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Even if you don’t care about combat sports, the upcoming UFC 224 event is a big, big deal. That’s because its headline fight—the main event, the fight that’s featured on all the posters and in all the promotional material—is between two out and proud queer women. I believe that this is the first time this has happened in the UFC, the most visible promotion in the sport.
Amanda Nunes has been the Bantamweight champion ever since 2016, she’s a devastating striker who also has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She’s also ranked 12 in the pound-for-pound ratings, across all gender lines and weight classes. Raquel Pennington is currently ranked second in the division, and she’s known as a very well-rounded fighter.
The Embedded series is a little mini-documentary that the UFC puts out to hype its fights. They show the fighters training and relaxing at home with their friends and families. In the first episode, we see Nunes at home with her partner (also a UFC fighter) Nina Ansaroff, packing for the trip and goofing off together. Nunes will often be in Ansaroff’s corner, shouting advice and encouragement.
They are presented as a loving couple, who just happen to be ridiculously talented elite athletes.
In another era, not too long ago, Ansaroff would never be introduced in a lower third as Nunes’ girlfriend. She wouldn’t be on camera. Maybe there’d even be a beard in the picture. (A beard was a person of the opposite sex that queer celebrities would pretend to be dating so everyone thought they were straight.)
It’s even more apparent in Raquel Pennington’s segment, with B-roll right at the beginning showing her holding hands with her fiancee—Tecia Torres, who is also a UFC fighter (who, a little bit hilariously, also fights in Ansaroff’s division, strawweight). Cute couples’ pictures from around their house are shown. The couple packs for the trip, talking about the fight.
There have always been queer athletes in sports. Of course there have. But to be out, to the extent that the official commentators will note (in a positive, nonchalant tone) your girlfriend or fiance in the crowd, as they would any straight athlete, that’s a big deal. And it’s amazing to see.
Why? People from all over the political spectrum ask me that all the time. “Who cares?” I’ll answer that honestly: first, visibility matters deeply. That’s a core tenet of Waypoint, that representation and visibility are important, that it means a great deal to people to see themselves reflected in the media they are exposed to, be it fictional or, in the case of athletic contests, a real-life analogue.
Secondly, it means a great deal personally. I’ve always been a queer athlete. I’ve only been an out queer athlete for a small portion of that time, especially after recalling teammates, in college no less, go on about how disgusting they found gay people (to my face, they had no idea). When you change with your teammates, work out with them, hold their hair back when they barf, there’s an intimacy there. And I was straight-up terrified for any of them to find out about me.
Now, I go to my own MMA gym and train, and no one cares that I’m queer. I talk about my girlfriend as we warm up or mop the floors after class. It’s freeing. It’s comfortable. It’s positive.
Though I am keenly aware of the massive, massive amount of work we still need to do for true queer acceptance in our world, the fact that there’s been appreciable progress in my lifetime makes me very grateful. And much of that change comes from having exceptional people in the wider culture: performers, athletes, musicians, etc. be out and proud. Visible.
So yes, this is a big deal to me. It’s a big deal to a lot of folks.