Woman, Fighter: Fallon Fox on Being the World’s First Openly Transgender Mixed Martial Artist

Fallon Fox is the world’s first openly transgender mixed martial artist. When she made her professional mixed martial arts debut in 2006, Fox was in no real hurry to come out as transgender. Why should she have been? As she says, she’s “technically, legally, physically, and mentally female.” But a March 2013 phone call from a reporter who knew her birth-assigned gender drove Fox out of the closet, shoving her into a spotlight she never asked for. Now, along with gay college basketball player Terrence Clemens, Fox is the subject of a documentary called Game Face, a film chronicling both athletes’ paths as they exited the closet. She has also written extensively in support of LGBTQ rights, and in defense of her right to compete and be recognized in the women’s division of the sport she loves. After just arriving home from the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival in Toronto, Fallon graciously took time to speak with me about her participation in Game Face, being out in MMA, and being part of a burgeoning trans activist movement.

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Fallon Fox preparing for a 2013 bout. Photos by Jorge Peter Rivero.

ELLIE PIPER: How did you get into fighting?

FALLON FOX: I was a high school wrestler back in the day, back in like 1994; it was a long, long, long time ago. So I had kind of an inkling into the martial arts world. I watched the first couple UFCs, way back in the day, and then I forgot about it and I didn’t really think about it until I saw women fighting in MMA—like the Japanese fighters, like Megumi Fujii. She had a winning streak of like 30 wins by the time she was 30 years old. And just the way that she fought. She was very clean, very respectful. She was a monster in the cage. And that was just very… watching her fight, watching her body—what her body looked like—and understanding, that’s a woman. That’s a woman. That’s me. That’s not me, but it’s me. And that’s something that I wanted to have in my life. I was stuck in this rut where I was thinking that everything had to be pink and everything had to be ultra-femme, but I felt like this uber-femininity was not me, and I felt like I was kind of living a lie. And, you know, I went from living a lie lie, to living kind of the truth but not exactly the truth, to wanting just to make it pure, to make my life pure, and just to speak the truth and be the truth throughout my life—and that was something that I reached out and grabbed. It almost felt like I didn’t have a choice.  

You were not afforded the dignity to come out on your own terms—something I can’t imagine. Now that some time has passed, though, have you found any sense of relief in being out?

Now, after the fact, I’m kind of relieved that all of that is off of my shoulders, in a way. But then again, on the other side of the coin, it’s like, I shouldn’t have had to have come out. I mean, it’s 2015. We should be past it. I think that the majority of society is catching on, but sports society is kind of lagging behind, and that shouldn’t be the way that it is.   

Considering that you were still in the closet when filming began on Game Face, how did you come to be involved in the project?   

Actually, [filmmaker] Michiel Thomas went to Kye Allums, who was a Division 1 basketball player in college who happens to be transgender, and I happened to be friends with him, and he connected me to Michiel Thomas. Michiel Thomas approached Kye about the film and asked him if he knew any LGBTQ athletes who could be in it. Kye mentioned, I might have someone, and then he came to me and asked, and I said yes. It just happened to be perfect timing. 

How difficult was the decision to be a part of the film?

It was an easier decision for me if I considered the fact that I knew at some point, it would be likely that I would have to come out [with my story]. You can’t run around forever being a transgender woman and have nobody know about your past. There’s a whole past, a childhood, that you could never talk about while being transgender. I kind of figured that I would need to come out at some point, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. 

I’d like to talk about the response you’ve gotten from the mixed martial arts community, because it’s been sort of all over the place. It seems like a lot of people just don’t understand that you’re a woman.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

I’m curious about the reaction not only from the larger world of MMA, but also closer to home, like from your gym.

My gym understands me more than a lot of other people do, because they knew me as Fallon Fox, woman, before they knew that I was transgender. 

I think a lot of people have a hard time wrapping their minds around me because they have a hard time wrapping their minds around themselves. They don’t understand who they are, what makes them who they are. They think that their penises or their vaginas or any mixture of that combination makes them who they are—which, you know, if anybody removed any part of their body and they just had their head lying there connected to some kind of machine that kept them alive, that wouldn’t make them any less of a man or a woman.

That’s a great way of putting it—that they have a hard time wrapping their minds around themselves. There’s a deep misunderstanding, even among athletes, apparently, of our own physiology. 

Well, and of their own mentality. Their own brains. They don’t understand their own brains, which is what we’re actually talking about.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions floating around about you as a fighter?  The phrase I hear most often is “unfair advantage”—what examples do your critics (for example Ronda Rousey and, worse, Joe Rogan) provide to support that claim, and how do you respond? 

They make it out as if my bones were more dense than any other woman on earth, which is not the case, and is irrelevant to sports even if it were the case. Does this mean that black women who are cisgender should be segregated on a false bone-density-advantage claim? No. That would be bigoted and unnecessary to even suggest that. The same thing applies to transgender women. 

They have claimed that my hand size is bigger or my jaw is bigger which gives me an unfair advantage. I squashed those false notions long ago with a video I put out where I pulled a cisgender female into the camera and we compared hand size on the spot. Her hand size was bigger than mine, and my jaw line is average. It actually perplexes me how they say these things with a straight face—while they are looking at my face. But that’s what happens with bigots. They will look you right in the eye and try to strip you of your humanity, by trying to make you look like some kind of freakish outsider in some way for personal gain. The history of this is repetitive and easy to spot to those who don’t have a nefarious agenda. 

Trans people have become increasingly visible thanks to a vocal and well-spoken community of trans activists. Do you feel a sense of connection with this movement and these activists? I’m thinking Janet Mock, Laverne Cox….

I’m thinking both of them. Both of them are intelligent trans women. There are trans men who are doing things also, like Kye Allums, who are out there speaking the truth. I’ve met them—they’re all good people. They’re all intelligent people. And I do feel like I’m connected to that, like I’m a part of that. I respect those people a lot, and I feel so happy to be part of it. It’s an amazing time right now. 

UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione responded to your coming out with terrible cruelty and ignorance. For his words, he was suspended for just two weeks—but, and for some reason I didn’t catch this at the time—[former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion] Jon Jones spoke out in your defense. Among the known entities of MMA, is this unusual? Are there many who have supported you?

I think there are. It’s like half and half. Who knows the reason behind what they’re saying, if it’s for the monetary value or they actually believe what they say. Either one is legitimate. Either one is beneficial. I’ll take it either way it comes, because that’s how it needs to be. The businesses need to support transgender athletes and LGBTQ and intersex athletes, and so do people who actually care—from their souls, from their hearts, from their brains. They need to support us, too.

Fallon Fox and Allanna Jones duke it out in a 2013 match. Photo by Jorge Peter Rivero.

In 2004, the International Olympic Committee determined that transgender athletes meeting certain criteria can compete in the Olympics. In 2011, the NCAA asserted that the idea of transgender females having an ‘unfair advantage’ was completely unsupported by scientific evidence. MMA is regulated by state athletic commissions. What do the rules say about transgender athletes in your sport?  

The rules allow for it. It’s the promotions—it’s that pop culture is run by business, and so that’s where the problem is.

Speaking of business, it’s funny because women have been fighting professionally forever, but it was only two or three years ago that women were allowed to fight for the UFC—and now those fights are among the biggest draws.

Well, think of it this way. Before women came around and fought for bigger promotions, for the UFC, everyone was wondering what that would look like. But as soon as they put a woman in the cage, everyone was like, “Women are fighting? Oh my god.”And the whole world tuned in. Now imagine if a transgender athlete, who happens to be a woman, in a UFC cage. The whole world would be like, what? Every camera, everybody would  tune in, and it would be profitable. They could make money out the wazoo from it, and I don’t know why they haven’t leapt on that opportunity. 

With that in mind, how do you feel about the prospect of being sort of a spectacle? That’s a question a lot of cisgender female fighters asked themselves in the early days, and again when they started making their way into larger promotions. How does it feel to know that your gender, and people’s curiosity around it, could be the primary selling point—at least at first?

It used to bother me. It used to bother me a lot. I mean, I happened to be the first, right? There was something I had to get over. Two of my fights weren’t the best. My head wasn’t there. You have to understand, I’m the first transgender athlete to have fought professionally in MMA, and that’s something no one’s ever done, and being able to navigate that mentally was something I had to learn. And if you see my last fight, I’ve gotten over that hurdle.

You’re obviously a very skilled fighter. When you do interviews and press, do you ever want to say, can we just talk about fighting? Can we talk about training? 

[Laughs.] I do, but I realize this is a necessity. It’s a necessity to talk about these things until I can get in those higher promotions—and that’s when we just talk about the fighting.

That is the goal, to one day get to a place where we don’t have to talk about these issues. But until these issues go away, everyone, not just me, every transgender athlete will be harping upon this issue when they speak. And they’ll be looking at me and pointing at me and talking about me forever. 

There must be younger athletes and others who really appreciate your being out and outspoken. Do you get much of a response from younger people who maybe identify with you in some way? 

Oh my gosh, I get tons. Tons of emails, messages, conversations… especially from younger transgender athletes who are trying to compete in their sports, including MMA, including martial arts. They say that I’m an inspiration to them, that’s what they say. It’s a good thing for me. They’re my inspiration, they’re what keeps me going, knowing that I’m out there doing my sport for myself. And in the meantime it’s helping them out too. 

Who are your role models? What is your dream fight?

My role models are every single woman that steps inside of the cage—inside of an octagon, inside a ring, or on a mat—and proves to themselves and to others that they can do what they need to do. Those are my heroes. Those are my sheroes. Those are the people that I look up to. And I’d like to fight any woman who feels like they’re worthy enough to step into the cage with me. That’s something that I look forward to. That’s why I fight. And at the end of the match, we get to shake hands and respect each other, and that’s what I love about the sport.

It’s kind of incredible, the show of respect between opponents in combat sports.

Fighting is hard. It takes a certain type of mentality, a certain personality to do what we do. And to see your reflection in someone else… after all is said and done, you get to realize how much the same you are, and the respect is flowing out. It’s almost something that you can’t help when you have a good fight.

Related Reading: Against the Ropes — For Women Boxers, It’s a Fight Just to Get in the Ring.

Ellie Piper is a freelance writer and editor with a Master of Science in book publishing. She would gladly submit to a triangle choke for the chance to see Joe Rogan get KO’d by Fallon Fox.

by Ellie Piper
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