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MMA Shows Mixed Feelings for Transgender Fighter Fallon Fox

May 6th, 2013     by Vanessa Ciccone     Comments

Trigger warning for transmisogynistic slurs.

As a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) athlete with three amateur and two professional wins on her record, Fallon Fox’s world drastically shifted on March 5, 2013, when news broke that she had undergone sex reassignment surgery six years earlier. That news sparked a contentious debate within the MMA community as to whether or not Fox should be allowed to continue to fight professionally.

In becoming the first openly/out trans woman in the MMA, a myriad of questions have been posed about the safety of Fox’s opponents and the perceived legitimacy of her fighting license. By all accounts, these questions are baseless, yet legalities around her MMA license were reviewed for nearly a month before Florida’s Department of Business & Professional Regulation closed the investigation, allowing Fox to compete professionally. It also looks as though the Championship Fighting Alliance (CFA) will continue to back Fox since they have her scheduled in the women’s featherweight tournament and set to spar with Al-Lanna Jones at Championship Fighting Alliance 11 on May 24.

Fox, most importantly, identifies as a woman and is considered a woman in all biological, social and legal respects; yet, each time ‘a first’ happens in sport that confronts systemic oppression, opponents of the trans community (in this instance), hurl misinformed vitriol that provides no space for dialogue. This hate speech does not recognize that when it comes to gender identity, how a person chooses to self-identify trumps external categories. After a particularly violent outburst, the UFC suspended Matt Mitrione for calling Fox a “lying, sick, sociopathic disgusting freak,” during an interview with The MMA Hour.

One of the most vocal opponents to Fox is Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) commentator Joe Rogan. In a recent podcast he went on record to say, “She [Fox] wants to be able to fight women in MMA. I say no fucking way. I say if you had a dick at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a dick. You have bigger hands, you have bigger shoulder joints. You’re a fucking man. That’s a man, OK? You can’t have… that’s… I don’t care if you don’t have a dick any more…you can’t fight women, that’s fucking crazy.”

Based on comments like these, there appears to be a great deal of confusion within the MMA’s cisgender community that needs clarifying. For instance, cisgender people are born with a biological sex that matches their gender identity, but for transgender people, it does not. Gender identity is a conscious state of maleness, femaleness, or a combination thereof on a kaleidoscope of identities. Gender identity is evident in a social context and separate and distinct from biological sex.

Rogan should have read into these definitions, as well as medical research and lived experiences around transitioning one’s sex before dismissing trans athletes with bigoted and ignorant statements. However, his arguments do tell us something about the perceptions of a sizable portion of the MMA community around biology versus ability. Rogan’s hate speech highlights the assumption that since Fox was assigned male at birth —an identity typically assigned by a physician following a visual assessment of external anatomy at birth— in some fundamental respects, she must still be a man. Rogan also assumes that by virtue of being assigned male, Fox was endowed with certain physical advantages that cannot be changed.

Perhaps it’s the realization that biological sex is not fixed and does not necessarily align with gender identity that is scaring people like Joe Rogan, a man for whom personal identity seems inextricably linked to his sex. It can be argued that Rogan has made a career out of being a chauvinist. He’s been known to take on hyper-masculine personas based on social norms established in a capitalist, patriarchal settler state. Nonetheless, these qualities actually have nothing to do with biological sex. A colour commentator for the UFC, a mixed martial artist, and a comedian, Rogan’s jokes and comments are often sexist. In fact, Rogan has been criticized in the media for previous sexist and homophobic comments. Processing the fact that it’s possible for persons to take steps to align their sex with their gender identity seems to be too much for Rogan to take in, leaving him only with the option of nonsensical and hateful public rants.

Unfortunately, Rogan and Mitrione aren’t Fox’s only opponents. UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez stated publicly that he believes Fox shouldn’t be able to compete. Female MMA fighters including Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate have also commented that they feel it is dangerous to compete with Fox. UFC bantamweight contender Tate told ESPN, “I have nothing against transgender people. You should live your life however you want. It’s about fighter safety. I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting in [the ring] with someone who is a woman but developed as a man. I just don’t think it would be safe.”

The use of words like “safe” and “developed” in Tate’s speech indicate that the uneasiness she is feeling about Fox likely has much less to do with biology than gender, or the idea of fighting someone who has been socialized to be ‘male’. It also indicates that she is thinking of the two constructs – biological sex and gender – as unquestionably linked.

According to medical professionals who specialize in sex reassignment surgery, there is no risk for cisgender female MMA athletes who compete against trans women in the same weight class. Moreover, important questions concerning right to privacy and respecting how an athlete or community member self-identifies need to be asked.

Dr. Marci Bowers specializes in gynecology as well as pelvic and reconstructive surgery. She is a pioneer in the sense that she identifies as a transgender woman and has performed hundreds of sex reassignment surgeries. Bowers told the Bloody Elbow, an MMA and UFC news outlet, that Fox would not have any physical advantage beyond the normal variations in body type that exist in all females.

She said, “People think it [gender verification testing] should be based on chromosomes, but the problem with that is when they went back in 1988 and tested female athletes, they found that nine of them had tested positive for Y chromosomes, so there are a lot of intersex conditions that basically dictate that the only way you can do it, is by genital and hormonal status.”

In an interview with Sports Illustrated on the topic, Helen J. Carroll, Director of the National Centre for Lesbian Rights’ Sports Project said, “The short answer is the transgender woman is a woman, and when she transitions, she takes testosterone-blocking hormones, so when she does end up competing, she has less testosterone in her system than her competitors do.” Carroll went on to mention that female trans athletes have to work harder at keeping on muscle mass and strength than athletes who are cisgender women, and that lower testosterone can have adverse effects on speed and weight retention.

Some have brought up the fact that trans women have higher bone density than their cisgender counterparts, assuming that this must give Fox a competitive edge. These arguments overlook the fact that all competitors in the MMA are categorized by weight. Regardless of the distribution of that weight in bones and muscle, competing against Fox is no different from competing against a cisgender competitor in the same weight class. This begs the question: what if we classified fighters by weight, or by a combination of weight and skill level? Why is there such a rampant fixation on and conflation of gender identity with biological sex?

Fox also meets the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) standards for trans athletes. The IOC changed its regulations in 2004 so that transgender athletes could compete two years following sex reassignment surgery, which Fox completed six years ago.

This is nothing new for professional sports. Trans athletes have competed in professional golf, tennis, boxing, and skiing, to name a few. The IOC, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) have all determined that after a certain period of time while transitioning, there is no longer a natural advantage to prevent trans women from competing with other female athletes.

A documentary on Fox’s experience is currently being filmed. After 10 years of hormone therapy, and six years following her surgery, here’s hoping that the film ends with the fight being shifted back into the ring.

To follow Fox’s story and show support, visit her Facebook page.

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