 70.3 wins under their belt and numerous course records. They have raced professionally in the women’s category of triathlon for 13 years, and in the nonbinary category of gravel racing for two years, when gravel organizers began including open and non-gendered divisions.

They spoke to Fast Talk Labs on how it feels to finally compete in a category where they are recognized and celebrated as themselves, the inclusive community in gravel racing, the growth of nonbinary categories in triathlon, and the importance of sport for all. Their hope is that more nonbinary athletes will feel comfortable coming out once organizers and governing bodies show that there is a place for them in sports.

RELATED: Rach McBride on How to Race and Thrive at Triathlon, Gravel, and Mountain Biking

Nonbinary, as defined by Rach: “Nonbinary is someone who basically doesn’t identify within the gender binary. Pretty simple. So that means that some nonbinary folks will not identify as either a man or a woman. Some will identify as both. It’s really just simply someone who doesn’t identify solely as a man or a woman.”

Video Transcript

Rach McBride  00:08 

Prior to even identifying as non-binary because it took me a long time to even embrace the identity and to recognize myself as that. I raced as a professional triathlete in the women’s category for 10 years and would show up at a start line and just feel a little bit out of place and not really know why and didn’t have a very good understanding as where that feeling was coming from and as soon as I realized I was non-binary, it really opened my eyes too and made me actually more comfortable showing up at those start lines because I had a better understanding of why I kind of felt out of place and so in the end of 2021, I was able to do my first gravel race in the non-binary category and it was a really profound experience for me because I went from showing up at a start line feeling like this imposter in a way and all of a sudden, I was recognized for who I was. It was a really validating experience.

It just really hit home I think how much discomfort I had racing in the binary context and in the binary. After coming out to myself and then to close friends, I came out publicly, on social media and in the decade leading up to that moment. I had kind of put out feelers a little bit, just because I already identified as genderqueer or like kind of playing with gender and the concept of gender in a different way than was binary and the response that I had gotten from my fans and supporters online was super positive. There was always a lot of positivity and acceptance and encouragement and so coming out online was a bit of a nerve-wracking experience. Not nearly as nerve wracking as coming out to my parents, but the response again, was just incredible.

It was so unbelievably supportive and it really gave me the courage to continue to be out and now what I am realizing as every time that I get a comment or a personal message from another non-binary athlete or a parent of a child of a non-binary athlete or a non-binary child. It really inspires me to keep going because I am hearing the direct impact that just me being out because honestly, I’m just being myself like I am, this is just me. I am just trying to move through the world in the most authentic way and to know that it’s helping other people is just an incredible feeling and gives me so much more motivation and courage to keep going. 

Non-Binary Identity and Impact on Self-Esteem

Rach McBride  03:51 

I think there’s an important point in the fact that non-binary athletes have always been out there. I have been a non-binary person racing and being an athlete for most of my life, but not being out and now that there is this space created where I can be out. We’re seeing now all of these other folks coming out, who have probably previously been racing in the binary and finally have this category where they can be their authentic selves and be recognized and validated as their authentic selves and so it is kind of this idea of like, if you build it, they will come. People are there and there are probably a lot of folks out there who are non-binary, who are not athletes. Who don’t see themselves out there in triathlon or in gravel or in an endurance sport. They don’t feel like they have a place there and so now that that is a possibility, folks are like, “Oh wow, I can actually get on my bike and go and do this” and be able to be recognized and not feel uncomfortable having to pigeonhole myself into the binary, which I am not and what it has done for non-binary folks at these races, I can just talk about my own experience and gosh, it makes me a little bit emotional talking about it because it’s just, I don’t have a lot of non-binary folks in my life, like in my community here at home.

I’m pretty alone and isolated in terms of like not necessarily having that community around me and so when I show up at a gravel race now and I have this incredible family, it feels like family because we’re all in this together. We’ve all been fighting the same fight and been having the same feelings and it’s a really unique experience to be able to interact with people who you can connect on that level and can have that level of understanding of kind of what the world that we’re all living in and what we’re trying to do and that profound feeling of what the joy, the absolute joy of being an athlete and being recognized as non-binary. It’s just incredible, I, the friends that I have made through this community, it just really feels like family to me.

I know from my own personal experience, sport has absolutely changed my life. It has made such a profound impact on how I know myself, my confidence level, just like growing into my own skin and my own body. Yeah, being more comfortable within myself and being a better person in a lot of ways and being able to manage struggles outside of my life in a better way and the more folks that we can get into sport and having these kinds of experiences, besides the fact of even just community and team sports, that sort of thing. There’s such a real impact on people’s sense of selves, their security, their sense of community and belonging and sport just makes us feel good and keeps us healthy. Yeah, the more folks that we can include in that and be able to be their authentic selves and compete in sport. It’s a no brainer.  

Adding a Non-Binary Professional Division in Racing

Rach McBride  08:15 

To start adding a non-binary professional division to professional racing is really going to entail, you have to have athletes who can compete at a high level and can fill that category. So it doesn’t make sense, I think for race directors to and for the sport community to start that conversation or start opening up those kinds of categories without having a population. For example, I think for even for USAT amateur national championships, there was like one non-binary athlete the first year. So you can’t have professional racing with just one athlete and so, I know non-binary athletes are out there. I know that competitive non-binary athletes are out there and it just is a matter of building up those categories at the amateur level, really expanding, allowing non-binary athletes to come out. Non-binary folks to become athletes and go from there.  

Non-Binary Safety and Athletic Advocacy 

Rach McBride  09:41 

I guess in the context of safety in that sort of experience, it’s important to identify what, at least for me feels unsafe. So for me, what feels unsafe is if folks know my pronouns, that they don’t use my pronouns and don’t make an effort to use pronouns. I know it can be challenging to adjust, but yeah, just even making an effort. What feels unsafe is yeah, not in gendered spaces, not knowing if I am welcome. Not knowing if I am going to get looks or told them in the wrong place for any reason and so I think those are the biggest things in terms of safety are just having clear communication that gender expansive folks and non-binary folks are welcome and that I think means signage, that I think means language.

Yeah, those are the biggest things that I would say in terms of safety, just knowing that I am welcome. Anything that’s going to indicate that I am welcome and that folks even having the rainbow flag and trans flag or having some sort of communication on the website, having registration forms that include something other than M and F box that you can check. Those things are really, really validating of just recognizing, “hey, there are people outside the binary” and these are the ways that we can do that, recognize that.

When I came out, as non-binary, on the platform that I have and as the professional athlete that I am and the visibility that I have, I did not expect what the impact that it was going to have and just what it meant in the context of triathlon. I really didn’t, I didn’t think because to me, I was just like, “I just want to be myself and I want to be out as myself and I want people to recognize that and I want to start having these conversations” and it really blew me away how much it exploded and in a good way and a bad way.

So I am just me, I am still trying to race at the top of this sport and to kind of been shouldered with in some cases, yeah, having feeling like I need to speak about all non-binary athletes or be a voice for all non-binary athletes, which I am not. This is my experience and I can only talk about my experience and so it has been a bit of a struggle in ways of like, I want to do more, I want to be an advocate and I want to be able to speak out and do more in the community and be more active and at the same time, there’s so much energy that goes into just training and racing at this level. That it’s really a challenge and so I have had to learn boundaries and I have had to learn to say like, “I’m not comfortable answering that question,” if it’s something that is kind of supposed to define a whole category and speak about a whole community and I can only talk about my personal experience and what my experience of being non-binary is because it is.

The experience of non-binary folks is just so huge and different, all over the map. How folks identify, what pronouns folks use, how they see themselves, how they express themselves and so I can only talk about who I am and what non-binary means to me in that authentic self and yeah. I think what’s going right is that I at least have been approached by a number of race directors and national federations of multiple different sports to talk about and have a voice in terms of how do we do this?  

Inclusivity in Sports for Non-Binary Athletes

Rach McBride  14:50 

There are other non-binary athletes who are creating incredible resources. Jake Fedorowski’s crew did the Non-Binary Running Guide which is basically a step by step, very straightforward how to include a non-binary category in an endurance race it. Their program is specifically for running, but it can be translated into any endurance sport for sure and has created a database of running races that include non-binary categories. I’ve kind of been inspired to create one that is triathlon specific, which I haven’t done yet, but hopefully I will get to that.

So those things are being done right I think and that communication is happening I within larger organizations to include non-binary categories. USAT of course, as I mentioned, creating that non-binary category in their amateur national championships is absolutely massive and so there is progress being made for sure and a lot of that has to do with allies stepping up, race directors stepping up and creating the space as well as folks going to non-binary athletes to ask them how they want to see sport and themselves in sport. If I was to have my like ideal experience as a non-binary athlete in a race, it would be like how it is now for everybody else. So, that there was a category that was a non-binary category that I could race in. Announcers could use my correct pronouns when crossing the finish line or just use non-gendered language. This space I think in the race experience, the biggest thing that feels uncomfortable is in those gendered spaces.

So right now that idea, we have like men’s and women’s change rooms, men’s and women’s bathrooms, sometimes even porta potties are listed as like men’s and women’s which just baffles me, why single occupancy stalls need to be that, but anyway. Yeah, there was that space in either that these gendered spaces were very clearly marked as welcoming to gender expansive people or there was a separate third gendered space for gender expansive and non-binary athletes and that the language used in the communications, in the announcements, at the start lines, was more non-gendered to include non-binary athletes.