Fallon Fox and The Debate Over Transgender Athletics

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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71 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    Other data points…

    Facebook expanding their list of gender options to (I believe) 56. Several states passing laws protecting the rights of transgender students in classrooms.

    The times they are a changing and while I celebrate that as an overdue good, there will be tricky questions to answer that we haven’t had to previously think about. That is part of the necessary process of change.Report

  2. Damon says:

    Let’s have a scientific, statistically valid, test using numerous transgender folks, both male and female, vs non transgender male and females across various sports, and then see what the results are. One experiment by some dudes on a tv show doesn’t cut the mustard.Report

  3. Kimmi says:

    There are certain martial arts that are optimized for men, and others that are optimized for women (examples I’ve heard of were in eastern martial arts).
    I’m not at all sure that boxing falls in either category though. There are definitely moves that women can make (particularly Against Men) that a man could never pull off against a woman (it has to do with lower center of mass)… but boxing isn’t about throwing people around.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Kimmi says:

      This is MMA, no? So the fighter is able to draw from techniques developed in a wide variety of unarmed combat disciplines, blending those techniques into her own style and then testing that style and her athletic abilities against others in the ring octagon.

      This transgender woman might be able to better avail herself of techniques that favor the kinds of physical advantages a man might have over a woman, because at one point her body was physiologically male (or, if you prefer, mostly so). And maybe she won’t be able to effectively utilize the sorts of techniques that a woman can use better than a man.

      That’s why this is a sticky case without an easy answer. Her journey towards matching her physical body with her mental and emotional gender is going to have been and in the future will be her own, and have individual facets to it unlike the journey of any other trans woman. But meanwhile, she continues to live her life and in her case that means pursuing the athletic endeavor of MMA. Where she is now on that journey, and what her physical abilities as an MMA fighter are now, are in part a function of her physiology, but also in part a function of her training, and all of the other sorts of things that go into athletics in this age of suddenly advanced scientific knowledge about what makes the human body do what it does.

      So while cisgendered athletes are easy to classify by sex and weight class and that’s widely accepted as ‘fair competition,’ it’s not so easy when the gender lines get blurry. I don’t envy the MMA officials, who have a vested interest in creating competition that is both actually fair and which appears fair, as well as keeping up the public appeal of the sport to continue attracting the large number of athletes and the growing audience that has made their organization profitable. This case is likely to be one in which no decision can possibly leave all of the stakeholders content enough with the outcome.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Kimmi says:

      But any feature that separates men and women you will find women that are more X than the average man and men who are more Y than the average woman. So whatever the traits that will dominate a sport, the men and women who compete will have these advantages in full measure.

      Such as body mass. Fallon Fox, like most trans women, has a fair amount of body mass.


      She has to build her muscle mass like every woman out there, and it rises and falls according to how hard she works and her hormone balances from month to month, just like a cis woman. And her hormone balances are in the normal female range and will have been so for many years.

      Are her bones more dense? I bet you can find cis women with bones even more dense. And like those cis women, Fallon Fox pays for it on the scale. That bone she has — she pays for it with less muscle.

      You might say, “But trans women have an advantage,” but trans women are rare and advantages get spread out among the population and there are cis women with more advantages than Fallon Fox, who like Fox did nothing to earn them other than being born with this set of genes rather than that.

      By base probability, a top performing cis athlete needs great genes. A top performing trans athlete needs pretty darn good genes plus they need to be trans. I suspect the latter is a tighter filter.Report

  4. zic says:

    My dad was amazingly strong. He farmed all his life, could easily pick up the back of a car or a cow; I know, I saw him do those things many times.

    When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer (it killed him,) he went through the same HRT my daughter takes — estrogen and and an anti-androgen to suppress testosterone, which made his cancer grow faster. He had two complaints; the first was that it made him feel uncomfortable mentally (the opposite of my daughter’s reaction, she feels much more comfortable and happy). The second was that he was physically weak; and my daughter also says she’s no where near as strong as she was before.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to zic says:

      From what I understand, the issue may be that women need to work harder to get the same amount of muscle, not that equally muscled opponents aren’t equal.

      Not sure, though?Report

      • Dave in reply to Kimmi says:


        If by working harder to get the same amount of muscle you mean that it’s harder for women to reach a certain body fat percentage than it is men, that’s not an unreasonable claim. Generally speaking, male physique competitors/fitness models, etc. can lean themselves down to significantly lower body fat percentages much easier than women can.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

        how much does body fat percentage really matter, sport by sport?
        I think that women have a harder time getting good running times because of wider hip bones…Report

      • Dave in reply to Kimmi says:


        In athletics, strength is more important than body fat percentage. If strength is appropriately addressed, body fat will adjust accordingly and body composition improves. They won’t focus on body fat for the sake of it. If they did that, athletic performance would suffer.Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to Kimmi says:

        Body fat percentage is really important in those sports that divide up competitors by weight class. Because the fat is basically useless in the competition, and going down a class will put you in with people who are “smaller”. Of course, they are probably doing the same thing.

        It’s why wrestlers form a small pocket of male bulimics. I knew several guys that would spit a lot, wear sweatsuits or take laxative to make weight – this is classic purging behavior.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Kimmi says:

        It is harder for women both to maintain a low BFP and to build muscle mass, which is why the top male powerlifters outcompete the top female powerlifters.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to zic says:

      My sympathies, @zic . The treatment might have prolonged his life somewhat, but what you describe must surely have been a blow to his ego suffered along the way.

      And yeah, it’s amazing what even small amounts of the right hormone can do to a person. A little bit humbling that we are so ruled by body chemistry rather than something resident within the consciousness.Report

      • zic in reply to Burt Likko says:

        A little bit humbling that we are so ruled by body chemistry rather than something resident within the consciousness.

        And then there’s the mass tinkering with levels of background estrogens in the environment going on . . . I have a family member who will only live at the top of watersheds for this reason. Some say he’s a kook, I say he’s a manly kook interested in preserving the manly part of his identity. (Dude’s actually a big-deal scientist.)Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Burt Likko says:

        nobody likes to talk about the Moob Epidemic. but statistics show…Report

  5. Rufus F. says:

    I don’t know why this doesn’t seem like a big issue to me, but maybe it’s just because I think of athletes, by definition, as being people who change their bodies in order to compete with one another. Sometimes really radically. So, this change doesn’t seem more significant than, say, doubling their body mass or whatever else they had to do.Report

  6. Jim Heffman says:

    The issue isn’t throwing one punch; it’s going the distance in a fight. If I can take your punch and give one back, then it doesn’t matter whether you can punch harder than me. And a lifetime of testosterone exposure will make it more likely that I can take your punch than if it had been estrogen that whole time.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      Cite your sources, please.
      How does this stack up against the well documented “women have more pain tolerance than men” issue?
      Please recall that steroid use works mostly by reducing pain.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Jim Heffman says:

      Playing Devil’s Advocate here, what Jim is possibly getting at is that a man’s body, with usually a higher bone density and increased muscle mass, can withstand & distribute the force of a blow more effectively than a woman’s body could. Ergo, a male body could absorb more strikes & damage before failure than a female body could.

      How much more, and if it is enough to make a difference, would require some testing.Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        This might be the case. I’ve worked out with enough women over the years though to question it. My jujitsu sensei is a woman, and there was a time when I was sure that she was tougher than I was, in terms of taking punishment.

        What I’m saying is that there might be differences, but the burden of proof is on the person claiming the difference – once you factor out size/weight.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Well I think I have a solution which would be fair to trans people. Let us suppose that there are certain skeletal arrangements that unfairly benefit trans athletes, maybe bone density, maybe shoulder width, whatever. So then get some physiologists and sports medicine people to look at the issue and make a good faith determination of the exact measurements where it becomes unfair. Then women who exceed these values could be banned. Easy peasy. We want the sport to be fair.

        (Or else, maybe such women could compete in their own division. That would be fine. It’s a business decision. They have to judge if there would be enough competitors and fans. But it’s plausible.)

        Here is what would happen, though. The number of trans folks in the world is about a half percent. And our athletic abilities are pretty spread out. So it really is a incredibly small number of people who will be barred from competing by these criteria. On the other hand, half the population (roughly) are cis women. They are likewise spread out across the spectrum of athletic prowess. Statistically they lag behind male athletes. But quite a lot of top-level female fighters will have great “fighting skeletons,” whatever those are.

        Dollars to donuts that any such rules, if created in good faith, would exclude far more cis athletes than trans athletes. The rules that block Fallon Fox, if fair, would block her cis opponents.


        As an easy example, trans women tend to be taller than cis women. In basketball, height is clearly an advantage. So, for example, the average height of a WNBA player is (roughly) 6’. So officials might determine that any woman over 6’8” really has an unfair advantage. Therefore any women who exceed that height could be banned.

        This would affect trans women disproportionately over cis women, clearly, since we have a height distribution more similar to men. So, okay. But there are cis women over that height. Not many. But they exist. (According to some quick Google-fu, Margo Dydek is 7’2”. She would be banned. Cuz we wanna be fair.)

        Does this sound sensible?

        (Of course it doesn’t.)


        Top athletes have many advantages we might call “unfair,” by which I mean advantages the athletes gained by no choice or action of their own. These include their genetics, their prenatal development, their childhood nutrition, on and on. We shall call these unearned advantages.

        Trans women are women. Like all women (like all people), we have a certain set of unearned advantages, alongside a set of undeserved detriments. If some of these give us advantages in athletics, why is that unjust? The entire enterprise runs according to unearned advantages.

        Plus a lot of hard work. We all admire the hard work. I’ve seen no one, not even Joe Rogan, suggest that Fallon Fox does not work hard.

        The fear is, I guess, that trans athletes would have such overwhelming advantages that they would dominate the sport, perhaps like how certain African countries dominate long distance running — but then, so what if we do? I think saying, “I don’t like how those Africans keep winning” is maybe kinda racist. Who here will deny that transphobia is widespread and often unconscious? Is the true rejection of Fallon Fox her skeleton?Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I agree. if there’s a dime’s worth of difference between a cis and a trans woman, let ’em both compete. If it turns out that trans women are so much better that you might as well not even fight? well, the market will sort that out on its own. [yes, by which I mean the rule-makers will say “we think you guys are too good”]

        The important thing is these folks aren’t cheating. They don’t get reassignment (Pc term?) just to compete. This is like the guy without legs — yes, he can run faster, but… that’s not his choice. He didn’t do it just to compete.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Rules for any competition, athletic or otherwise, are arbitrary, and, in a vacuum, solely designed to make that competition and the results interesting. Outside a vacuum, there are of course desires by the rule makers to adjust the rules to provide some overall and/or net benefit to the rule makers. (like, for instance, the near century long rule that Olympic athletes be ‘amateurs’ so that the competition would be among gentlemen, and not working class plebes of all hues – but generally darker ones – that would debase themselves by engaging in sport for the money).

        So, for example, the rules on who may play on a youth baseball team based on age and geography are designed so that numerous teams of approximately equal ability are fielded, and not just a few ‘super-teams’. Of course, people being people, the rules are gamed and bent to their breaking point, and sometimes beyond it. And it’s certainly a fair question to ask if a particular *enforcement* action has a bit (or more) of a race/class competent – that is, is rule breaking prevalent and is a particular team being singled out – but it’s not as fair to assert that a certain rule is racist. Or rather, that it should be a lot higher bar.

        It’s unlikely that sporting events that restrict access to or make different categories for female participants will suddenly be swamped by trans competitors due to the relatively small percentage of the overall population, as you said. But the longstanding practice of creating leagues of their own for women is because there are a vanishing small amount of sporting events where men & women compete head to head and/or with the exact same rules and men don’t dominate the competition – the iditarod is the most famous exception.

        Everyone now thinks Jock Semple is a major league a-hole (though he got better), and Will Cloney a minor league one. But the empirical fact remains that the top female finisher in any given major marathon these days finishes out of the top ten, and normally out of the top twenty, among all the people that run that marathon.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        you’re wrong, actually. Military servicemen were allowed to compete in the equestrian events, and those were generally people who had received payment for their expertise (cavalry units). Granted, the military was a “gentleman’s enterprise”…

        All the equestrian events are non-gendered.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Kimmi, that’s the same loophole the Warsaw Pact & China exploited for years; the ‘amateurs’ on the USSR Hockey team almost all had day jobs in the Soviet Army.

        (Hell, I met personnel in the Fijian Navy about 12 years ago now which was pretty much just a front for their national rugby team)Report

      • I think with MMA there is really no issue. Fighters are not forced to accept any fight (it could be argued they are ‘pressured’ but this is a bit different). So if a woman wants to fight Fox, they should be allowed to.

        I can see where there are better arguments to be made in team sports where you just play whomever you are scheduled against…but the difference in body types and natural abilities vary greatly.

        To me the biggest question is really about the impact of estrogen and/or gender reassignment. As a general rule, the top male athlete is nearly always going to be strong, faster, etc than the top female athlete. Otherwise, why separate them in most competitions? So does gender reassignment or estrogen treatments level the playing field? That’s where it goes over my head.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        @mike-dwyer — I’m 6′ 240lbs, and I have fairly broad shoulders, strong bones, and so on. I got those cuz male puberty. There are very few cis women who can match me in this. On the other hand, I generate force through muscle, and my ability to build and retain muscle mass will be withing the normal female ranges, cuz I got rid of my testosterone. (Terrible stuff, actually.) So in sports where body mass is an advantage, I have that advantage. Likewise sports where a large frame helps. But note, in most sports where body mass is a decisive advantage, you will find weight divisions.

        In fact, I am too heavy to compete in nearly every female sport where weight is measured. They don’t have weight divisions for gals like me. Which I accept. That’s life.

        For a team sport, say soccer — well, how fast can I run? I have long legs. I’d be good on the sprint, but if that’s all that mattered soccer teams would just poach the track team and win the championship. Soccer can involve contact. I’d knock most soccer players aside. But then, women’s soccer doesn’t really look like men’s hockey. There is a reason for this. I don’t want to generate penalties. Would I be a good soccer player?

        I’m pretty fucking huge. So I couldn’t turn as fast as the other players. I could kick hard, but with the same control? How would my ball handler measure up against a smaller woman?

        How tired would I get? I’m big, but I’m carrying that weight with an estrogen metabolism. After twenty minutes of sprinting and kicking hard, how would I perform against the other women carrying less weight with the same muscles?

        I suspect that if I joined my local amateur women’s soccer club (if they would have me), that I would do okay. I have my strengths. A smart coach would use them. But I bet I wouldn’t be the star.

        If I joined a women’s hockey team — different story. But I bet those butches would fucking wreck me and smile while they did it. I’m real big and I’d hit the walls real hard. We could glower at each other in the penalty box.

        The top skaters would make me look like a lumbering sadsack chump.Report

  7. Kolohe says:

    This is the same Joe Rogan whose previous career highpoint was presiding over a competition of people that ate bugs for money, correct?Report

  8. Kolohe says:

    Serious question – from a sports kinetics point of view (specifically, getting punched in the face), which is most important: Force, Energy, or Momentum?Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Kolohe says:

      Certainly not impulse. you’re not using a club (which does tend to work on that principle, making it far harder to learn to use competently than a sword).Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Kimmi says:

        I dispute the premise that a mace is not harder to use than a sword. And it’s still the same question – an object with mass moving at a certain velocity hitting another object (i.e. someone’s noggin). What’s the most important factor – 1) the velocity (and thus energy, which varies as velocity squared), 2) the mass (and thus momentum, which varies equally with mass and velocity), or 3) the first derivative of velocity (and thus force).

        The question comes down to how much a tradeoff between mass and motion can occur before an attack becomes sub-optimal. Most hand weapons use leverage and mechanical advantage to add both mass and velocity to the output at a concentrated point for a given force input. Something with a deliberate pointy end magnifies the force per unit area even more, with the tradeoff of requiring more skill to apply that pressure where it’s the most useful.

        But you make a good point with impulse; the peak Ivan Drago-ish force measurement isn’t as important as the sustained average force over a given period of time.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

        with maces and such (which are indeed harder to use than a sword — sorry for confusion), you’re trying to crumple plate, or other hard objects (shields). That’s why it’s impulse.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Kimmi says:

        “which are indeed harder to use than a sword — sorry for confusion”

        No confusion, except on my awkward phrasing. I’m disagreeing with you – maces/clubish weapons are easier weapons to use than a sword/bladish weapons.

        Now, do they greatly favor straight up upper body strength and are essentially useless for someone without a certain prerequisite level of the same? Certainly. But learning to use the fulcrum to optimize the blow is a far easier skill than learning how to control the precise motions required for an edged weapon to be effective. (of which knowing how to use the pivot point is a subset)Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

        take it up with ICE if you don’t believe me. Knowing the level of grognards that they have on staff, I know they’ve done their homework. (the issue with clubs/maces is that you have to do the rebound as well, unlike a sword which cuts “in”. Learning to cut is different than learning how to do “bounce” your weapon off someone.)

        Naturally, even the smallest child understands the relatively ogreish level of “smash” — but that’s not wielding the weapon effectively.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Kimmi says:

        When in doubt, I go check the SCA Marshall’s Handbook to see how they classify the various melee weapons. A one-handed greatsword (maximum length 48″ overall) is considered a mass weapon, as is a mace. Not surprising — once you get to the point where everyone is armored (at least somewhat) and has a big shield to hide behind, it’s all about battering the shield aside so you can do something. One-on-one combat without the shields is another thing entirely.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kimmi says:


        I would say kinetic energy is the most directly relevant. In order to do damage to someone’s face, you need to work against the muscles and other connective tissue on the face and neck. This work requires energy.Report

    • greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

      I’d say choosing a sport where you don’t’ get punched in the face is most important factor by far.Report

  9. j r says:

    The surprising results were that Lucia Rijker metaphorically cleaned her opponents’ clock. She was able to generate 922 pounds of force. Her boxing opponent generated 710 pounds of force, and pro MMA fighter Houston Alexander generated an equal amount of force as Lucia Rijker.

    If this is true, it’s a pretty big deal. It would basically mean that you could have men and women fighting each other and competing in the same sports without seeing men enjoy much of an advantage.

    So, I went and found the episode that Fox is talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mfn5As4G5o. Does not quite live up to the hype. Basically Lucia Rijker is generating 922 lbs of force by winding up and delivering a hook, while the man is delivering jabs and crosses. Same with Pacquiao.

    Would like to see this replicated with people throwing the same punch from the same distance.Report

    • Troublesome Frog in reply to j r says:

      I think you’re right about the methodology being a little bit suspect. It does make the point that technique makes a big difference, but the real question at hand is whether other factors give one a systematic advantage once everybody has maxed out on technique and training. Just as interesting, if there is a systematic advantage, how big does it need to be before we create separate leagues?

      I mean, a forensic anthropologist can look at your skeleton and make a decent guess about your ethnic background. What if it turned out that certain ethnic traits in bones give a slight but nonzero advantage in MMA? How big would the advantage have to be before we started separating fighters by something other than weight and gender? Where do we draw the line between innate talent and unfair biological advantage?

      I’d actually be interested in Joe Rogan’s take on the video. I think he’d either have some valid criticisms of it or, if he couldn’t come up with any, he’d probably change his position. I listen to his podcast pretty regularly because he has a variety of interesting guests sometimes the discussions can get pretty interesting. The format (three hours of totally unstructured talk with a single person) sometimes generates some interesting moments.

      He’s not a dumb guy and he’s clearly interested in just about everything about the world around him. He’s open to a lot of stuff that’s pretty far out there (crazy Internet pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, etc.), but he usually drops a bad idea like a hot potato once somebody makes a convincing argument against it and he’s not afraid to say in public, “I used to believe X but I learned I was wrong because somebody pointed out Y.”Report

  10. Michael Cain says:

    Don’t confuse me with biologically engineered athletes — I’m still struggling with what happens with where prostheses are going. Can a person engage in MMA with an artificial hand or foot?Report

  11. Mike Dwyer says:

    I’ll address a few points here:

    1) Joe Rogan – He’s a well-respected martial artist in addition to being a color commentator, comedian, etc. He has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and won the US Open Tae Kwon Do Championship at age 19. he also has two black belts in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. So, he’s legit. Does that automatically make him right? No.

    2) I do have some slight problems with Fallon Fox considering one win in particular. When she defeated Allanna Jones with a shin choke that got my attention. I have watched probably 1,000 MMA fights and have never seen anyone pull that off. Are there other crazy finishes in fights between people of the same gender? Yes. So this may just be one of those moments, but it does seem a bit odd. You can see that fight here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbCID2Gtax0

    3) Fox’s physique is definitely a bit unusual. She seems to have muscles in places other females don’t, but I am not prepared to say that it is an advantage. The best comparison I can make is to Cristiane Santos. Santos has been criticized for her physique as well but she was born a woman. The complaints about her reference steroids and she has been popped for usage once. Even with her heavily-muscled frame, she still has a more feminine build. Could she kick Fox’s ass? Probably. But Santos’ technique is world-class and Fox has already lost one fight to a not-very-good female with better cardio.Report

  12. Jaybird says:

    I’m pretty sure that a *HUGE* chunk of the prejudice against transpeople in sporting is a holdover from the Cold War and people are just thinking “but if we allow that sort of thing, the East Germans will downright get away with murder!!!”Report