Fallon Fox and The Debate Over Transgender Athletics
After several years living as a woman, Fallon Fox underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2006. Six years later, she became the first openly-transgender MMA fighter, competing against other females in her weight class. As one can probably guess, Fox’s career has been met with a great deal of controversy. She has been heavily criticized by both male and female fighters as well as commentators in the sport. UFC women’s champ Ronda Rousey has publically stated she would never fight Fox (even though she claims she could beat her). Despite all of this, Fox has still found willing opponents among female MMA fighters. She has also not been shy about engaging her critics, most notably through a series of articles written for SB Nation where she challeneged comments made by UFC color commentator Joe Rogan. These are some of the comments from Rogan that she takes issue with:
“The mechanical function of punching. A man can do it much harder than a woman can PERIOD!” … “There are mechanical advantages to being a man which are absolutely undeniable. The size of the hands, the width of the shoulders, the fact that you’ve had testosterone freely flowing through your body for 30 years.” … “I’m watching the way she’s beating up on these people. The mechanical advantages are still there. If you look at her, her shoulders are wide her arms are huge.” … “There’s just a massive advantage to the male frame when it comes to combat sports.”
Have you ever watched the show “Sports Science?” It’s pretty much the Mythbusters of the sports world. They have teams of people who do little science experiments right there on TV for the whole world to see. A little while back they had an episode where they pitted one of the best female boxers on the planet against both an Olympic boxer and a professional MMA fighter in her same weight class. The team measured their per-punch impact via sensors and other electronic equipment. In the end, the result–which was surprising to most–was that she actually hit harder then the men. What most viewers had suspected was that the muscle mass of the male fighter would give the added power to prevail in this contest. They thought this because they knew what it appears Joe Rogan does not know. They understood that force equals mass times acceleration. That it’s the muscles that move every every ounce of human flesh [including bone] that would all be lifeless without it. That the more muscle one has, the more MASS one has. We call this “muscle mass.” It was supposed to be an open-and-shut case. But what really happened? What were the results?
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. They even did a blindfolded test to see how it “feels” to the human body to be punched by both Lucia and the Olympic boxer. The results? The subject could not tell the difference when punched by either fighter. In the end, the team that did the test concluded that that it was Lucia’s perfect form that made her punch harder than the men. She was able to use her “female frame” to move her “female muscle mass” in a way that generated more force than her opponents “male frames” and “male muscle mass.”
I can hear the voices already, “Well, those two dudes weren’t pro boxers. You gotta compare the best with the best!” Let’s investigate this. Do you want to know how much force professional boxer Manny Pacquiao has been recorded as generating?
Pacquiao generated 810 pounds of force, which is 112 pounds of force less than Lucia. And he weighs 147 pounds, so Lucia Rijker weighs less than him, and has less muscle mass in her arms chest and back at 140 pounds. If the mechanics of the male frame was a massive advantage in punching how would this even be possible? Surely, if the advantage were to be massive Pacquiao’s male frame would overcome whatever slight technique that he may possibly be missing on that level of skill to exert more force than Lucia. But, as we can clearly observe this is not the case. Lucia, the Olympic boxer, and Pacquiao have elite-level technique. You just can’t get more proficient at punching higher than them. Yet, when it’s all put together, Lucia hits harder… and she has a female frame. What’s up with that?
This is an interesting counter-argument. Instead of Fallon suggesting that she is weaker than a man due to her transition to female, she points out that in many cases women hit harder, thus her punching power is because she is now a female, not because she was once a man. She also makes a convincing argument about the physical effects of taking estrogen and the additional cosmetic surgeries she has undergone to look more feminine. The science is far over the head of a non-medical professional like myself, but what she has to say is certainly hard to refute based on the logic she presents.
So the question is, is it fair for a transgender woman (formerly a male) to compete with women who were born female? The International Olympic Committee seems to think so, as long as certain conditions are met. From CNN:
Guidelines are the following:
Surgical changes must have been completed, including external genitalia changes and removal of gonads.
Legal recognition of their assigned sex must have been conferred by appropriate official authorities.
Hormone therapy — for the assigned sex — must have been given for long enough to minimize any gender-related advantages in sport competitions, a period that must be at least two years after gonadectomy.
Again, because I am not a doctor I can’t speak to whether this policy is good or not, but it gives much to think about. And as often happens, the debate gets skewed by voices on both sides who use facts in a misleading way. An example comes from Brynn Tannehill, a gay rights advocate and transgender woman who writes for the Huffington Post. In a recent article she wrote (emphasis mine),
History also suggests the medicine is correct as well: transgender individuals have been allowed to compete in the Olympics for more than a decade and have never medaled.”
This is the opposite position from Fox. While Fox says that women are just as dangerous as men, Tannehill wants you to believe that transgender are not a threat to dominating the medal stand. She downplays the abilities of transgender athletes. The only problem? No transgender woman has ever competed in the Olympics.From what I have been able to gather, only one person has come close and it was a different situation. In this case, the athlete was a woman transitioning to be a man, but because she had not had gender reassignment surgery yet she was forced to compete as a woman. She also had to stop her testosterone therapy so as not to be flagged for using banned substances. So this was not a former man competing against women but a female competing against other females. The athlete in question failed to qualify during the Olympic trials.
All of this debate shows that we live in a world filled with new dynamics surrounding sex, relationships and what exactly gender means. Three women have now passed the Marine Endurance Test for the first time.
Under an order from the Secretary of Defense, services must open all combat jobs to women by January 2016, or come back with a marked reason – backed by research – as to why they should not do this.
This is certainly an interesting time in our history.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. You can also find him on Facebook. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.