Jock Talk: MMA star
comes out as trans
by Roger Brigham
If you want an idea of how rampant transphobia and ignorance remain in the world of sports, just do an Internet search for "MMA" and "transgender" and read the Neanderthal comments appended to the stories.
Fallon Fox, 37, won the first three amateur bouts and the first pro fight of her fledgling mixed martial arts career with little fanfare, but when she belatedly came out as being transgender just after her fifth fight – a lightning quick 39-second victory March 2 over Ericka Newsome, ending with a knee kick – it sparked a national debate and discussion over her eligibility that threatens to roil on endlessly.
Fox began hormone therapy 10 years ago and had gender reassignment surgery in 2006. Over the next few years she began training in a variety of combat sports preparing for the start of her amateur career in 2011. Her first pro match was in Idaho last May.
Through all of that time, the MMA world saw her as she saw herself: a driven and talented woman testing her mettle against some of the toughest female fighters on the planet. After a lifetime of struggle and confusion, of family rejection and anxiety, the promise of reward for hard training and dedication was looming on the horizon.
But the MMA world didn't know and didn't ask about her gender identity. When she realized SI.com was about to report that she was transgender, she scrambled to get in front of the story, granting an interview to Outsports.com. Although there are absolutely no regulations barring transgender athletes, and studies show no inherent athletic advantages for transgender individuals, she knew that she would have a battle on her hands to deal with popular but misguided perceptions and prejudices.
Thank goodness she's a fighter.
Her Illinois driver's license says she's a woman. Her hormones say she's a woman. If she were boxing in the Olympics and wrestling in college, they would rule her a woman.
Hell, even the MMA groups know she's a woman. Under national Association of Boxing Commission rules, adopted last year, a transgender woman is eligible to compete as a female two years after undergoing reassignment surgery and two years of testosterone suppression therapy. For Florida, where Fox just fought, or California, where she has applied for a license that's now under review, to rule otherwise would no doubt trigger a massive legal challenge and put MMA on the fringe of the sports world.
I hope and believe in the long run, cooler heads will prevail. Yes, there is a fear that opponents might duck Fox no matter what the commissions rule. Alyssa Vasquez, who lost an amateur fight to Fox, told MMAjunkie.com after learning that she was transgender, "Even though I'm stupid as hell, I would not jump into the cage with somebody that was born a man because I know my limits."
But there are voices of reason out there as well.
"As a fighter, I don't give a shit who I fight," UFC fighter Julie Kedzie told MMAjunkie.com, "as long as they make weight and all that. I just like to compete. At the end of the day, when I fight I'm responsible for my performance and how I present myself to the world. Anybody who voluntarily takes estrogen is, in my opinion, a woman, because it's horrible stuff. I think that if you pass the commission regulations, and if everyone says you're a woman, then you're a woman. I don't think this is deliberately cheating. I think it's someone who realized she was a woman. Regardless of what gender she was born as, she's taken the hormones and changed her body, and she's become a woman."
Lesbian UFC fighter Liz Carmouche said she'd be willing to fight Fox if she makes it through the UFC rankings. Shannon Knapp, president of Invicta Fighting Championships, the group formed last year to promote women's MMA, said she needed to know more about transgender sports issues before she took a stand.
The first step to overcoming ignorance is acknowledging it.
Opponents to allowing transgender individuals to compete say Fox is unusually strong.
We're not talking about little society ladies taking tea and crumpets on the South Lawn. These are weight-lifting, ass-kicking, fist-pounding fighters. They train to be crazy strong, crazy quick, crazy good.
We're not talking about an East German techno-propaganda machine here, pumping up guys on hormones and tossing them into the pool. We're talking about athletes who have struggled most of their lives, often with little family support or downright family hostility, to understand why they were born in a body they were never meant to be in. We're talking about women who have struggled to get their bodies to conform to what they see in themselves and are willing to go through expensive, painful processes to live the life they feel they were destined to live.
Will some of them be stronger than their opponents? Sure. And some will be weaker. And some won't be as talented.
The idea that a transgender woman has an inherent advantage is ignorant bunk, fueled by perception and sustained by prejudice. Look at it this way: you're divided up into weight classes. That means if you're in a 145-pound weight class, and your skeleton, guts, skin, and fat make up 120 pounds, you can only have 25 pounds of muscle to pound your opponent. Skeptics say the transgender women have an advantage because of larger skeletal frames, but even if that were true, that would translate to less allowable muscle in the same weight class. And as a wrestler for more than 40 years, I can tell you that short fighters have a huge advantage over other fighters of the same weight.
This is not like buying steroids at the neighborhood gym to try to gain an edge in a fight. This is trying to live a life in which you are comfortable with who you are and in the sport that means so much to you. This is about being accepted for who you are and just given a chance to prove yourself in combat.
Surely a sport that thrives on body blows and choke holds can be civilized enough to allow that.