‘Non-binary athlete’ meaning explained as Timothy LeDuc takes to the ice

Bruno Cooke February 18, 2022
‘Non-binary athlete’ meaning explained as Timothy LeDuc takes to the ice
Photo by Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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American pair skater Timothy LeDuc is the first non-binary athlete to compete in a Winter Olympics. LeDuc is one of at least 36 LGBT athletes at the Beijing Winter Olympics, and uses gender-neutral pronouns, but what does it mean that they are “non-binary”?

‘Non-binary athlete’ meaning explained as Timothy LeDuc slides onto the ice

As a word in general, “non-binary” means simply “not binary”. Binaries relate to, comprise, or somehow involve exactly two things. For example, people talk about Good versus Evil, or the Right versus the Left.

Other definitions include “not restricted to two things or parts”.

In the context of gender, being non-binary means not identifying with either being a man or a woman. In this sense, it’s easy to intuit its meaning from the definition of “non-binary” in a general sense. 

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It represents a rejection of the idea that there are (only) two distinct genders – man and woman. While most cultures use a gender binary, there are some that don’t. To Native Hawaiians and Tahitians, for example, Māhū is an intermediate state between man and woman.

Meanwhile, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh have all legally accepted the existence of a third gender. 

The meaning of “non-binary” in the context of athletes taking part in competitive sports events is the same as in other gender contexts. Because many sports competitions require competitors to fall neatly into either “man” or “woman”, it is often especially difficult for people who identify as non-binary to compete.

What pronouns does Timothy LeDuc use?

Pair skater Timothy LeDuc, who identifies as non-binary, uses gender-neutral pronouns. These are “they” and “them”.

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So where you would otherwise use “he” or “she” to refer to someone, you instead use “they”. And, when you would use “him” or “her”, you use “them”.

In English, we regularly use gender neutral pronouns when we don’t know the gender of the person to whom we are referring. 

For example, if you find a phone or a water bottle but you don’t know whose it is, you would say something like, “I’d like to return it to them”; “Whoever has lost their water bottle must be really sad”; “This is a lovely water bottle, I wonder where they got it from”; and so on.

Have there been any other non-binary athletes in Olympic history?

Several outlets describe Timothy LeDuc as the first openly non-binary athlete to participate in a Winter Olympic Games.

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Before Beijing, however, Canadian professional soccer player and Olympic gold medallist Quinn (formerly Rebecca Quinn) became the first openly non-binary athlete to compete at an Olympic Games. She also became the first to medal, and the first to earn a gold medal.

Alana Smith became the first openly non-binary competitor to represent the US. And Laurel Hubbard became the first openly trans woman to compete at an Olympic Games.

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Bruno Cooke has been a freelance journalist since 2019, primarily with GRV Media. He was an early contributor to The Focus, and has written for HITC, Groundviews and the Sheffield University newspaper – he earned his MA in Global Journalism there in 2021. He’s the Spoken Word Poetry Editor for The Friday Poem, and self-published his debut novel Reveries in 2019, which his mum called both a “fine read” and “excellent Christmas present”. Bruno has lived in China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and likes, among other things: bicycle touring, black and white Japanese films, pub quizzes, fermentation and baklava. In 2023, Bruno will set off with his partner on a round-the-world cycle.