In early spring 2013 the great intolerant madness returned to American public life.
That March female MMA fighter Fallon Fox, in an interview with Outsports and Sportillustrated.com, came out publicly as a transgender woman. Born in 1975 Fox, a former operations specialist in the Navy and truck driver, had undergone gender reassignment surgery in 2006. In 2008 she'd discovered mixed martial arts after wandering into a gym and in 2012 she had her first professional fight, a first round TKO victory over Elisha Helsper at KOTC Wild Card in Worley, Idaho. It wasn't until after her second fight, however, a knockout victory over Ericka Newsome in Coral Gables, Florida, in March 2013, that the dam broke. Fallon Fox came out and the media swarmed.
The result was one of those depressing periods when you realize that human tolerance and decency only extend so far—about as far as the most recent semi-resolved long-fought-for civil rights issue, something after decades of disgust we as a society have decided we're finally comfortable with, like integrated schools or gay marriage. But with the rise of the each new front on the civil rights battlefield human beings return to their reactionary shells and find all new (but depressingly old) ways to be intolerant and dismissive, to marginalize difference to death.
Fallon's coming-out precipitated a great burst of self-righteous hand-wringing, what Philip Roth might call an "enormous piety binge," in the MMA world (which, being a place where perpetual outsiders have always done their work in shadows while scrapping for respect from the "straight world," really should know better). Despite the fact that both the International Olympic Committee and the Association of Boxing Commissions had protocols in place allowing transgender athletes to compete—and despite the fact that both the California and Florida athletic commissions had licensed Fox to fight—many in the community could not be convinced that Fallon Fox wasn't anything more than a cheat, a man looking to achieve MMA glory by beating up women.
Seemingly free-thinking people, including many of the UFC's best, froze up at the possibility of a transgender woman fighting other women, as if the reality of Fallon Fox had finally pushed them past their limits of open-mindedness.
This great American psychosis, this paranoid moralizing, this patronizing fear, is all over Game Face, the new documentary about Fox and other openly gay and trans athletes that premiered on Netflix Monday. The film, by Belgian director Michiel Thomas, follows Fox from those early fights through her public coming out as a trans fighter, down into the depths of all the ensuing media madness and finally into the light of, if not total acceptance, at least something like redemption.
That redemption was a long time coming. Fallon Fox's struggles began long before an MMA reporter asked her to confirm or deny certain rumors back in 2013. Growing up transgender in America is a torment, and Fox, like so many of her fellow transgender people, suffered mightily. The lifelong confusion, the fear, the embarrassed family members, the threats of condemnation, violence, even eternal damnation. The thoughts of suicide.
Like it does for so many people, MMA provided Fox a lifeline in the middle of all that confusion, something to hold onto. But even there, in that world of outcasts, Fox was vulnerable. At first her coaches wanted her to stay in the closet, both for the good of her career and their gym. Once she did come out, promoters weren't sure how, or even if, to promote her. Opponents dropped out of scheduled fights, citing junk science and spouting ugly words. And those who did fight her used her trans status as an excuse when they lost or mocked that status before they did. Fox's first post-coming-out opponent, Allanna Jones, walked out to their May 2013 fight to Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady."
Being a professional mixed martial artist is exhausting enough, but Fox was now trying to succeed in MMA while carrying the responsibility of a groundbreaker, becoming the poster child for other peoples' intolerance, confusion, insecurity, even hatred. She was having to fight in the cage and out of it. "Playing devil's advocate with myself is very, very hard," Fallon says in Game Face. "It's a 24-hour thing. Because I know there's a possibility that people are going to come after me, they're not going to understand me, so I have to be ready."
Strangely, the redemption of Fallon Fox might have come not with a victory but with a loss. On October 12, 2013, in the finals of the CFA women's featherweight tournament in Coral Gables, Fox lost by TKO to future UFC fighter Ashlee Evans-Smith, and though heartbroken at the time, Fox's defeat (her first) may have opened up more minds than another dominating victory would have: proving to people in a way that no team of scientists ever could that simply having been born male doesn't mean that a fighter has an insurmountable, or even significant, physical advantage over an opponent born female. In her way, Fallon Fox was living proof of the founding principle of MMA, call it Royce Gracie's law: That skill and training and knowledge trump everything, including physical inheritance.
So you would think that Evans-Smith beating Fox would have put to bed all the arguments about trans women having an innate and unfair advantage over cis women, but barely a week after their fight Evans-Smith was complaining to a reporter about that advantage, and then, for good measure, advocating for a league set aside just for transgender people. To make things fair. "I really feel like there should be a transgender organization," Evans-Smith said. "I don't feel like Fallon should fight dudes, I don't feel like she should fight women. I feel like there should be a unique organization for those needs."
Separate but equal, you see.