Interview with Liz Carmouche: first openly gay MMA fighter, one of the first two female fighters in the UFC, and an inspiration to all

Liz Carmouche made history this past February when she became the first openly gay fighter and one of the first two female fighters in the history of the UFC.

Despite defeat against Ronda Rousey, Carmouche is back full force, and prepared to take on Jessica Andrade this weekend in her first match since UFC 157.

Carmouche has had an overwhelming amount of support from the UFC community, LGBT community, and her fan base of "Lizbos" throughout her career as an out, female MMA fighter. In a conversation with GLAAD in the past, Carmouche said that she's experienced nothing but support from UFC fans and fellow fighters during her career in MMA. "They've just been super supportive."

As Carmouche heads into her second large fight with the UFC, GLAAD spoke with her on being out in athletics, how she got where she is today, and how she continues to stay motivated and inspired.

What has been your greatest struggle not only being a woman in MMA, but specifically an openly gay woman in fighting?

Actually, I haven’t encountered any struggles either being woman in MMA or being a lesbian in the sport. If anything, the MMA world is very open and welcoming no matter who you are. As long as you respect yourself, the gym, and the sport, hard work is all that counts.

When I first started MMA we had a sponsor who said something like “We know you are gay, but maybe you don’t need to talk about it so much”. But I get asked about it almost every interview. When I joined the UFC, the biggest promotion in the sport, in February they were extremely welcoming and promoted me as the person I am. They promote me as a world class athlete first and foremost, and if the media want to talk about who I am as a person that is fine, too.

When did you decide to come out and why?

I served in the US Marines under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and it was a very negative experience. I want to state that I know of other gays and lesbians who served in the Armed Forces at the same time I did, under DADT, and they had very different, very positive, experiences. It all depends on who you are serving with and the difference between people who had a good experience and me is that my commanding officers were very homophobic. They would make jokes about getting gays on the front line so they would get shot first, and would try to trip you up and “out” you, I had to be very guarded all the time. It was a very worrying, stressful environment, and I couldn’t even be open about myself even with my best friend in the Marines.

It even affected me when I was home. I would come home from a tour in the Middle East and while everyone else had their girlfriend or partner greet them at the airport, I had to drive all the way home before I saw my partner. She couldn’t come to meet me at the airport, because there were people who’d be looking trying to see if we were more than friends. Even during the year I was awaiting discharge, I had to be careful what I said and who I said it to.

So, when I came in to MMA, I wanted to be open from the start. I never wanted to live a lie like that ever again and once I was discharged I didn’t have to. I sat down with my mother and my girlfriend Eliza, saying that if I was good at MMA, I could be on TV and in magazines and I wanted to be open and obviously that could impact them. They were very supportive. Eliza was great; she said she fell in love with me so everyone watching on TV would love me for who I am too.

Who has been your greatest supporter and inspiration throughout your career?

Without a doubt my mother and my partner. No-one could ask for a more supportive family. Eliza even agreed to appear in the UFC Primetime shows during the countdown to my last fight when I challenged Ronda Rousey for the UFC title. We had a camera crew virtually living with us for three weeks and Eliza was very supportive. My coach and team-mates are also great. When I came out to them, they all fell about laughing, saying “Yeah, we know!” They couldn’t have been less interested that I was gay.

As a fighter, I’m inspired by all the great champions of the UFC like Anderson Silva. Losing to Ronda in my last fight is what is inspiring me right now, inspiring me to get better so I can win a rematch.

With the rise in athletes coming out, why do you think this is an important trend in the athletic world? How do you think this can impact the future of athletics?

I absolutely feel it is so important for athletes to play a role in what’s happening right now with the LGBT community. There have been some huge steps forward, but I don’t think we are there yet. I think a big part of the changing attitudes you see right now is because of gay people appearing so often on TV. Seeing LGBT characters on television show for years – even if sometimes the way we are characterized isn’t perfect – has made gay people less scary. 

If a gay athlete has a good support system around them and they compete for an organization which isn’t homophobic, I’d love for them to come out. There are plenty of gay actors, gay people in music and on television, and I feel like sports is one of the few places in public life where we are under-represented and closeted. I’m very encouraged more and more gay athletes are coming out, and also by the mostly positive reaction they get when they do.

Was fighting always a passion of yours?

Actually, no. I was always an athletic kid, I played soccer and other sports when I was young and had to play with the boys because the other parents said I was too rough to play with the girls. But I only took up MMA because once I left the Marines I wanted to do something challenging and active. I’d seen the UFC on TV and wanted to do it almost like a bucket list thing, just to do it for a while to see what it was about.

I went down one day to the San Diego Combat Academy to try it out, they put me in the ring to spar, I got my nose all bloody - and I was hooked. I loved the challenge of the sport, for every move there’s a counter and there’s a counter for every counter. You are thinking two moves ahead but at the same time the sport is so fast, and there are so many ways to win and lose every moment. I fell in love with the sport that day and I’ve trained almost every day since.

Being in the Marines under DADT, how did you manage to reconcile your identity as a Marine and your identity as a lesbian?

I didn’t. I couldn’t reconcile my identity as a proud US Marine and a lesbian at all. I was forced to live two lives, and like I said, I vowed that once I left the Marines I’d never allow myself to be forced to do that again.

Where did your nickname "Girl-Rilla" originate from?

When I first started training mixed martial arts at the San Diego Combat Academy, they joked that I was as strong as a gorilla. Someone started calling me the “Girl-Rilla” and I’ve been called it ever since. I’ve grown to like it. I like the name my fans have given themselves better – they call themselves the “Lizbos”.

How are you physically and mentally preparing yourself for your match against Jessica Andrade this weekend?

For a UFC fight, it involves an eight –week camp where I work literally from 7am to 7pm. I get up, walk the dogs with Eliza, then go for an hour’s swim. Swimming is better on the joints than running. Then I train for two hours at the gym, working on wrestling and submission techniques, then it is lunch and a quick visit with my girlfriend before I start my afternoon strength and conditioning sessions and finally I do sparring in the evening. 

I have made a lot of changes after my last fight. Last time I fought the best fighter in the division and did well, but couldn’t finish the job. I saw that I was at that level, but needed to improve at certain things like submission defense. Ronda showed me how close and how far away I was in one fight. I’ve worked hard on my weaknesses and am looking to show these improvements on Saturday in front of millions of people on FOX.

Do you have any pre-match rituals? How do you get yourself pumped up for a fight?

No, nothing like that. For UFC fights, we have to report to the host hotel on the Tuesday of fight week, we have media obligations Wednesday and Thursday and the weigh-in on Friday but it involves a lot of sitting around trying not to think too much about the fight. The hard work has been done, and you just need to keep your mind ticking over. I take my PS3 with me to the hotel and play zombie shoot-em-up games all week. That is the only ritual I have during fight week.

On fight day, I wake up in the zone. The closer I get to the fight the more focused I get. As a Marine, I learned to be very task-orientated. As a fighter, my task is to go out there and win. I can flip the switch once I get in the Octagon, I start fast and keep the pressure on. I’ve always had that ability to do that, to just get in the zone when it came time to do something and get on with the job.

What advice would you give a closeted athlete debating on coming out?

That’s a tough one to generalize. Of course, we all want everyone in the LGBT community to be open but they have to assess their own situation and make their own decision.

I was very lucky, my gymmates didn’t care about sexuality, my mother and partner were supportive, the UFC was very supportive and the media and fans were wonderful. My first UFC fight saw me all over TV, getting interviewed by Larry King, and in USA Today and I didn’t have one negative experience because I’m a lesbian.

However, I know that in other sports there are still some people who don’t want a gay athlete on their team, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to come out if they were living through what I went through in the Marines. I think times are changing, and more and more people don’t see the LGBT community in any different light, but I think you have to be realistic and understand while there are some great allies out there in the sports world, there are also gay people working and living in places where gays are not welcome at all.

I like to think that people like myself and Jessica – who is also gay – competing on national TV does some tiny bit of good in terms of making people think “Well, Liz and Jessica look like good sportspeople. Maybe there’s no big deal in having a gay person on our football or basketball team.”

Carmouche's openness, hard work, and dedication is an inspiration for the athletic community as well as the LGBT community. GLAAD will continue to support Carmouche in her career as a positive role model in MMA and the world of athletics.

Tune in and see what Carmouche is all about. Carmouche's next fight against Andrade will be the first instance of two openly gay fighters in a match.

Liz Carmouche fights Jessica Andrade live on FOX this Saturday, July 27, at 5pm PT, 8pm ET.

Watch TheSHOOT's video on Carmouche as she prepares for her fight against Andrade: