Liz Carmouche was a few months past her 20th birthday in 2004 when she decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. The war in Iraq was raging and Carmouche yearned to be part of the battle.
She got her wish, serving three tours in Iraq during her five-plus-year stint as an aviation electrician in the Marine Corps. Each day, though, she awakened with a knot in her stomach, and it had nothing to do with a fear of combat.
Carmouche is a lesbian and served in the Marines when the "Don't ask, don't tell," policy was in effect. In order to keep the job she loved, the very one that would enable her to go to college and set her up for the rest of her life, she had to live a lie.
As best she could, she hid her sexual orientation so as not to arouse suspicion. Even worse, her best friend in the Marines, a woman she identifies only as "Kim," was a gay basher.
"There was a constant fear I'd be outed," Carmouche said. "It made it so hard. It was one of the most difficult things I've been through."
A little more than three years after leaving the Marine Corps, Carmouche has found peace, happiness and acceptance in, of all places, the male-dominated UFC, which until Carmouche's arrival had never had an openly gay fighter on its roster.
She'll meet bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., in the main event of UFC 157 in the first women's bout in UFC history.
Not surprisingly, Carmouche's sexual orientation has become a story in the weeks prior to what is shaping up as one of the most socially significant events in the company's nearly 20-year history.
Shockingly, perhaps, to those who dare to read the frequently insensitive comments below articles on the Internet, Carmouche's announcement has not created a firestorm.
Though one undoubtedly exists, none of her peers has spoken out against gay fighters. Those who have spoken about it have praised Carmouche's bravery and the UFC's tolerance and encouragement of diversity.
Even UFC president Dana White, who during a 2009 rant at a reporter on a video blog infamously used a homophobic slur, has been as supportive of Carmouche as imaginable.
At a news conference in December to announce the Rousey-Carmouche title fight, White praised Carmouche's bravery for coming out and questioned why some states still ban gay marriage.
"There are a lot of gay athletes, actors, actresses and entertainers out there that, for whatever reason, haven't come out and so the public doesn't know about them," White said. "It takes a brave person to come out and admit it, because there's a tendency to be afraid of what [coming out might] do to their careers and how people are going to treat them afterwards.
"I love what Liz did. I know a lot of people think I'm some homophobe, [but] I'm the furthest thing from it. I think it's ridiculous in 2013 that the government tells two people who love each other they can't marry each other. It's ridiculous."
Shannon Knapp, the president of the all-female Invicta Fighting Championship and a former matchmaker with Strikeforce, knows Carmouche well.
Knapp helped bring Carmouche to Strikeforce and then promoted her last two fights, which were in Invicta.
She views Carmouche's public acknowledgement of her sexuality as Carmouche simply being happy with who she is as a person.
"I don't know if it's a matter of her using the position she has now to let everybody know," Knapp said. "I think it's more about just saying to the world, 'I'm comfortable with who I am, and with my sexuality.' She's very comfortable in her own skin. She's not, in my opinion, trying to make a statement. She's never been a person who pushes it. She's comfortable with who she is.
"The world isn't always that accepting and so that can't be an easy thing. But she's saying, 'I'm Liz Carmouche. I'm fighting. I'm comfortable with who I am. This is me.' "
Ali Davis, a contributing writer for AfterEllen.com, a website that focuses on lesbian rights and issues, said she doesn't see Carmouche's arrival in the UFC as a watershed moment, which is a good thing.
While homophobia clearly remains present, the UFC's 18- to 34-year-old demographic is far more tolerant and accepting of gays and lesbians, she said.
"She's so level-headed, and so great," Davis said of Carmouche. "I think she'll help because she lets them know that you can be gay in lots of different ways. She's such an even-keel person. The great thing about Liz's reception is that it's been so normal. She happens to be this great fighter who has accomplished so much, but she's so normal and open and easy-going."
Carmouche said she struggled with her sexual identity for much of her life, and didn't fully embrace the fact that she was a lesbian until her early 20s.
She grew up in a family of modest means and has held a job since she was 12 years old. Even now, as she's days away from challenging the biggest women's star in the sport on MMA's grandest stage, Carmouche still holds a job at the gym in San Diego where she trains.
When she was 12, she was a concessionaire, then got a job developing film. She was a gardener and a nanny and did "just about any job you can think of."
Her parents, she said, "weren't poor, but they weren't well off. They made enough to survive. If I wanted more than that, I had to work for it."
That work ethic has remained a major part of who she is. She's renowned for her physical strength and is noted for her toughness. On her first day of MMA training, she was thrown into the ring to spar. When the bell sounded to end the first round, Carmouche's nose and mouth were bloodied, but she couldn't wait to go back for Round 2.
She's ascended to the top of her profession in short order and could change her life overnight with a win. She may not be as skilled as Rousey, but she's clearly not intimidated.
"There's a lot of hype surrounding Ronda and a lot of the girls she's fought fall for that Ronda hype and they're beaten before they go in," she said. "They freeze in front of her and she uses it to her advantage. I'm not going to fall into that trap.
"All the media and all the requests and the demands and everything, it's a lot different than I'm used to, but I haven't let it affect what I have to do to get ready for the fight. The hype around Ronda is incredible and it's created this aura of invincibility. If you let that play with your mind, you'll be beaten before the bell rings. She's a great fighter, but I know I can beat her and I don't let that aura of invincibility bother me."
Not much bothers Carmouche. She's the epitome of California cool and has taken the whirlwind that has been the last two months very much in stride.
If Carmouche loses, Knapp said, it will likely be simply because Rousey is better and not that Carmouche was overwhelmed by the moment.
"Liz will be out there fighting for her life," Knapp said. "Lay money on that. With what she's endured in her personal life, this is easy. This is just a fight. She's been there, done that. She's had a lot of obstacles in her personal life that have been a lot more difficult. Fighting a fight in a cage is just another day at the office for Liz."
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