04/12/2013 12:26 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

A Trans Guy's Thoughts on Fallon Fox

fallon foxI have been getting a lot of emails and Facebook posts from friends asking me to "weigh in on" mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Fallon Fox. It is an interesting request, because Fallon Fox is a woman who happens to fight. To me, this is not really anything one should "weigh in on," but, hey, she also happens to be someone who was assigned "male" at birth, and that seems to be a controversial thing. And I'm a trans guy who writes about trans issues and loves MMA, so here I go!

I'm not totally sure why it is controversial. It's not like there are not guidelines for many athletic organizations, and it's not like she is the first trans-identified person to participate in organized sports; there is precedent. What seems to actually be at issue is that there are people who believe that trans women are not women, and additionally believe that men should not fight women. The line of thought seems to go like this: "Fox is a man, and men should not fight women, so Fox should not fight in women's MMA." Interesting.

In this discussion we have individuals weighing in who have no medical training, especially on trans health care. Having training on transgender health care is important; my own general practitioner seems to care less about treating my trans body and would not be able to weigh in on this issue, either! Of course, the leading doctors researching and serving transgender people have weighed in. Dr. Marci Bowers, arguably one of the most knowledgeable doctors when it comes to male-to-female health care, told Steph Daniels from Bloody Elbow:

[With hormone therapy, most] measures of physical strength minimize, muscle mass decreases, bone density decreases, and [transgender women] become fairly comparable to [cisgender] women in their musculature. After as much time as has passed in her case, if tested, she would probably end up in the same muscle mass category as her biologically born female counterpart.

Dr. Sherman Leis agreed with Dr. Bowers and went on to debunk many of the myths about Fox's "super strength" by saying:

If an individual is on female hormones, and she's been on them for several years, the hormones decrease the muscle mass, bone density, strength, libido and aggression. Those things are attributed to testosterone, and if she no longer produces testosterone, then she would have the level that an average female would have.

She's been doing [hormone therapy] for so many years, that she probably does not have a significant advantage, if any at all. Especially because she wasn't a big man when she lived as a male. She's 5'7 and slight of build, and basically the size of an average female. Factor in that she's been on hormones for so long, and has had the surgery, she more than likely has the muscle mass, bone density and strength of most females.

Nevertheless, two UFC fighters and a UFC commentator said that it is unfair because of bone structure! Now, this bone structure thing has been seriously cracking me up over here. Why? Don't I care about fighter safety? Of course I care about fighter safety. I'm laughing because people are just grasping at straws. I have heard the arguments about hormones, height, muscles and many other things, but those don't hold weight in this discussion, because Fox is 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds and has been on hormone replacement for 10 years! So bone structure it is. Of course, the bone structure argument is just absurd, with no medical basis, so let's just get to the heart of the matter: We trans people are weird, and most people do not understand us.

Rhonda Rousey, the first and current UFC women's bantamweight champion, as well as the former Strikeforce women's bantamweight champion, decided to "weigh in" on this whole transgender issue, stating, "[I]t's still the same bone structure a man has. It's an advantage. I don't think it's fair." Interestingly enough, Ms. Rousey has competed in judo at the Olympic level, and the IOC would welcome Fox with open arms (if she were at the competitive level for an Olympic sport such as judo), because their policies state that one must have had gender reassignment surgery, have legal recognition of his or her assigned gender and have had at least two years of hormone therapy.

So why does Rousey have an issue with Fox? According to USA Today, "While Rousey says she has competed in judo against hermaphroditic athletes, she had no qualms about it because 'that was something they didn't choose.' Fox, on the other hand, is a different case." So Rousey fights intersex people, who may have more testosterone than Fox, and is fine with that because they "didn't choose" to be born intersex.

Rousey and Matt Mitrione, a UFC fighter who had his contract suspended because of his hateful comments about Fox, get to the heart of the matter. The issue is not that Fox has any sort of advantage; the issue is that Fox is transgender. This is clean-cut transphobia, plain and simple!

Transphobia can be described as hatred of transgender people. However, I believe that most transphobia, and most homophobia, for that matter, is rooted in ignorance. So please allow me to dispel some more myths here.

Transgender people do not "choose" to be transgender. Trust me: As much as I love being a trans person, and I truly do, given our current climate in the U.S., I wouldn't wish this life on my worst enemy's dog. Seriously, read the comments on some of the articles about Fallon Fox, Chaz Bono and even me, for that matter! There is a lot of hatred out there, and one doesn't choose to go through life being hated.

Trans people do not really "choose" to have surgery or take hormones, either. You might be sitting there saying, "Uh, of course you choose those things!" Well, when something is life-or-death, is it really a choice? I'm not sure what would have happened to me if I hadn't started taking testosterone six years ago. I was a depressed and fairly miserable person. I had come closer than anyone should to committing suicide. I'm not sold on the notion that I really had a choice. Without hormones, I would not be here today. I can say that with some certainty. And my story is a common one.

The National Center for Transgender Equality's report "Injustice at Every Turn" states that "over three-fourths [of trans people] (78%) reported feeling more comfortable at work and their performance improving after [medically] transitioning, despite reporting nearly the same rates of harassment at work as the overall sample." Additionally, "A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population." For most of us, transitioning is not a choice.

The interesting thing is that as I read books and watch movies, shows and interviews featuring some of my favorite MMA fighters, I find that they say basically the same thing about fighting: For many fighters, fighting saved their lives.

I talk to athletes all the time, primarily at the college level, and I work with schools to make their campuses more inclusive for LGBT athletes. I hear over and over again that trans people want to participate in sports as much as cisgender people. Trans athletes care about their sport just as much as cis athletes do. Do you think that it has been easy for Fox to start fighting in her 30s? She is a 37-year-old fighter who just had her first professional fight. That should be the story, that this woman is in the game, mentally, at 37! Fighters say all the time that the mental game is what will often win or lose fights. Fox has a great mental game!

In 2010 one of my sheroes, Donna Rose, a transgender wrestler, won the U.S. Open Women's Freestyle Wrestling Championship. (Sorry to bring you into this discussion, Donna.) The Bay Area Reporter was spot-on when it described the event: "Sports history was made over the weekend in an arena in Cleveland. No public announcement or trumpets were sounded, no press reports appeared in the local papers, and the sparse audience in attendance was for the most part unaware of the significance of the event transpiring before their eyes." No one cared because professional wrestling is not national pop-culture news, and no one in the pro-wrestling world seemed to care, either. The match was treated just as it should be: as something normal. You cannot be more "out" than Donna. She speaks publicly around the world about being transgender. She loves to wrestle and obviously is super-good at it. However, she is just kicking ass on the mat, and no one really cared that she is trans.

Clearly there is precedent and guidelines on how to include trans people in single-sex athletic competition. The IOC, NCAA, USA Track & Field, LPGA and other organizations have policies to insure fair competition, and Fallon Fox would meet the standards set by all these organizations.

On a slightly different note, I have also been super-interested in the train of thought that Matt Mitrione laid out so succinctly on The MMA Hour. Addressing Fallon Fox, he said, "You lied on your license to beat up women. That's disgusting. You should be embarrassed yourself." Additionally, almost every online article about Fox brings up this Fox-is-a-man-who-wants-to-beat-up-women-and-men-beating-up-women-is-super-wrong idea. What interests me is this idea that men should not hit women. (Side note, before I get carried away, for Mitrione's benefit: Though Fox doesn't believe that trans people should be required to disclose their medical history, she did, and her license has been cleared.) In the U.S. we teach boys never to hit girls. We don't necessarily teach young people never to hit anyone outside the ring or the octagon; instead, we focus on boys, telling them, "Don't hit girls." It's true that men shouldn't hit women, but in my opinion the statement, by itself, is sexist! It implies that women are weak and need protecting, whereas the truth is that everyone needs protecting; we need a culture of kindness.

This week, in a group I lead about how to be an effective ally to LGBT people, we discussed the common pitfall of trying to be the "white savior." The pitfall could be described as knight-on-a-white-horse syndrome. What we see in Matt Mitrione's comments is that he says all these awful things about a woman who happens to be trans, and then he trumpets his alleged desire to "protect female fighters."

Interestingly enough, men between the ages of 18 and 24, whether attending college or not, are twice as likely as women to become victims of violence. And this statistic is primarily because of male-on-male violence. That is not to say that all, or even most, men are violent! Most men are super-awesome guys who don't assault people. Additionally, it is interesting to note that trans people are at a very high risk for physical assault. Speaking about "Injustice at Every Turn," Lisa Mottet of the National Center for Transgender Equality told NPR, "Overall, we found that 26 percent of transgender folks had experienced some type of physical assault because they were transgender." There is no research showing that people transition to beat up women. Trans people transition to survive, and at great risk to themselves.

I teach my students that allyship happens in many different forms, and that we need to support all people. If you are a cisgender person, you should be an ally to trans people. If you are a white trans person, you should be an ally to people of color. If you are a gay male, you should be an ally to women. If you have privilege (defined for our purposes as a special right, advantage or immunity granted by society or available to a group of people) in an area, then you can be an ally to someone else.

In conclusion, I think that my thoughts on Fallon Fox are rather simple. Fallon is a female fighter who should be able to fight other women in her weight class. This statement is backed up by science, and most people need to educate themselves about transgender people before they say anything different. Also, it is our responsibility as humans to be kind to others, even if we make a living in the octagon.

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