A mother’s love should be unconditional. Alana McLaughlin learned that isn’t always the case when she was sitting in her dorm room at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 2003. The 20-year-old had done everything her parents wanted, faithfully attending every conversion program they’d asked her to for over a decade. She couldn’t sit through one more.
McLaughlin’s mother wouldn’t even say the word “transition”, although gender reassignment was something Alana had asked for from a young age. It had never been an option, no matter how many times she asked for it and no matter how many conversion schools she attended. Over the phone, there was silence. Mother and child were now at an impasse.
“Maybe I should just go get myself killed at war,” McLaughlin said, never expecting the answer that came back.
“Maybe you should,” her mother answered. The message was clear: you better make a man of yourself or don’t bother coming back alive.
McLaughlin still gets a lump in her throat talking about the phone call. She never spoke to her mother again, so McLaughlin’s mother doesn’t know that her daughter will become the second out US transgender MMA fighter ever this Friday when she competes for Combate Global at the Univision Center in Miami. McLaughlin was assigned male at birth and grew up among a fanatically religious family in West Columbia, South Carolina.
McLaughlin knew her family was poor when she began stashing food in the woods, so she wouldn’t go hungry the next day. There were no doctor or dentist visits until adulthood. Turpentine was doled out by the spoonful as a catch-all remedy. The family didn’t own a television or a radio.
She was dirt poor – and different. She wasn’t close to her family and she had every reason not to be. McLaughlin was small and feminine, and she favored girls to boys as friends, all of which put a target on her back at school. At home, her stepfather took her bedroom door off its hinges and removed the curtains – in case there was an inclination to dress in anything they believed McLaughlin should not be in.
The farm was near her home, owned by people her parents knew. McLaughlin’s parents took her there every weekend to spend some “masculine” time with the farm family’s sons. But one of them isolated McLaughlin when she was five years old and raped her. When it was time to visit the farm each week, she climbed into a blackberry bush in their yard. The burrowing chiggers made her scratch herself bloody, but it was worth it not to go back to the farm.
“It was safe because nobody was coming in there after me,” she said. “And if they could find me, they weren’t coming in.”
Safety among the brambles was always short-lived, though. The sexual abuse continued for five years. When McLaughlin told her parents, they asked her how she could come up with such a terrible story.
It wasn’t until age 10 that McLaughlin’s parents believed her, but only because she hadn’t been the only victim to speak up. She was allowed to stay home – and away from her abuser – but nothing more was spoken of it again.
McLaughlin loved to outrace most of the kids in the church parking lot, but was forbidden to play sports because her parents thought her too small and frail. It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that she was allowed to join the cross-country team.
“I wanted to be a sprinter but we already had, literally, some of the best sprinters in the state, so I ended up being on the distance team,” she said. “[I was] the entire team. I’d end up running three or four miles per track meet.”
Indeed, McLaughlin ran well enough to earn a scholarship to Newberry College, a Division II school. She ran for Newberry her freshman and sophomore years, then transferred to Winthrop. After the call with her mother, McLaughlin viewed the US military as the ultimate conversion program. The last option. She joined in 2003.
McLaughlin put on muscle, rose up the Army ranks and became a special forces medical sergeant, part of an elite, 12-man team dispatched to Afghanistan in 2007. She treated IED casualties and even performed amputations under a doctor’s supervision. Her peers were wrestlers and Golden Gloves boxers. Yet, surrounded by soldiers McLaughlin described as “the most masculine guys anyone can conceive of,” she still debated inside if she should come out as trans to her fellow soldiers.
On one hand inside I know who I am, but I’m trying to deny it … I’m giving myself a pep talk, telling myself I am a manAlana McLaughlin
“On one hand inside I know who I am, but I’m trying to deny it,” said McLaughlin. “I’m telling myself: ‘No, you can do this, you can do this!’ I’m giving myself a pep talk, telling myself I am a man.”
Stateside, McLaughlin’s life was a constant pendulum. On the military base, she was known as that ultimate alpha male who bought every single UFC pay-per-view.
“[Off-base] I spent my weekends dressing up in the cutest stuff I could find and meeting up with my high school friends, going to Halloween parties – any excuse I could find,” she said.
McLaughlin also began three-month cycles of estrogen hormones she’d purchased online. When her chest began to swell, she’d stop her treatment, for fear of getting caught.
McLaughlin served her country for six years and was awarded eight distinguished service medals. Deciding not to reenlist, she moved north and completed her fine arts degree at UNC-Asheville in 2015. A friend suggested she relocate to Portland.
In early 2016, the chance to surgically transition fell into McLaughlin’s lap and she jumped. When she returned to the States from Thailand, she took a job behind the meat counter of a grocery store – the last job she was able to hold down.
McLaughlin was diagnosed with complex, lifelong PTSD when she established care with the Department of Veteran Affairs, after arriving in Portland. The continuous nightmares include graphic childhood memories of sexual violence and explosions in Afghanistan that feel so real, her body still can’t shake the feeling the next day.
McLaughlin sits with her back to the wall in public places. She isn’t comfortable around strangers, as a squint of the eye or even a lack of eye contact can send her mind into a narrative that she’s being threatened.
McLaughlin had watched MMA since the early 2000s. She knew it would be beneficial to her physical health when she started to train a few months ago, but it became absolutely critical to her mental fitness.
“My whole life I was a runt, I was undersized, I was bullied, I was raped, I was beaten, like I did not have an easy time,” said McLaughlin. “The story of my life has been trying to physically resist people that were larger and stronger and more skilled than me.”
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Mike Afromowitz, Combate’s senior vice-president of operations and communications, was surprised how difficult it was to secure an opponent for McLaughlin, as well as a gym where she could train for the fight. Many passed, but Afromowitz eventually placed McLaughlin with MMA Masters, a gym in in Hialeah, Florida.
McLaughlin’s opponent on Friday, France’s Celine Provost, had a promising track and field career until an ankle injury sidelined her permanently at the age of 18. She’s trained in MMA off and on for 10 years, and settled for a two-year stint in boxing because MMA remained illegal in France until December 2020.
If McLaughlin is stronger than her – one of the major arguments that detractors have against trans athletes – Provost said she is not concerned.
“I train with men that are stronger than me all of the time,” said the 35-year-old Provost, a school teacher in the Paris suburbs. “It doesn’t bother me at all. We need to show that MMA is an inclusive sport.”
McLaughlin has completed all medical requirements, including hormone-level testing, prior to the bout. She doesn’t have lofty expectations of taking the sport by storm, but she does have a goal.
“The fact of the matter is I’m at the beginning and 38,” McLaughlin said. “I want to go as far as I can, but I really want to help normalize trans people in sports. This [fight] will start my contribution.”