Fallon Fox hasn’t forgiven Joe Rogan. She can’t forgive Joe Rogan. Seven years ago, the now-retired Fox became the first mixed martial arts fighter to publicly come out as trans—an act of bravery that was met with a torrent of abuse and groaning bigotry. Not just from Rogan, now an exceedingly wealthy and influential podcaster, but across the sport, including UFC President Dana White, ex-champ turned WWE wrestler Ronda Rousey, her fellow MMA fighters, and the extremely vocal fans who went after her.
The hostility and prejudice persists to this day. She’d stepped away from social media for a few years, but has started making her voice heard again of late.
Whenever she does so, the harassment rears its ugly head once again, Fox told The Daily Beast. Despite all of her efforts to explain why none of their spittle-flecked insults or science-free musings hold up to the slightest bit of credible scrutiny, and despite whatever progress has been made when it comes to trans issues, there are those who cannot be swayed.
In an ideal world, the 44-year-old Fox would love to be able to “let bygones be bygones,” she said. But the blinkered assertions Rogan made—and continues to make—have in many ways framed how trans athletes are perceived and buttressed the ongoing efforts to keep trans athletes from competing in sports, according to Fox. (Rogan did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)
“I’m still dealing with the ramifications,” she said, maintaining a steely calm that never wavered throughout the interview. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to lower my guard in that regard when he hasn’t apologized or retracted his statements.”
While Fox never set out to be a “pioneer,” as The New York Times described her in 2013, or the face of a political movement, her refusal to back down in the face of relentless transphobia meant shouldering that at-times burdensome role. As Cyd Zeigler, who, along with Sports Illustrated, first broke the story of Fox’s decision to come out, told The Daily Beast, “She really kick-started conversations about trans athletes.” It was and is heroic, making Fox a deserving inductee into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame. By Zeigler’s estimation, Fox is “the bravest athlete in history.”
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For those who weren’t paying attention at the time, the memory of what Fox endured may have faded. It shouldn’t. “The depth of the vicious hatred that was thrown at her is impossible to overstate,” said Zeigler. “It is a miracle that Fallon is still alive.”
Growing up in East Toledo, Ohio, in a deeply religious household, the term “transgender” didn’t even enter Fox’s consciousness until she heard it on TV at age 17. As Fox explained to GQ, she experimented with wearing girl’s clothing at a very young age, an act that in and of itself felt like some kind of betrayal. “I was brought up with the idea that God is watching at all times,” she said in a 2014 episode of HBO’s Real Sports. “So I felt dirty. I felt worthless. I felt like I was going to hell just for putting on women’s clothes.”
After graduating high school and fathering a daughter out of wedlock, Fox did a four-year stint in the Navy. She studied graphic design in college for a bit, but failed to earn her degree. To support herself and her family, Fox drove a big rig cross-country, but over the course of six years, Fox began to realize who she was and what she wanted to be. (After coming out to her parents, they prescribed a “Christian reparative-counseling group,” according to GQ.)
In 2006, at age 30, Fox finally saved enough cash for gender-reassignment surgery in Thailand. “The first time I got called ‘Miss’ that felt amazing,” she told HBO. “Amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing.”
At the time, Fox was living in Chicago and trying to drop a few pounds. She stumbled across a gym online and began to train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art that has served as the baseline for MMA fighters going back to the sport’s inception a century ago. For two years, she continued working and improving her skills, eventually becoming a purple belt, and testing out her still-nascent skill set in submission tournaments. Following a year spent learning Muay Thai, Fox found a gym that concentrated on developing MMA fighters. She prevailed in her first three amateur featherweight fights starting in June 2011, and her first two pro bouts over the following two years—until one night in March 2013, when a reporter got in touch and intimated he planned to out her.
The only option left to Fox was seizing control of the narrative. “I felt that I should probably go around him and try and tell my story before he did,” she said. “There was no telling how he was going to present my story. Given how the media has represented trans people in the past, especially at that point, I felt it was going to be negative.”
Fox’s prediction proved accurate. “It was an immediate tidal wave of a chorus from fighters, fans, and journalists who literally had no idea what they were talking about,” Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports.com and author of Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes are Claiming their Rightful Place in Sports said. “[They] were putting out garbage information about the realities of science and medicine, distorting facts, and flat-out lying.”
When questioned as to whether Fox would be fighting in the UFC some day, president Dana White casually and cruelly misgendered her and then downplayed her previous wins. “He was a man and now he’s a woman—he’s fighting girls who have losing records,” White said. “Before you get too crazy about him being in the UFC, he’s so freaking far from being in the UFC that it’s not even funny.” (White has not responded to a request for comment.)
Matt Mitrione went further. During an interview with MMA reporter Ariel Helwani, the UFC heavyweight jokingly compared Fox to the serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs and called her a “sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak.”
Asked why he bore so much hostility toward Fox, Mitroine doubled down. “Because she’s not a he,” Mitrione replied. “He’s a he. He’s chromosomally a man. He had a gender change, not a sex change. He’s still a man. He was a man for 31 years… Six years of taking performance de-hancing drugs, you think is going to change all that? That’s ridiculous.” (The UFC suspended Mitrione for his comments about Fox, but his brief timeout ended 16 days later. Fox accepted his post-rant apology.)
Former UFC champion Ronda Rousey similarly saw her presence in MMA as an issue. Even if Fox chose to “try hormones, chop her pecker off, it’s still the same bone structure a man has,” she told The New York Post. “It’s an advantage. I don’t think it’s fair.” A year later, Rousey reiterated that she had no desire to fight against a trans woman, pinning her rationale to junk science.
The question of bone density and its impact on “fairness” has been a particular bugaboo for those opposed to trans participation in sports, particularly MMA. Rogan has carped on the topic extensively. “That tranny,” he said, referring to Fox, on his podcast in 2013, “you’re a fucking man. You can’t have… that’s… I don’t care if you don’t have a dick anymore.” Rogan has continued to rail against the presence of trans people in sports and weigh in on non-sports trans issues alike, even though he swears none of it is born out of animus or prejudice.
In a 2018 podcast, Rogan said anyone who disagreed with him was “fucking crazy,” adding, “You guys can kiss my fucking ass. You’re out of your mind.” As a comparison, he asked what the reaction would be if UFC champion Brock Lesnar chose to “chop his dick off” and fought a cis woman. Rogan went to the same well in 2019 and warned that cis women are being put in harm’s way and/or placed at a disadvantage.
To be clear, that argument was and is bunk. In Fox’s case, the Florida boxing commission, plus the International Olympics Committee and the NCAA, gave her their stamp of approval, Zeigler explained. “For all those people to scream and jump and holler, they literally were going against every governing body that’s looked at this issue,” he said. (Back in 2014, Fox also painstakingly broke down why Rogan and his ilk were in the wrong.)
To be clear, no one Zeigler’s been in contact with is arguing for zero guidelines being imposed when it comes to trans athletes who compete in women’s sports. That doesn’t mean accepting at face value the obvious attempt at concern-trolling coming from Donald Trump Jr.—who devoted a few fact-free paragraphs of his book to Fox—and others on the right who’ve treated trans civil rights as yet another culture-war battle and legislative wedge issue.
(Specifically, Trump Jr. took umbrage with “a man,” he wrote, referencing Fox, “who was losing bouts to other men, so he decided he wanted to beat up women instead.” In addition to misgendering her, this is patently false. Fox is a woman who has never fought, professionally or otherwise, against a man in her life, let alone lost.)
“Joe Rogan is not about protecting women’s sports,” Zeigler insisted. “It’s simply transphobia. There’s no other way around it.”
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Despite all of that—the lies, the near-constant battles to justify her existence and the death threats Fox says both she and her daughter received, Fox swore to continue fighting. “It was disheartening. It was hard to take,” she admitted. And while the abuse grew so awful she had suicidal thoughts in 2014, Fox made it clear that no matter what, “I wasn’t going to back down and let them dictate my future.”
Fox’s athletic career came to an end shortly after she came out. She fought three more times, winning twice, but soon afterwards, the offers dwindled and then vanished entirely. Following a string of debilitating injuries, and after being out for too long, she hung up her gloves. This year, Fox had spent time trying to get back in fighting shape. Hopefully, that’d include an MMA fight of some sort, she said, but COVID-19 shut down gyms across the country, putting an end to her hopes of a comeback.
As an athlete, it hurts. “I miss being able to throw down with other elite-level women, to be considered among the best. That challenge of hanging in there with them and the thrill of being one of them is rare to experience,” she said via text message. “I wish I could share with everyone what that’s like.”
If she had her druthers—and to be clear, this is an entirely hypothetical suggestion—it’d mean taking on none other than J.K. Rowling, who’s been in the news more for her own extremely loud anti-trans beliefs of late than her literary output. (Fox described her as “the modern-day Janice Raymond.”) If only to level the playing field, Fox is willing to give her would-be opponent “a few years training and a couple of fights beforehand,” she said. ”It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.”
Even though it’s been years since Fox has been in the spotlight, she still regularly hears from trans people, both athletes and not, and both in and out of the closet. They’ve told Fox that her visibility made an enormous difference.
“[It] has helped them deal with being trans and coming out to their family or just motivation for them living their daily lives,” Fox said. “It feels really good to hear them say that. It makes me feel like what I did was worthwhile.”
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