Before Caitlyn Jenner, there was Fallon Fox. The MMA fighter, who came out as a transgender woman in 2013, is the subject of a new documentary, "Game Face." The film takes an inside look at Fox's coming-out process and the challenges of being a transgender athlete. "Game Face" also features the story of Terrence Clemens, a basketball player from Los Angeles, who struggles to come out to his college team in Oklahoma.
Even though there has been more visibility for trans people over the last few years, there are not many out trans athletes competing at the highest levels. Basketball player Kye Allums came out in 2010, becoming the first openly trans NCAA Division I athlete. Chris Mosier qualified for the World Championships in duathlon and is the first trans athlete to make a national team coinciding with their gender identity.
The challenges Fox has faced throughout her career, however, are different, and "Game Face" strives to make that point clear. Mosier puts it best when he says "I'm competing against men now, and no one expected me to win or be competitive." When Fox came out, the opposite happened. The assumption was that she has a competitive advantage due her assigned sex at birth.
On one hand, "Game Face" shows just how far we've come in terms of accepting trans identity. Fox's coming out stands in stark contrast to the reception of Caitlyn Jenner. Though some of her fans were supportive, many members of the MMA community publicly denounced Fox, lamenting her perceived advantage.
Former UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey responded at the time to the New York Post: "She can try hormones, chop her pecker off, but it's still the same bone structure a man has. It's an advantage. I don't think it's fair."
Dana White, UFC president, is shown in the documentary sharing that sentiment. "Bone structure is different, hands are bigger, jaw is bigger, everything is bigger," White said. "I don't believe in it. I don't think someone who used to be a man and became a woman should be able to fight a woman."
Rousey has continued to comment on the subject, and while she has not been quite as crass as that initial interview, her perspective remains the same as she explained to the Huffington Post last year.
By highlighting the pushback around Fox's coming out, "Game Face" shines a light on the sexism and transphobia facing transgender athletes, and just how difficult finding acceptance can be. Fox shared her personal struggles with being accepted by her family, and in a particularly poignant moment said she had thoughts of attempting suicide. Some studies report that 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide in their lifetime, an exceptionally high and sad statistic.
But the beauty of "Game Face" is the honesty with which it portrays Fox's story, and that includes the happier moments. There is a community that rallies around Fox, and she is shown in the company of Mosier and Allums. She is honored by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer organization the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and is shown with her partner at the time. Fox's strength and resilience shine on the screen as an invitation for us to dig down deep and examine the reasons behind our hesitation towards trans people. She is hard not to love.
"Game Face" was released Feb. 1 and is streaming on Netflix and Amazon. It is also available on iTunes.
Katie Barnes is a digital media associate at ESPN. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.