When the second annual national honor roll of transgender leaders, the Trans 100, was announced in a celebratory program at the Mayne Stage late last month, mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox, who lives and trains in the Chicago suburbs, was both an honoree and a presenter.
Stepping to the microphone with copresenter (and honoree) ESPN writer and editor Christina Kahrl, Fox, the world’s only out trans mixed martial arts pro, was elegant and poised. Kahrl noted how “awesome” it had been to see her in a victorious bout just days earlier at the UIC Pavilion.
“I’m not the first pro athlete that has ever been trans, and I certainly won’t be the last,” Fox replied, “but I’m honored that I was able to contribute.”
It was a sweet moment for a woman who says she was suicidal as recently as last year, when the life she had worked so hard to build exploded into a mess of hate and trouble.
On March 2, 2013, in a match that was only her second professional outing, Fox faced an intimidating opponent, Ericka Newsome, in a caged ring in Florida. Fox is a nicely proportioned five-foot-six-inch bantamweight, with dark caramel eyes and a face too pretty to punish. Newsome, shorter but with the same 140-or-so pounds packed into a blockbuster set of muscles, shot Fox a bone-chilling glare in the seconds before the bell. But the fight was over almost as soon as it began. Fox torpedoed a knee into Newsome’s jaw, Newsome went down, and the referee called it a KO. Total fight time: 39 seconds.
It was a stunning performance, and an elated Fox went out for a victory meal with her trainer. But the celebratory mood didn’t last long: “I didn’t even get to eat my dinner before my phone rang,” Fox, 38, recalled last week over coffee. On the other end of the line was a reporter from an MMA news site. “He said, ‘I’ve heard some rumors about your medical history, can we talk?’ I said, ‘I’ll call you back,’ and hung up as fast as I could.”
The story the reporter was chasing would have revealed that Fox, MMA’s promising new contender, was also a relatively new woman. Earlier in her life she’d been Boyd Burton, a high school wrestler, navy veteran, and the divorced father of a young daughter. In 2006, at the age of 30, Burton had undergone sex-reassignment surgery that she says finally gave her a body to match the inner self that had been there all along. Her fledgling MMA career had grown out of postsurgical trips to the gym to get back in shape.
Fox says she always intended to go public with her story, but wanted to do it on her own schedule. In fact, she’d been working for several months with an LA-based filmmaker, Michiel Thomas, making Game Face, a yet-to-be-released documentary capturing the stories of LGBT professional athletes brave enough to come out during their careers. “We’d already started filming,” she says. “So it probably wouldn’t have been that much longer. But at that point we lost control of the process.
“I wasn’t going to lie about it,” Fox continues. But there was also no way she was going to share the story of her transition with that reporter, who she still thinks made an unwarranted intrusion on her private life. “You don’t out someone for their sexuality or gender,” she says. “It’s unethical. Just as it would be to mess with someone because of their race or religion.”
And for trans people, Fox says, the consequences include “a chance they’ll lose their friends, their jobs, and even, in some cases, their lives.”
It looked like the best option would be to manage the news herself, so she called Sports Illustrated. As soon as SI‘s article went up on its website, the wave of reaction Fox had feared began to roll in. Newsome told an interviewer she should have been informed of Fox’s transition in advance. Newsome’s manager promised to appeal the fight. A chorus of angry voices, including MMA celebrities like women’s champion Ronda Rousey, questioned whether a person who once was a man should be competing in a women’s league. TMZ published a pretransition photo of Fox. Florida officials launched an investigation (later dropped) into whether Fox had fudged her credentials. She was cleared but says the “false narrative” continues to cast a shadow over her career.
The most vicious remarks came from MMA heavyweight Matt Mitrione, who called Fox a “lying, sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak.” The Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest MMA promoter, quickly suspended him. Mitrioni later apologized, but Fox says the whole episode plunged her into a suicidal state of mind. It wasn’t long before journalists from the New York Times, GQ, and other outlets began to swarm. The media attention ever since has been intense enough that Fox’s gym in the burbs has complained to her about all the reporters and photographers hanging around. When I met with her, she was getting ready for a full day with a crew from HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.
At Fox’s next fight after coming out, her opponent entered to the strains of “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).” When Fox advanced to a match against a much younger contender, Ashley Evans-Smith, in a tournament final last October, she says she still felt the animosity in the air. The Queen of Swords—Fox’s MMA sobriquet, taken from the tarot card character known for her intellect and honesty—was favored in the fight. But the fans chanted “Ashley! Ashley!” and cheered with a vengeance as Evans-Smith outmaneuvered Fox, dropping her to the mat, climbing astride her chest, and using her face as a punching bag. Evans-Smith’s arms swung like twin windmills, Fox’s head ricocheting with each blow until the referee finally stepped in. It was Fox’s first and only loss in the five professional matches that comprise her nascent MMA career.
Evans-Smith later opined publicly that Fox had an advantage and that there ought to be a separate league for transgender fighters. Never mind that the International Olympic Committee, not known as the most progressive body, permits athletes to compete in their transitioned category if they’ve had sex change surgery no less than two years prior, and have been on hormones at least that long (or if they made the transition before puberty). After downing estrogen daily for a couple years, Fox says, a transgender female will no longer have the body and bone mass of a male.
Fox has pointed out in several posts she penned for Time.com that society gives transgender people plenty of reasons for keeping their past to themselves. In her case, that included a Pentecostal-style upbringing in a homophobic, mixed-race family where even television viewing was strictly controlled by her mother and father. After a private Christian elementary school education, she found the public high school in her Toledo, Ohio, neighborhood so violent it made her “scared of my own ethnicity.” A short, skinny kid with a cafe-au-lait complexion, she took beatings over race “from both sides,” and joined the school’s wrestling team to learn how to defend herself.
From early childhood, Fox felt so comfortable with girls and women she wanted to be like them, and initially “assumed all boys and men must feel the same way.” Later, as a teen with a suppressed penchant for womenswear, she wondered if she might be gay, but figured it was incumbent upon her to “follow along in the [traditional] male path.” When she got a girlfriend pregnant at 19, they married, and then she went into the navy. After four years in the military, she went back to college briefly, then dropped out and started to make plans for transitioning.
By the time she headed to Thailand for “top surgery, bottom surgery, and hair replacement” (paid for by a three-year stint as a long-distance trucker), she was living in the Chicago burbs as a single mom with custody of her daughter. Fox drove and maintained school buses for a living, and began making daily visits to the gym. She started out with jujitsu, quickly became a successful amateur, then moved into MMA, incorporating muay Thai and wrestling techniques into her repertoire. She went pro in 2011, as a member of Schaumburg’s Midwest Training Center team.
MMA is a brutal sport, in which bare feet and elbows are weapons right along with fists, and joint locks and choke holds are regularly employed to stress the opponent into submission. Much of a bout is spent in clutches, often on the ground, with the fighters locked into contorting embrace—a shoulder jammed into an armpit, a leg twisted across a chest. It can be excruciating to watch, and is often ungainly, but Fox notes that it demands strategy, technique, and what she calls “intelligent aggression.” In spite of prefight theatrics like scowls of intimidation, we’re not talking about anger here, she says, “because if you’re angry, you’re not thinking.” While the nature of MMA is punishing, Fox takes pleasure in the sport, touting her grappling skills, which she first learned on the mat as a high school wrestler: “We tend to enjoy what we’re good at,” she says.
Outside the MMA ring, there’s a partner in Fox’s life. (She considers herself a lesbian, but not necessarily exclusively—”not a gold-star,” she says.) Aside from fighting, she wants to use her increased public profile to advocate for transgender issues. With the trans suicide attempt rate at more than 40 percent, according to a recent study, she feels some kind of help is sorely needed. In the near future, she plans to write a memoir she hopes will be helpful to others, especially people with gender dysphoria. It’s likely that book will argue, as Fox frequently says, that trans life is not really about “the genitals and the lipstick” but about the “everyday experience of walking out into the crowd and living your life fully as the gender you were supposed to be.” And it’ll have to include a scene in which a sheltered 17-year-old catches a few minutes of a television talk show interview with a transgender woman—a beautiful woman, walking a sun-soaked beach—and glimpses his own future, as Fox did, before her mother came into the room and changed the channel.