Words

Why MMA Should Be Welcoming Transgender Fighters

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

I was shocked when Fallon Fox came out as transgender this past March. Not by Fox’s announcement but by some of the high-profile responses to it.

I had assumed, perhaps naively, that the martial arts community had moved beyond that kind of nonsense. I thought that anyone who had spent any significant time on the tatamis had probably trained with or competed against a trans athlete at some point and that our opinions on the matter of their participation in the sport(s) would at least be informed by our real-life experience. 

That was certainly how I felt during my years of middling martial arts training (Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai, which I only occasionally mixed) in Toronto. I trained fairly regularly with two trans women during that time, and some of the negative opinions I’ve read from fighters and commentators are so far removed from my reality that it would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive and potentially dangerous.

I am a fairly tiny cis woman. I have child-sized feet and hands that are barely big enough to gain a decent grip on a gi collar. I once wore jeans and shoes during a NAGA (North American Grappling Association) weigh-in and still came in underweight for the smallest division. Pretty much every moment of my martial arts career was colored by my awareness of my size and strength disadvantage. And yet I never once felt threatened or outmatched by either woman’s “manly” bone structure--Ronda Rousey’s favorite boogeyman--while taking a punch or a pre-roll fist-bump. Despite Joe Rogan’s concerns, I never felt crushed by their supposedly mismatched bone density during a fight or a post-match hug. In fact, the only time I’ve ever felt like I was at an unfair strength disadvantage during a match--and, in fact, the only time I ever felt like I was in any danger--was against another cis woman who was on performance-enhancing drugs.

And as for the idea that trans women are some sort of predatory monsters who have the need or desire to beat up girls, as exemplified by Matt Mitrione’s slurs against Fallon Fox? Well unless “beating up women” is now slang for “inviting women over for tea, semi-private BJJ training sessions, and hang outs” then I have no clue what the fuck those people are talking about.

One of the trans women I trained with was shy but friendly, a little physically awkward, and interested in martial arts both as a competitive sport and a means of self-defense. In other words, she was just like me and many of the other women at my dojo. The other woman was Alaina Hardie.

I met Alaina when we were both white belts in BJJ (she’s now a brown belt; I continue to be stalled at blue) in the mid 00’s and I instantly like her. She was a force of nature both on and off the mat, and her enthusiasm for jiu-jitsu was rivaled only by her fondness for the people in it. And she was fiercely pro-woman at a time when begrudging tolerance of our participation in MMA and BJJ was still passed off as genuine acceptance.

Since then, Alaina has competed and trained all over the continent, participated in over 50 tournaments, represented Canada at the FILA World Championships twice, and co-founded the Women’s Grappling Camp. Through it all, she has remained one of the most positive and kick-ass people I have ever met in the sport.

When Alaina publicly came out as part of her efforts to support Fox, who is a friend of hers, she encouraged discussion on the topic of trans athletes in competition, and anything else we might want to know, with her trademark openness and enthusiasm. So I asked her if she’d be interested in an interview. Knowing how intelligently and thoughtfully she’s always discussed everything from science to The Wire to women in combat sports, I was looking forward to hearing what she had to say about her experiences as a trans athlete in the martial arts world, the scientific research she’s done on the topic, and how life has been since she came out. Here are some of the highlights of our hour-long conversation. 

Fightland: First of all, did you “choose to become a woman” so you could beat up girls?
Alaina Hardie: Totally.

That was about the last thing from my mind, considering that I knew when I was super young. I didn’t discover fighting until I saw women doing it and I was like, “Oh my fucking God! I totally want to do that!”

I find it interesting that a lot of people who perpetuate this myth about trans fighters flippantly changing their genders aren’t at all flippant about their own. Yet they assume that someone would be so passionate about winning in MMA that they would just go, “Whatever, I’ll be a chick now, and I’ll go beat chicks up.”
What I’ve observed with non-trans people, especially non-trans people who have never had experience with trans people, is their idea of how it goes is totally lacking any self-reflection at all. 

I came out on Facebook, and then, a couple of weeks later, the story went around. It went on all of the boards and there was a guy on Sherdog who e-mailed me. He was super sympathetic and very smart. So I said, “Well, how did you come to this realization about your own gender?” And he said, “That’s a really interesting question, because most people wouldn’t.” 

He said, “I thought, if I went to bed one day and I woke up tomorrow as a woman, would I be a woman? Like, if someone asked me, would I be a woman? How would I respond? And the answer would be no, I’m not a woman. How would I feel? Would I feel like a woman? No, obviously not." So that little simple exercise leads you to the obvious conclusion, which is that the story is more complicated than you think it is. 

But I think, in the same way that white people don’t think about race in North America, or straight people don’t think about being queer, it’s really hard to imagine what Other looks like. If you don’t have the experience of ever being Other, it’s really grounded in fear and paternalism. A lot of it is just fear. 

That’s kind of how I look at those sorts of conversations where they’re trying to make sense of it and they don’t have ... it’s not just that they lack the language; they lack the entire conceptual framework to think about it. So of course someone would be identified male at birth and then become a woman because they want to beat up women because that totally makes sense. 

Because it’s not like there are easier ways to sandbag in martial arts.
Exactly. Or just train in jiu-jitsu, where men train with women.

Isn’t that argument also an underestimation of the amount of work that has to go into martial arts at any level regardless of what skill, hormones, or bones you’re born with?
Yeah. I wasn’t the best, but I did respectably well in competition and, of course, the problem with coming out is that everything that you do gets called into question. I had a like a 65-66% win ratio, so I was better than 50% average, but I quit my job to train jiu-jitsu. I trained hard. There was one period of time for about six months where I didn’t take a single day off training. I took a 60% percent pay cut so I could take more time training jiu-jitsu. I’m sure that had nothing to do with it. 

I look at it now and I look at the world championships and I’m, like, girls like me, like the way I am right now, have no chance because the girls who are winning, that’s what they do. They train jiu-jitsu. And it’s become quite serious and I think it’s really funny that I take the hormones, I take the steroids that make me fatter and weaker, right? And that you could conceptualize that in any way as looking for an advantage, or ... I don’t know. I have a difficult time identifying with it because I understand what goes into it. Maybe that’s the way I’ll say it.

You have a torn ACL.
I do.

And a number of doctors and scientists believe that female hormones weaken knee ligaments.
I have heard that, yes.

So you’re at another potential disadvantage there.
Yeah, why did I do that? That was crazy.

And, in terms of Ronda Rousey’s bone argument, wouldn’t cis females have an advantage in guard thanks to our wider birthing pelvises?
It’s true. The bone density is one of my favorites because there’s a large variation [of bone density] by gender, but there’s also a very large variation by race. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but there’s a graph of a huge study they did that shows race and gender. There’s actually a time where black women’s bone density--it’s from their mid-twenties to their mid-forties--is actually greater than white men’s. So that’s number one. Number two is, it is a weight-class sport. And Newtonian physics doesn’t care whether it’s muscle or bone. If I have a certain amount of mass, it’s going to accelerate at a certain amount of force. So I don’t know, the whole bone density thing, that’s like the only thing that people can point to. And it sounds scientific, so it’s kind of cool.

“I’m not prejudiced. I just care about bone density.”
“Oh my god! Bone density!”

But really, the worst difference in the world would be a black woman who is in her late 20s fighting a Hispanic woman. Hispanic women have the lowest bone density. Actually, I don’t know where Asian descent falls. It’s a very, very low comparative bone density. So that would be a huge difference. That’s way more different than a black man fighting a white man. But nobody cares. You can’t have that conversation anymore, not like you could in the 1940s about giving black people their own division in the Olympics so that they didn’t have to compete against white people.

We’ve had this conversation many times, like … I don’t know, five decades ago we talked about this and decided it was stupid.

I find it particularly disconcerting when it’s coming from a sport that was never about pitting homogenous fighters against each other.
That’s true. That’s a really good point. I remember the original UFCs were, like, kickboxing versus ninjitsu, kung fu versus jiu-jitsu. Have you ever gone back and watched those old UFCs? These guys go in against Royce Gracie and they think they’re going to do okay because they’re, like, an eighth degree black belt in whatever system they’ve made up, and this little gangly goofy guy takes their back and chokes them unconscious. You’re right. I had never really thought about that, but that’s totally the history of the UFC.

When you came out, was the response between your male and female training partners different?
I have to qualify this by saying that, of the people I know, my experience was universally positive. I figured it would be pretty positive, just because I have personal relationships with a lot of these people, but I could not have imagined the level of love and support.

There were private statements and people who reposted it and said, “Look, this is my friend.” I think you were one of them. People e-mailing me privately and texting me. I was just absolutely overwhelmed by this. The first 24 hours were awesome.

And then a couple of Facebook groups ... if you want to get people talking, which is the whole goal of social marketing, the tranny freakshow, that’s a great thing to get people to comment on, right?

So people posted, it got reposted to a couple of groups and, without exception, the people who had issues with it were men. I got so many awesome e-mails from other women, women I had competed against. They posted publicly, they e-mailed me privately, just really supportive. The anonymous moron guys were the problem. But the guys that I might not have expected, like [BJJ World Championship gold medalist] Thomas Beach--when some guy started talking shit, Tommy shut it down. 

I know Tommy. I would know him to say hi, but his defense of me, I was so touched. Josh [Rapport, owner of Toronto BJJ], too. I actually e-mailed those guys and I was like, “I never in a million years expected this. Thank you.” And so there were guys who caused a lot of shit about it, guys were some of the loudest opponents, but the guys I knew were also some of the loudest supporters, so I don’t even want to make it a simple divide.

But I think, for some reason, men are threatened by trans women. I have my own opinions on masculinity, but masculinity is very performative. It has to constantly be played out and reinforced, and it’s often not performed for anybody except other men. I don’t really understand it. I can see it. I understand it’s a phenomenon. But when these guys are talking, it’s like they’re saying, “Well yeah, but I’m a real dude,” like, beating their chests. Whatever beta male thing they do to appear alpha. And I found it really refreshing that it was the guys who were like, “Not gonna be like that.” 

So I don’t know. The reality is just more complicated. But, that said, it’s kind of been an open secret in jiu-jitsu for a number of years. I’ve come out in a couple of the women’s grappling camps and there are high-level women who have known and been supportive the whole time. And that level of support I’ve only ever received from women. It’s like women, they get gender. And men don’t. That’s not universally true, but it’s true enough to feel like I have to make the point.

Did you notice any difference in the response between people who train and people who are just fans or observers?
In my case, my friends who didn't train were also awesomely supportive. I run in pretty progressive circles, though. In a lot of ways, the kinda old-fashioned, male-dominated, occasionally misogynist BJJ world was the more surprising, but again, almost everybody I know personally in BJJ is very progressive. In Fallon's case, with the exception of loudmouths like Rousey and Mitrione, I'd say that the truly vocal opposition came from people who had never stepped foot on a mat or in a cage, or if they had, they'd never trained with a high-level woman or female MMA fighter. It's really hard to care about the opinions of someone who has no actual experience in the sport, so I don't.

Pretty much anybody who has trained with or competed against either me or Fallon has changed their tune. I'm talking everybody from recreational athletes who met me once at their gym while I was on a business trip to BJJ world champions like Hillary Williams--who has smashed both of us in competition--has come out in support of us. The abstract concept of "physical advantage" is one thing. There's no better cure for that than training with a transsexual woman.

How did you meet Fallon?
I met her at a tournament in 2009. The Abu Dhabi Trials in California. I saw her and I was like. “Oh look, another super hot straight girl.” She’s still super hot, but she’s totally not straight. So I friended her on Facebook and I saw that she was a lesbian, and I was like “Ah, all right! Another sister!”  

We didn’t really talk after that. But then I woke up that day in March and I saw that she had come out. I e-mailed her right away and said, “I had no idea about this, you probably had no idea, but I’m also trans. And I’ve got your back.” That’s when we started talking. I was going to be down training with Hanette [Staack, BJJ Black Belt and three time ADCC champion], so we went for dinner and hung out in Chicago. In a way, it’s like meeting the only other person like you on the whole planet: another transsexual woman who likes to fight. I’ve since discovered there are many of us but, at the time, she was the only one I knew. So we kind of met the same way I become friends with everybody.

There’s no secret handshake or anything?
Well, not that I’m going to tell you about.

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