Occasionally, there are intersections between sport and society that offer a unique lens into both. And what we see is wildly divergent depending on the prejudices, assumptions, and analytical tools we bring to bear.
Such is the case with Fallon Fox, a promising fighter competing in the burgeoning sport of female MMA.
Fox boasts a 2-0 pro record, with all of her victories in the first round, but this achievement in a relative sporting backwater would pass largely unnoticed if not for the fact that she used to be a he.
Fox, now 37 years old, underwent gender reassignment surgery (and post-hormonal therapy) in Thailand in 2006, after living 31 years of her life as a man. Not long after, she began competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, moved to muay thai, and eventually had her MMA debut in 2010. She has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been dominant in her amateur and professional career. And now she's at the center of a controversy that cuts to the heart of our notions of fairness, gender, and gender specific sports altogether.
Is fairness just dumb, undiscerning inclusion for all? And when is reasoned exclusion simple ignorance and prejudice?
Some question her psychological motives - such as recently suspended UFC fighter Matt Mitrione; others, like Joe Rogan, may be empathetic, but raise issues of simple competitive fairness; while there are many Fox supporters who attempt to simultaneously deny the basic biological differences of gender while arguing for its impermanent physical mutability, usually painting any attempt to discuss Fox's potential competitive advantages as mindless bigotry.
Throw in a good number of idiots on both sides for good measure, a huge number of journalists and Twitter commenters who don't know anything about MMA but will opine anyway, and folks that just want to rant about "weirdos" different from them, and you have a dialogue marked by frustrating mutual incomprehension.
For Fox's advocates in the media, it seems talking about the nature of fighting itself, how it might interplay with basic structural biology, and how that may afford her undue advantage over other women is secondary to the social cause.
One such example, is Sports Illustrated's Loretta Hunt, who put out a particularly atrocious effort.
On Tuesday, amidst whispers from snooping journalists and licensing issues looming with two athletic commissions, Fallon bravely stepped forward as the first on-record transgender female athlete to compete in MMA.
To clarify: these "snooping" journalists were poised to reveal that Fox was beating up opponents who had not been informed of Fox's transgender status and had lied - at least in omission - in obtaining her license from the governing commissions. Fox is brave for getting out in front of the story?
In a perfect world, Fallon would not have been obligated to reveal her transsexuality beyond the state athletic commissions that license her. In 2012 the Association of Boxing Commissions drafted a transgender policy for the sport. It just hasn't been needed until now.
That's not a perfect world. There's seems to be a missing constituency in Hunt's deliberative process: Fox's past and future opponents. Women who actually fight - and have rolled with and possibly even sparred men in their gyms - may have some experiential insights into differences in biology that Hunt lacks. At minimum, they have the right to know what they're up against. Not for "oh, I don't approve of that life choice" reasons. For simple competitive reasons.
And now this...
What happens to Fallon next will set the groundwork for others to follow, a small consolation as she wades through the misconceptions and misnomers and rises to tackle the discriminatory reactions she'll get in the coming weeks. That's the problem with being first. Trailblazers are usually not revered until that treacherous road snakes long behind them.
So the dialogue is set: 1). anyone speaking about the biological advantages Fox may enjoy is a bigot and 2). any reaction to her short of "reverence" is myopic. Good talk, Loretta! May the torturous road of your reasoning long snake behind me.
Hunt then follows up with quotes from heads of various advocacy groups offering assurances that Fox is without any physiological advantage because their personal philosophy of gender construction tells them so and that her current testosterone levels are low. While it's true that Fox's endocrine profile is now female, a snapshot of current levels doesn't speak to three decades of prior ingrained development operating under a very different male chemistry.
Many speaking out against Fox are meeting with organizational fear, spurred on by advocacy groups who erroneously conflate an acceptance of Fox competing in Women's MMA with issues of broader inclusion and general societal tolerance. These considerations are different though, aren't they?
One group speaking on Fox's behalf who certainly possess merit are the doctors who perform transgender procedures. Their opinions are useful, but I also wonder if there's an underlying bias given what they do and their natural sympathy for clients that face enormous negative social pressures against their choices. Similarly, it's also not particularly clear from their comments they really have walked through the implications of what all of this means in a fight.
Speaking to endocrinologists with no real dog in the fight might be informative - which The Bloody Elbow also did. One endocrinologist's conclusion:
When pitted against an average female, I would say that there were probably some advantages that the hormonal blockade and subsequent replacement can't take away 100%, simply because she lived so much of her life as a male, and developed fully as such.
A male fighter who has bombarded his endocrine system with steroids and loses the capacity to produce his own testosterone - see human action figure Alistair Overeem - don't suddenly lose most of his previous development when his endogenous male hormone levels shift to alarmingly low levels. A degree of our hormonal being is more or less set, irrespective of the later introduction of exogenous estrogen.
A certain amount of masculine development - exoskeletal, psychological, bone density, even hip, tendon, and joint structure - is more or less fixed. Fox had surgery in 2011 to reduce masculine characteristics in her face - a result of 31 years of masculine bone development that can't be undone by estrogen treatments.
Similarly, a fist is a mass of bone and cartilage. It's density and surface area relates directly to punching power - "heavy hands" - or elbows - or knees - isn't just an expression. If you don't believe it, stand in front of one of George Foreman's lazy, pawing right hands. I'll bring the smelling salts. Similarly, the span of her hands and fingers, useful for grappling, won't change. These are possible mechanical advantages. And they matter.
My perspective: free people in a free society have the right to do or be what they want as long as it doesn't hurt others. That last part is key. A societally broad acceptance of the transgendered doesn't guarantee a specific inclusion into competitive women's athletics, whose entire premise rests on the notion of same gender competition. Particularly ones in which someone is getting punched and choked. It's probably a case by case basis and I have no idea where and how to draw the lines.
Do any of us?
So maybe we just stop acknowledging this confusing and malleable notion of gender altogether. That's real fairness, isn't it?
Let's end gender discrimination in athletics. Athletes compete against athletes. Male or female. And after women are run from almost all competitive sports, various advocacy groups who valued principle over reasonable application can turn on each other and wonder how all of this fairness and non-discrimination could have gone so horribly wrong.