Mixed Martial Arts athlete Rosi Sexton, AKA “The Surgeon,” wants the world to know she’s changed her mind about transgender athletes. Sexton tells The Daily Beast she is “embarrassed” by what she once said about Fallon Fox, the first out trans competitor in MMA, and that, “I get it, now.”
In an op-ed for Outsports she shared with The Daily Beast prior to its publication, Sexton wrote “I was wrong.”
“We cannot and should not exclude trans people from sport,” Sexton writes. “Trans people are sadly one of today’s most marginalized groups, and they deserve the opportunity to share those benefits, as much as any of us.”
Sexton was the first British woman to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and competed in 18 pro fights over a dozen years. She retired from the octagon in 2014.
Fox retired the same year. She had been competing in MMA since 2008 as the woman she is, when a reporter threatened to reveal that she was trans. Instead, she came out in interviews with Outsports and Sports Illustrated in 2013. To this day, Fox remains a controversial figure who is still prominently targeted in the debate over trans athlete inclusion, most notably for “breaking a woman’s skull”—actually, an injury to the orbital bone that Sexton notes is “not uncommon” in MMA.
UFC commenter turned podcaster Joe Rogan has, as The Daily Beast reported, made Fox’s life a living hell. UFC president Dana White misgendered her, calling her “him,” in addition to disparaging her skill. Other fighters have called her “a disgusting freak.” Anti-trans advocates and conservative-leaning sports media twist her 5-1 record and distort her accomplishments in the sport.
Among the things Sexton blogged in 2013 was her condemnation that Fox’s gender identity had been kept a secret.
“I believe it was wrong that Fox's opponents were not informed of the situation so they could make their own assessment of the risks involved and give consent… My opinion is that if someone is going to be legally punching me in the face, then it's absolutely my business if she grew up as a male. While I understand the concerns about privacy, I don't think that in this case the right to privacy trumps the opponent's right to make her own informed decision about the risks she is taking.”
What changed Sexton’s mind?
She told The Daily Beast in an interview via Zoom from her home in England that there were two motivating factors, the first being that Fox herself confronted her, online. Sexton had never met Fox in the octagon, but here they were, last month, in a virtual match eight years in the making.
“I told her that what she said was hurtful and inaccurate,” Fox told The Daily Beast about their discussion. “I was wondering if she was going to say anything about it.”
Sexton said she was caught off-guard, and explained how she “bumped into” Fox.
“I feel that nobody should have to argue for the right to be who they are,” she said, and admitted she frequently goes “down the rabbit hole,” to take up the formidable challenge of arguing over trans rights on social media.
“I was sort of in the middle of one of these fights when actually I bumped into Fallon on a Facebook group,” said Sexton. “In a quite straightforward way, she confronts me about some of the things I said, asking me, ‘Do you still think that?’ It was an uncomfortable moment, because I realized that actually I’m quite embarrassed by some of the things I said back then.”
“I had those worries that a lot of people have about fairness and safety and all of those things,” Sexton said. “I can see why it was it was so hurtful to Fallon, to say that actually trans athletes ought to disclose the fact they’re trans so that their opponents can decide whether that's a risk they're comfortable taking.
“Since then, I have gotten to know a number of trans people,” she continued. “I’ve got a number of friends who are trans, and I’ve talked to them a lot about some of the challenges they face. They’ve helped me to understand a lot of the things that they go through. I can kind of try to empathize and try and get an idea of some of those issues, but I will never know exactly what it’s like. I think what it has done is to show me some of the really awful sort of discrimination and harassment and abuse that these people face. And I think that gave me a whole different attitude towards some of these things.”
Sexton said she was conciliatory toward Fox.
“I explained that, ‘No, I’ve changed my mind about some of these things, and I understand it a lot better now than I did then.’ And she was incredibly understanding.”
“I think it was the fact that she was actually talking to a trans person and she did her homework over the years,” Fox told The Daily Beast about their conversation. “I think she meant what she said, that she met several transgender people over the years and they informed her that she was wrong, and I think that may have caused her to do her homework and look into the issue a little bit more. She’s a doctor, so I think that probably helped, too.”
“The Surgeon” now works as an osteopath. “I put people back together,” she said. “So, having spent my career breaking people, I am doing the opposite.”
Sexton said she turned to science to better understand the issue but finds reliable research into transgender athletes lacking.
“There's more sport science research being done about trans athletes, but even now, there's not very much in the way of information,” Sexton said. “Back in 2013, there was very little. I didn’t really understand the issues very well. And I think that was where I went wrong.”
Sexton explained how, amid her political pursuits, getting to know trans people and fighting for their rights in her home region in the Midlands, also helped changed her mind.
“I got a bit involved in politics here in the U.K.,” said Sexton, who serves as a local councilor for the Green Party, a British political party that takes a firm stand on self-identification of gender identity and even tweeted not too long ago, “Trans Women Are Women.” As The Daily Beast has reported, trans people across the Atlantic face a toxic tide of prejudice.
“A lot of political parties over here are having some internal issues around things like transgender rights, and this is something that's come up in our party,” Sexton said. “It’s something that I’ve been very vocal about because people I care about are affected deeply by some of these issues.”
After their online exchange, the women agreed to speak again, and when they did, Sexton revealed she was going to go public with her apology.
“I said, ‘Look, this is what I think now, and this is why I’ve changed my mind,’” she said. “I understand why people’s first reaction might be to be concerned about this. If it's something that they haven’t engaged with, something they don't really understand, I can understand why that might be their first reaction, because it was also my first reaction, and I think their first uninformed reaction.”
Sexton’s op-ed covers a range of issues, from physical advantages and the overall benefit of participation in sports to fairness and safety.
“The two most common objections directed towards trans women competing in sport alongside cis women are that ‘it’s not fair’ and that ‘it’s not safe,’” she writes. “Similar arguments were once made justifying racial segregation in sport. The perception that Black athletes have an ‘unfair’ advantage over their white counterparts led to racial discrimination and harassment that closely mirrors targeting trans women today.”
Fox said it’s no coincidence that many of the attacks on trans athletes have also targeted trans women of color, like NCAA champion track star CeCé Telfer, former high school sprinters Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, and herself.
“Traditionally, I think Black women have been considered more masculine than Caucasian women, and we've always got that rap, especially if you're wearing cornrows or something like that,” Fox said. “I think racism is deeply ingrained in a lot of this, especially since I'm getting attacked by a lot of people on the right and we know how racist that they can be.”
Although Sexton admits she can’t possibly know what trans women must endure, she said she knows all about feeling excluded.
“When I first got involved in Mixed Martial Arts, this was back in the very early 2000s, this was a time when lots of people were saying, ‘Oh, women shouldn't fight,’ you know, and ‘It's not a sport for women, nobody wants to watch women fight. Women shouldn't be fighting. Women will never fight in the UFC.’”
“I’m proud to be part of the generation that fought those battles and that we fought to be on the same shows under the same rules that the men fight,” Sexton said. “And by and large, those battles have largely been won. We made that happen and I'm really proud of that.”
Julie Kedzie is another MMA pioneer and UFC veteran. In 2007, she fought former “Mandalorian” star Gina Carano in the first televised women’s MMA bout; Kedzie lost. An aspiring writer and longtime analyst for Invicta FC—an all-women’s promotion—Kedzie is a straight cisgender ally who has expressed support for LGBTQIA+ rights, especially trans rights, even as far back as 2013.
“As a fighter, I don’t give a shit who I fight as long as they make weight and all that. I just like to compete,” she told MMAJunkie after Fox came out. “At the end of the day, when I fight I’m responsible for my performance and how I present myself to the world.”
Kedzie added: “Anybody who voluntarily takes estrogen is, in my opinion, a woman, because it’s horrible stuff. I think that if you pass the commission regulations, and if everyone says you’re a woman, then you’re a woman. I don’t think this is deliberately cheating. I think it’s someone who realized she was a woman. Regardless of what gender she was born as, she’s taken the hormones and changed her body, and she's become a woman."
What does Kedzie say about Sexton’s apology? “To me, it makes me incredibly happy, anytime we grow in duress, in cultural views and understanding each other as human beings. I really liked the way that Rosi owned-up and was trying to be an ally,” Kedzie told The Daily Beast, noting that Sexton’s 2013 comments lacked “the lens of total empathy and understanding.”
“Anytime somebody comes out and says, ‘Oh, yeah, I was wrong,’ especially somebody as smart as she is, makes me really happy,” Kedzie added, “And, on the other hand, it makes my heart break for everybody who may have been transgender in fighting, or just transgender, or anybody in MMA at that time and having to suffer the usual misunderstandings and misinterpretations.”
Kedzie, who retired from the octagon in 2013 after nine years with a record of 16-13, was the only one of a dozen people in MMA, from Rogan to White to a long list of current and retired fighters contacted by The Daily Beast, who agreed to comment for this story.
Why go public? I asked Sexton. Except for Fox, most people have long forgotten her comments from 2013.
“A lot of people may not be aware of the fact that I said these things before,” she said. “But for me, it feels incongruent. It feels like there's cognitive dissonance. And that was uncomfortable. So I thought, I should actually be upfront about this.”
For Outsports, Sexton writes, “Whenever I stand up for trans-inclusive policies, I get a barrage of similar abuse hurled my way, allegations that I support abuse of women, of children, that I’m stupid and don’t understand biology, that I’m on the side of deluded or predatory men. It can become overwhelming. Yet this is a tiny fraction of what my trans friends experience. I could opt out and walk away. They can’t.”
“I've benefited hugely from mixed martial arts as a woman,” Sexton told The Daily Beast. “It’s helped me in terms of confidence in terms of knowing and understanding and appreciating my body. I think that’s something that a lot of women struggle with. Why should we prevent another group of people who are one of the most marginalized groups out there from having those same benefits?”
“When I read what she wrote, it made me very cheerful,” said Fox, who is the subject of a forthcoming biopic about her life. “I hope she inspires other people, or changes other people’s minds. She’s really sticking her neck out, you know, to stand up for transsexual athletes, and I really, really appreciate that. We all really appreciate that.”