When Caitlyn Jenner accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award earlier this month at the 2015 ESPYs, she spoke eloquently about supporting young trans athletes so they can compete “as who they really are.” Facing a theatre full of athletic stars, Jenner declared, “Trans people deserve something vital: They deserve your respect.”
At that moment, an astute ESPN camera operator zoomed in on MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, who had won the ESPY for Best Fighter earlier in the evening. Rousey clapped politely in response to Jenner’s declaration. In the seat next her, her mother, former judo champion AnnMarie De Mars, chewed gum and looked bored. Rousey may or may not have been thinking about her previous comments on trans athletes; the camera operator surely was.
Fallon Fox is a women’s featherweight MMA fighter with a 5-1 record. The first openly transgender athlete in MMA history, she has been the target of vitriol from many prominent MMA figures, including the UFC’s president Dana White and women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Both White and Rousey have publicly insisted that Fox will never fight in the UFC women’s division. White has said, “I’ll leave it up to the athletic commissions, and the doctors and scientists,” to decide which gender divisions transgender athletes should compete in, but also declared, “I don’t think that somebody who used to be a man and became a woman should be able to fight another woman.” Rousey has said of Fox, “She can try hormones, chop her pecker off, but it’s still the same bone structure a man has. It’s an advantage. I don’t think it’s fair.” Despite this hostility, Fox has persisted in her efforts to fight in the UFC, citing Olympic committee rules and the compelling medical evidence that shows transgender athletes have no significant competitive advantage.
Katy Koonce is a therapist in private practice in Austin, Texas, who specializes in queer and trans issues. A lifelong fight fan (and daughter of a Texas high school football coach), Koonce has spoken publicly about the damage caused by White and Rousey’s comments. In an extensive interview, Koonce and Fox talked about Fox’s treatment by the world of MMA since coming out, her history with the INVICTA fighting league, and her thoughts on Rousey’s recently released memoir, including its account of how Rousey’s mother has shaped her daughter’s character and career.
Our attempts to reach Rousey for inclusion on this article were unsuccessful.
KK: You sent me a Facebook message after reading the first line of [Rousey’s book My Fight/Your Fight], saying Rousey really should’ve listened to her mother. I believe the quote from her mother was, “There is no history of anything happening until it does. And then there is.”
FF: Right! (Laughs) I mean her whole thing is like, “Look at what I did. I was persistent. This is how I got women into the UFC. I didn’t take no for an answer. I never stopped, and I rose to the top, and I convinced Dana because I was persistent.” But when I’m persistent? Yeah, when I’m persistent about transgender women they’re like, “You should just stop. Just go away don’t even try to attempt it.” Now Rousey is doing the gatekeeping.
KK: Yes, that seems written without any consciousness about the mixed messages.
FF: Rousey is clueless on the mixed messages, because she doesn’t see me as female. So of course then I fall into the male category. Then I am the one that needs to be fought against. Which is exactly why I am fighting this fight now, because I am a woman—I’m not a man.
KK: Well at this point Rousey has said at one time or another she could beat anyone from Floyd Mayweather to Cowboy Cerrone, so it would be ironic for her to use any gender argument to keep from fighting you. She keeps saying—and people keep baiting her to say—she can beat men.
My impression is that it’s a game that she’s playing. She is staying with her talking points, but in my interaction with her briefly, [at Rousey’s 2015 SXSW panel and Q&A] I felt as though she doesn’t quite believe the talking points. I kind of called her out on her position on you. I told her that I thought that being woken up every day with a mom screaming “arm bar!” gave her more of an advantage fighting than your supposed bone density difference. I felt like her response was a political response, in that she stayed on message, but that her non-verbal response spoke differently. And when we talked afterwards she said she had a lot of respect for our community. Maybe I’m an optimist, but it made me want to explore this further. Something in my interactions with her made me think there was a possibility for peacemaking. I wish I could have the conversation with her.
FF: You can try and try, but you’ll probably never get it because she’s running. I mean she talks about other people running, in her book, when she talks about the points fighter. Right? And how she doesn’t like the points fighter:
But there are many elite-level fighters who don’t fight to lay it all on the line. They fight for points. They will get ahead by a minor score, then spend the rest of the match trying to make it look like they’re fighting when they’re really running away. . . . I cannot stand points fighters. Points fighting is cowardly. Points fighting is fighting without honor. . . . It’s not just about winning, it is about how you win. It’s not about winning pretty, it is about winning honorably. I’m not there for competition. I am there for a fight.
What she’s doing right now politically is points fighting. She’s just running away.
KK: One of her book’s chapter titles is “You will never win a fight by running away.”
FF: Ain’t that the truth.
KK: Another is, “The best fighters are patient at the right times.”
FF: I remember when women were fighting in INVICTA and trying to get the attention of the UFC. Everyone was mad. Nobody was patient! Everybody was like, “I can’t believe the UFC won’t let women fucking fight! We need to be there and we need to be there now!” Nobody was like, “We need to wait.” Nobody!
KK: So on this subject, what did really happen with you and INVICTA?
FF: I had actually come out to INVICTA FC privately before I ever came out publicly to anyone. No one knows that! I came out to INVICTA and told them I was trans.
KK: And you feel comfortable with this coming out in this interview at this time?
FF: Yeah, fine! I mean what do I have to lose at this point? I came out to Janet Martin early on and what she said was, “Well, we could consider putting you on our card, and it would be the first time anything like this has ever happened and we would be trailblazing this. And it would be something the world has never seen, so yeah, sure, we could look into it.” But she was like, “You would have to run it by the commissions first.”
And I was like, “I totally want to do that! I want to do everything that I can.” I meant it. I am working together with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and we have doctors who have worked with the IOC, doctors who have worked with trans people in other sports. I can do anything it takes to make sure that I fight clean and fair. In all these years I have not been able to say anything [about INVICTA knowing my transgender status], because I’ve been fearing their reaction. But if no one is going to give me a shot, what do I have to lose?
KK: It sounds to me like you feel betrayed.
FF: Oh yes. I feel very betrayed. Because I did come out! I even said to Janet that if I needed to come out to all the fighters before fighting I would. And people are criticizing me saying “it would have been nice if you would have told somebody.” But I did tell somebody! I told INVICTA. I did everything I could, up to this point, but I didn’t know what was going on with Janet Martin [Martin left INVICTA abruptly in 2013 for alleged “unethical activity”] and I figured that if I kept it a secret, I would have a shot. But no one is calling me back. I didn’t want them to feel betrayed by me saying anything, so I have been locked into this silence.
But we spoke and had conversations around this subject.
KK: It sounds like the MMA community needed to hear Caitlyn Jenner’s call for support and respect at the ESPYs.
FF: It reminds me of another story—[MMA fighter] Katalina Malungahu was having a hard time cutting weight and I was supporting her. And she experienced me as a woman; she breathed me in as a woman. And then later on after I came out, she hit me up on Twitter and called me a man and verbally berated me, and we had a Twitter war.
It blew my mind that she could turn on me, after I thought we were cool, and I really liked her. These are the kinds of things that I deal with. I mean, what humans have to deal with that? I know people that did back in the day, when people were found to have one drop of black blood. I am not claiming that these things are exactly the same, but they are similar. I am saying that!
KK: Yes, because it’s worn on your skin. Anyone that has gone through a transition knows what it’s like to be judged based on what they look like.
FF: Yes, like back in the day when people lost their friends as soon as it was determined that they had the slightest bit of black blood. And then they felt forced to try to “pass.”
KK: Speaking of passing and all that, how are you feeling about the Caitlyn Jenner coverage?
FF: Well I came out in support of her coming out. I just hope she does the work around supporting other people with less privilege.
KK: I think the New York Times criticism of her focus on beauty and having a “young name” is bullshit. Perhaps no one there knows what it’s like to have to go through a second puberty, but it’s never too late to have a happy second puberty!
FF: Yeah, that burns me up too. See, the whole image of how women look should be not the focus. Is she happy? The rest of this is not important.
KK: Is that an area where you think Ronda Rousey is falling short as a role model?
FF: Well, yeah, the promotion of women in MMA based on their looks—[Rousey] said that looks are important because you have to market a fight. She bought into that You have to look good, and not just ‘good’ but sexy thing. I mean—what the fuck? She’s totally buying into that! Guys don’t have to do that. It’s just so stereotypical, and what does that mean for the rest of these fighters? There’s a lot of great fighters!
I don’t know, maybe it’s strategic on her part. Maybe she doesn’t want to fight some of those fighters that are not gonna put on a dress, like Ediane Gomes. Maybe [Rousey] knows she’s not gonna put on a dress. So what, we’re expecting a woman to have to dress up in a dress and heels in order to get a chance to fight? Is that going to make her more valuable?
KK: So the thing that you felt was most offensive about the book was her take on what you should change as a woman if you have to in order to get ahead?
FF: Yes! The almost hate that she has for her opponent—you don’t have to be all like that. I mean you have to have a certain want and desire to cause pain and inflict damage, or no one would be much of a good MMA fighter. But you don’t have to almost hate the person and wish them ill will.
I feel empathy for her because I’ve been there. Male socialization from early years—I understand all about that and what it means. Ronda had a lot of things that most women don’t have: a mentor and a role model, which was her mom. A lot of women just don’t have that growing up when it comes to fighting. And from my perspective it’s a normal lifestyle—for a male fighter. The way her mom treated her, from the time she was knee-high till the time she was adult, was exactly the way men are treated when they’re little boys growing up. That’s how it was for me, in wrestling. I didn’t fight when I was little, but in high school that’s exactly how they treated me. They didn’t give us any slack, they didn’t baby us or coddle us. It was the total opposite. Even men that aren’t going to be fighters are treated this way. That’s why men are the way that they are!
So she got that kind of advantage from her mother, but then she acted as horrible as some men—not all men, but a lot of men—in the way she treats people, in her views on violence, or her views on competition. And she’s passing that on to other girls in this book. Assertiveness and aggression are tools that women need, of course. But there needs to be boundaries, empathy, and sympathy for oppressed people, or women will treat others as horribly as they were treated.
KK: In MMA there are many rivalries, and there’s a whole lot of shit-talking going on in the men’s division. And we have seen young fighters like Jon Jones go from being the all-American kid to cocaine rehab and hit and runs. Is there more expected of a woman fighter? To me Ronda is acting in some ways like any other person in their 20s. She’s only 28.
FF: Yeah she’s still young! I mean I’m 39. I have seen a lot. They call it “the game” and the game can change you. (Laughs) I mean it’s changed me! I have had a lot of reactionary moments. Reacting to what fighters have done to me. So I definitely feel it. I am a little older so I can maintain a little better. She has a lot to learn.
KK: What are some of the ways you feel changed by the game?
FF: I have seen a lot of hate thrown at me for no reason. Some of these MMA fighters will come to my Twitter feed and berate me for no reason. And what am I gonna do? I’m not just going to sit there like a chump and not say anything. So I say something back and get into it, and I didn’t used to have to do that, but what am I gonna do? I have to say something and stand up for myself. I mean, it has changed me.
KK: They are acting so aggressive and then bait you into acting out their own aggression.
FF: Yes. These fighters come on to my page and poke me with an electronic stick. And if I bite back they run screaming, “Oh my god, look what she did, look what she did!”
KK: And then gender it as male! Which is the more annoying thing.
FF: Yes, or “Look what he did, look what he did!” They come to a woman and verbally smack her around and when she smacks back you call her a man. It’s just horrible. And people wonder why I am so pissed!
KK: OK, this is a really therapisty kind of question, but: Given that in your family of origin there was the use of physical force (if not abuse) to get you to do what they wanted you to do, are there times when you’re fighting in the ring and you hear aggression from the crowd, or from the corner, or just the experience of being hit, and you feel re-traumatized given your background?
FF: Of course. When you’re in the ring and you hear that kind of verbal abuse it can be very hard if you’re a fighter and you are trying to balance aggression with technique. During my Tamikka Brents fight it was really difficult, because I wasn’t used to having to do it on that level while under that kind of stress. So it was a constant checking my aggression and checking my sadness and keeping my technique up, going back and forth.
But my fight with Heather Basset, when I was there and the fans—I could hear them supporting me and being behind me and it was awesome! I heard some cheering and I realized who I was fighting for and you know, we all fight for ourselves but we also fight for other people. And after that fight when the crowd was really respectful and so was my opponent, I remembered what I was fighting for. And now when I’m going to a fight, whether they’re abusive or non-abusive, it’s like I’m going to a foreign land—but I still remember who I’m fighting for, and I’m fighting for my people back home. When I realized that was the key, it was the key to everything.
KK: My goal in all of this has been to foster communication between you and the UFC, and ultimately to see those who have treated you so badly apologize. Dana White were not too proud to admit that he was wrong on women fighting in the UFC, so he shouldn’t be too proud to admit he was wrong about this too—that he’s wrong about the science, and that he was wrong to speak out in ways that were hurtful and disrespectful to you. But it seems like you are not holding on to how you feel hurt.
FF: I still think they all have the opportunity to come around and do the right thing. And when they do, I will give them applause and accolades. Let’s make some money! I would tell the community to give them love, and they would be the good guys for coming around and doing the right thing.
KK: One of Rousey’s book chapters is titled “Turn limitations into opportunities.” Do you think if you never get to fight in the big leagues, you will have at least turned these limitations into opportunities?
FF: Of course! I mean if I don’t get a call from the bigger promotions I will settle with what I’ve got, but I’m going to fight for what I want and I am not giving up. I’m in a documentary that was just released, called Game Face. It highlights what it was like for me before I told the public that I was a transgender woman fighting in MMA, and what it was like for college basketball player Terrence Clemens before he told the public he was a gay athlete. It’s winning awards at film festivals around the world, and it will be available to the public soon. I am just gonna hammer away and hammer away.
KK: What about Rousey’s advice in chapter 14 of her book, “Know when to move on”?
FF: I never quite learned this invaluable lesson in regards to this current topic. Fuck moving on.
Katy Koonce LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Austin Texas. Katy has worked primarily with the gender variant community for 17 years, and is an amateur kick boxer and avid fight fan, as well as the genderqueer front person for the silicone cock rock band Butch County.
Susan Schorn is the author of Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly; she also writes the column Bitchslap for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Images courtesy of Fallon Fox