On Saturday night, when Liz Carmouche fights UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, she'll be making double history. Not only will she be taking part in the first women's fight in UFC history; she'll also become the first openly gay fighter to have ever fought for the promotion. It's a great leap forward for a sport that has always prided itself on embodying very particular notions about the relationship between masculinity and toughness -- not to mention a sport that is often mocked for its apparent "homoeroticism" -- and for a world that has long deluded itself about the whole idea of what homosexuality means.
Dale Spencer, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba and author of the book Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment, was nice enough to break down our collective stupidity about the concept of homosexuality, not just in MMA or in sports, but in life and everything else.
What's your focus as an academic? In other words, why are we talking right now?
Dale Spencer: I'm interested in homosociality and homoeroticism inherent to MMA. That doesn't mean homosexuality per se, more the fact that there's almost a neutralization of heterosexuality that becomes part of the sport. As part of training and fighting you have to engage with people of your own gender, and you're going into positions which are highly discouraged in our day-to-day lives. When women engage with other women or other men there's this kind of blanking out of sexuality, and that was one of my main arguments. We can't be looking at MMA as being something that's about latent homosexuality but rather it provides a space for a neutralization for sexuality.
When I was doing my research about MMA, gender was never an issue. Who you're training against and with becomes blank when you're training. You're concentrating on one thing and anything that happens outside the world of the club or the cage doesn't matter. One's status in the everyday world as a heterosexual person or not is irrelevant. It's about training. It's about self-perfection.
More so than other sports?
I think more so than almost any sport because you have to be on a team, you have to be regularly engaged with the bodies of your training partners. If I could play basketball I could go the entire time doing nothing but slapping the hands of my opponents. But the reality is the bodily contact between fighters is extreme. I don't think you can ever argue that there isn't a sharing of blood, of sweat, of the intimacies not present in other sports. I think that's what separates mixed martial arts, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and the styles that makes up the core of the sport from any other traditional martial arts and other sports today.
As you know, in Thailand they had transgender fighters like Nong Toom, the Beautiful Boxer. There is this kernel, historically speaking, of precedence of people deviating from the norm in combat sports. It's just that Liz Carmouche is doing it in mixed martial arts.
Can you explain how our notions of what that "norm" is have developed?
According to Michel Foucault, who wrote The History of Sexuality, with modernity came the definition and recognition of homosexuality. As a thing it came to be controlled because it posed a threat to the heterosexual production of children, which threatened the growth of the nation. It was something that when you wanted to produce armies you wanted to keep them separate because they would use their sexual energies to have sex with men rather than women and create people. That was a modern invention but at the same time you had a scientific discourse put forward by Richard von Krafft-Ebing.
Krafft-Ebing was a psychiatrist who wrote a book called Psychopathia Sexualis. I believe he coined terms like “sadism” and “heterosexuality” and some of these different sexual “perversions.” He directly contributed to the production of this idea of homosexuals and the need for them to be seen as different. So you have very economic reasons for making sure heterosexuality is the dominant form, and you also have the scientific, medical, and legal discourse around sexual neuroses.
So things like sadism or homosexuality were part of Freud's early writings, part of Krafft-Ebing's writings, part of writings by all these people who were talking about sexuality in the late 1880s. It became a problem. It became something that had to be managed. Homosexuality is a modern invention and not something that was always with us. It was part of religious discourse but it didn't have this term and distinct sexuality, as we understand it today. The very idea of being a lesbian is a modern invention; the term “lesbian” is a modern thing.
Before, were the lines more blurred in how people acted? Or just how they spoke about sexuality?
In Italy in the Renaissance period, buggery was a problem. It became something that they had laws against, but sodomy was quite a prevalent thing amongst men prior to getting married. They'd engage in this form of sex as a way of satiating sexual need or drive. It's one of these forgotten parts of history that people weren't automatically abnormal because they engaged in this. Homosexuality as being a separate sexuality is very much more recent. People just didn't classify it. It didn't become part of one's identity.
Was homosexuality a part of ancient combat sports?
That I'm not sure of. I know the squire system was in and of itself inherited from the Greeks, who were known to engage in male-on-male sex. A lot of initiation took place around sleeping with one's initiate. I don't think it was necessarily something that is widely written on but some people have speculated it was part of the Spartan way of expressing sexuality. It was part of the initiation process. I'm not sure what transpired in countries like Japan and China where martial arts actually developed its historical basis. That's a history yet to be written.
The "coming out" seems to be the issue for certain male MMA fighters.
There's been a history of people coming out and receiving negative publicity. There was the figure of the homosexual boxer, Emile Griffith, who killed a man. It seems to me that it will always be a problem so long as we're embedded in a homophobic culture.
You're also talking about the intersections of various different cultures. Mixed martial arts is one of the most internationally practiced sports and has its roots in all of these different cultures. It's not just American or Canadian cultures with their own conceptions of homosexuality, but also Brazilian, Japanese and Asian perceptions.
I guess MMA, prior to Liz Carmouche coming out, might have been the last bastion of combat sports that didn't have an openly gay figurehead. In boxing there have been other cases, like Orlando Cruz, of people that are and were gay. MMA is still an emerging sport. Liz Carmouche is just the one person that's been brave enough to publicly announce that that's her sexual orientation.
UFC heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria said he'd never roll with someone who was gay.
The way in which somebody like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria talks about it is a blast from the past: that idea of restricting oneself. Saying he wouldn't roll or train with somebody because they're gay seems like an absurdity. The very idea that he recognizes people as being gay and attached to their identity but that they could somehow pass their homosexuality onto him as a human being is an absurd notion.
Otherwise, why would you fear that? The whole idea is a modern invention, nobody thought of it that way in the past. This idea of "catching" homosexuality is absurd, it doesn't even have a theological basis. It's purely a masculinist notion that if he was to roll with somebody that was gay he'd walk out the next day and become gay.
To think there haven't been male openly gay fighters in mixed martial arts is kind of an absurdity; it's just something that no one's talked about. We can speculate all we want, and outing someone is as violent as rejecting homosexuality, but it would be naïve to think that they're not actually part of the sport.
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