It never occurred to Sijara Eubanks that some might consider her a role model until she found herself walking down the middle of Manhattan’s 7th Avenue on a sunny June Sunday.
Eubanks participated as part of the UFC’s group in New York City’s pride festival on June 24, along with Tecia Torres and Nina Ansaroff, when it dawned on the rising flyweight contender that she has a platform to raise visibility for LGBT athletes.
“I had never thought of myself as a role model, or as someone who had a platform,” Eubanks told MMA Fighting. “I just thought of myself as a fighter who happens to be lesbian.”
But throughout the day, Eubanks, who marched with a larger contingent of LGBT athletes organized by SB Nation’s Outsports, heard from people about what her participation meant to them, and she realized she’s making a difference simply by making herself visible.
“All day long, and ever since, I had people thanking me just for being out there, and being visible, and just for being myself,” Eubanks said. “And I realized it does make a difference. Not just to let people know there are gay professional athletes, but also black gay women who is competing and succeeding at the highest levels. That made me realize how important it is to do go out and do things like this while we have the opportunity.”
Eubanks’ experience made her reflect on how far LGBT athletes and female competitors overall have progressed in mixed martial arts in a short period of time. After all, we’re just five years removed from the groundbreaking UFC 173 bout between Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche in Anaheim.
While the bigger overriding theme at UFC 173 was simply that Rousey vs. Carmouche was the first women’s fight in UFC history, Carmouche’s role as the first openly gay fighter to headline a UFC event was also an important subplot.
“When Liz Carmouche came out for her fight with Ronda, and she had her rainbow flag mouthpiece, that was cool, you know?” Eubanks said. “That was such a big, historically important fight for so many reasons, and then the fact Liz was the first fighter at her level to be out, that was another element that added to what made that whole night inspiring.”
In 2018, being an out lesbian fighter has become normalized to the degree that Eubanks, who is coming off an impressive win over Lauren Murphy at UFC Utica, doesn’t think of herself in terms of becoming an LGBT champion, especially when current bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes has been there and done that.
“Then you have Amanda Nunes come along and become the first openly LGBT champion, and that’s cool too,” Eubanks said. “But I just think of myself, my goal is to be champion, but it’s not like I’m thinking, ‘I want to be the second champ’ or ‘the first gay flyweight champ.’ It’s evolving.”
But then, there remains a stark divide: While sometimes it seems like there are more lesbian woman fighting in the UFC than heterosexual ones, there still isn’t an openly gay male fighter in the UFC. For her part, Eubanks thinks it is simply going to be a matter of someone mustering the courage to be the first.
“I can’t speak on someone else’s experience, because I’m not in their shoes,” Eubanks said. “I never even formally came out, I think people just knew, and there’s just a thing where lesbians are accepted.
“The UFC is great about things, I don’t think Dana White cares who you are as long as you can fight,” Eubanks continued. “But I think with some of the insecure alpha types in some of these gyms, they’d have trouble with gay guys in their gyms. That’s unfortunate. It’s going to take someone with a lot of courage to be the first and I hope it happens soon.”
With her moment representing the UFC in the pride march in her rear-view mirror, it’s time for Eubanks to focus back on fighting. After her win over Murphy, she called out champion Nicco Montano and expected challenger Valentina Shevchenko for the next shot at the women’s flyweight belt.
But a month later, that fight still hasn’t been signed, and Eubanks is hedging her bets on whether to wait on the winner or take another fight.
“She’s been sitting on that belt for six months now with no title defenses,” Eubanks said of Montano. “So the timing might not work out. If she ever gets around to signing the contract, we’re talking, it will probably be August at the earliest when they fight, and who knows who long it is going to be after that?
“So do I sit out and wait for the winner? I don’t want to sit for too long. I’m going to get together with my team and we’re going to talk things out.”