Though it might not be automatically apparent, the worlds of professional wrestling and drag have a lot in common. In both, there is a focus on heels and faces—but those things mean something a little different in sports entertainment. In the often-unspoken backstage lingo of pro-wrestling, heels are the bad guys, faces are the good guys. Despite the intrinsic flamboyance of the art form, pro-wrestling has traditionally cast gay and queer people as bad guys, as heels, largely because, for a very long time, crowds loved watching gay people get hurt. But a new generation of pro-wrestlers is changing the way people see the LGBTQ community and how the sport thinks about traditional gender roles.
The appeal of pro-wrestling for LGBTQ audiences seems pretty obvious: Even beyond the sweat-drenched and muscle-bound bodies, pro-wrestling has had a particularly idiosyncratic form of souped-up glamour and over-the-top camp that lends itself to a queer sensibility. A commonly heard phrase in training locker rooms is, "Wrestling is gay—get over it!" This basically serves to note how those uncomfortable with both same-sex body contact or colorful displays of emotion should probably leave the business. Straddling the boundary between theater and athletic competition, pro-wrestling relies on exaggerated performances of masculinity and femininity to deliver a message and a story—again, not so dissimilar from drag.
But is the history of pro-wrestling, perhaps, tied to homophobia? As in most industries, it was not until rather recently that any queer person felt comfortable coming out of the closet, but behind-the-scenes practices and audience reactions to gender non-normativity made it clear that such a brave move would not be met with congratulations. Some wrestlers played up the audience's homophobia. Characters like Adrian Adonis or Goldust, the latter of whom would come to the ring in full drag, made names for themselves as deplorable heels while the audience cheered for their destruction. Chants of "faggot" were fairly common.
As recent as the late-'90s and early-'00s, during the so-called Attitude Era, the WWF (later renamed to WWE) aimed for sleazy shock value over athleticism or storytelling. During this phase, homophobic slurs exchanged between superstars were fairly commonplace, as were overtly rape-driven scenarios for female characters. At least one bizarre story line revolved entirely around a gay marriage ceremony that—big surprise—devolved into violence, much to the chagrin of GLAAD, who had originally celebrated the plot. Even gender non-conforming heterosexuals suffered: In her autobiography, the late wrestler Chyna detailed the ways that her perceived masculinity made her a victim of transphobic attacks. Audiences would call her a "chick with a dick" while throwing batteries at her head during shows, she recounted the stories with terrible sadness.
"[Queer people in wrestling have] always been treated like a joke, starting with Gorgeous George," says drag queen pro-wrestler The Boy Diva. "They know what they're doing, and the sad part is they need it... It's fucking frustrating, to say the least."
Pat Patterson, a wrestler active in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, is one example of someone who succeeded despite the industry's biases. Patterson's character, who wore lipstick and sauntered to the ring with an effeminate intentionality, worked as both a heel and a face. The "Pretty Boy" had come out publicly in the '70s, but his sexuality was not officially recognized by the WWE (aside from a handful of sideways comments from announcers) until a few years ago. Patterson had (controversially, considering a series of sexual misconduct accusations) risen in the ranks of the WWE and was even crowned the inaugural Intercontinental champion in 1979. He has since become an industry legend, often considered the best friend and "right-hand man" of WWE CEO Vince McMahon, the longtime brains behind the operation.
When asked about industry homophobia in 2016, Patterson patently denied its existence: "Never. My whole life in the business, years and years, I’ve wrestled just about everybody in the business. I’ve never had a problem... The word gay or queer was never brought up... Of course, I hid it too. I didn’t want anybody to know I was gay."
Patterson's account is questionable: The WWE (and the wrestling business writ large) notoriously keeps a tight lock on the industry's secrets in the hopes of creating its own self-contained narrative universe known as kayfabe. The extent to which he is legally able to discuss discrimination is certainly something to ponder. How many closeted gay performers have existed on the margins of the industry, we may never really know.
The extent to which the entangling of homophobia and pro-wrestling is a specifically American phenomenon is another question. In countries like Mexico, openly gay professional wrestlers (known as exóticos) are often celebrated as crowd-favorite faces. While the presentation of these characters—who often kiss their disgusted opponents on the mouths to uproarious reactions from audiences—often rely on gay stereotypes, these personas have become beloved heroes rather than nefarious villains. In Japan, a cheeky tag team known as The Golden Lovers, made up of Kenny Omega (whose IRL sexuality has been a topic of debate) and the wildly acrobatic Kota Ibushi, openly displayed affection for each other during and outside of matches. Their ultimate breakup has led to one of the most anticipated feuds in Japanese wrestling's history.
Now, the WWE (at least on its face) is making an effort to update its universe. In 2016, Stephanie McMahon (Vince McMahon's daughter, the IRL Chief Brand Officer of the WWE who often plays a villainous and shrill authoritarian in wrestling story lines) announced that the company had undertaken a series of meetings with GLAAD in the hopes of eventually integrating LGBTQ characters and story lines into their world. As of 2018, we've barely seen the results of these meetings. How the WWE will manage this while maintaining its newfound commitment to PG entertainment remains to be seen.
The story of Darren Young, who was until recently the only openly gay performer in the company (he was let go in 2017 for unspecified reasons), is complicated. Young came out of the closet in 2013, prompting almost universal celebration from the wrestling world, although the extent to which wrestlers were allowed to openly voice another opinion on the matter is also questionable for aforementioned reasons. Peculiarly, Young's homosexuality was never mentioned during official WWE shows, with Stephanie later saying that while Young, the person, might be gay, "his character in the show is not." And although Young's role was positioned as a victory for diversity in the company, his time onscreen was rather minimal, except when the WWE needed a queer person to stand tall in the wake of the Orlando, Florida, shootings—a move which can either be interpreted as cynically opportunistic or shockingly progressive. Many suspected the WWE had only held onto the semi-unpopular Young for so long as a publicity move.
Some have wondered about Young's private political leanings, begging even bigger questions: The WWE, despite its manifestly apolitical programming, has notoriously put huge money into conservative causes. So how can an openly gay performer reconcile their sexual identity with their employer's covert, right-leaning politics? Despite the pro-wrestling audience's unexpected yet statistically proven liberal leanings, are openly gay athletes and corporate executives still afraid of homophobic audience reactions, which would create a wave of negative press for the company?
The WWE only has one openly gay wrestler on its roster at the moment: Sonya Deville. Whether or not it will acknowledge her sexuality in kayfabe is unknown as of right now—although her entry into the first ever Women's Royal Rumble this January is already a remarkable achievement.
Meanwhile, other companies have seen a preponderance of characters playing with queerness and thriving. Babyface wrestlers like Dalton Castle (a peacocking showboat who is accompanied to the ring by literal man servants) and Joey Ryan (the so-called "King of Dong Style," whose sleazy '80s aesthetic and sponsorship by YouPorn have made him a controversial figure) have garnered rabid fan bases without the support of the WWE. A new character named Velveteen Dream, a Prince-like Lothario sometimes seen criticizing the interior decorating of the stadium's backstage areas, is gaining a cult following in the WWE's developmental brand, NXT. It does seem a little suspicious, however, that the characters who "get over" (wrestling slang for achieving mass popularity) as gay are often played by straight men—although, semi-relatedly, a handful of transgender wrestlers are also gaining steam abroad.
"The real tea is [that] having an out performer makes people confront the homoeroticism in the industry, and it makes them uncomfortable," says openly gay wrestler Billy Dixon, who describes his character as "Cardi B-meets-Bayley-meets-Aja-meets-Dusty Rhode- meets-Spider-Man-meets-Venus Xtravaganza."
Dixon says he's never faced any overt discrimination in the business and is thankful for the opportunities granted to him, "but I have faced a lot of gossip, people talking about me behind my back... Things said about me were that I’m too feminine, I’m not a real man, and that I’ll never draw. None of this to my face though."
The "Fabulous" Eddy McQueen, an openly gay wrestler who describes his character as "effervescently glamorous, incredibly sassy, and your all-around boy next door," echoed Dixon's sentiments, but had more extreme examples of the kinds of discrimination he faced backstage: "In wrestling, there's a 'cool kids table,' and I think [there are] a lot of conservative men at the top of the ladder... I've dealt with other wrestlers pulling out of shows because they didn't want to wrestle me, and I've even gone to shows nearly four hours away, where I wasn't paid because of my orientation."
"The bookings are few and far in between, as opposed to regular wrestlers," adds Boy Diva. "Promoters still don't know how to consistently book a gay wrestler unless it's as a novelty act. On top of that, they pit us against one another and say they can't have more than one 'gay gimmick' on the show. Meanwhile, the handful of gay wrestlers around are so visually, physically, and aesthetically different from one another. The flamboyant LGBTQ wrestlers have it worst; we have the greatest looks and acts in all of wrestling, but we're pigeonholed and passed on as an afterthought in favor of masculine gays who have no flair or personality in the ring."
Despite that, many gay wrestlers are noting that fans of smaller promotions, some of whom are purposefully pursuing empowering queer story lines, are embracing them: "Believe it or not, about 80 percent of fans absolutely adore me!" says McQueen. "Of course when I wrestle toward the Midwest and the South, things change... It's very humbling to hear from audience members how inspiring to them I am, or to hear coming out stories from people who credit me with giving them the courage to do so! You never really get used to that feeling. Knowing that you've positively impacted other people's lives and left the world a better place than when you found it!"
DJ Summers, a Chicago-based gay wrestler, also noted his unexpected popularity: "A majority of fans love me," he says, "even though I am a heel. Which I'm so thankful for. That was one thing I was terrified of when I first started. The fans who typically boo me are the homophobic people; I will always call them out during the match. I mean, you're the one who paid to see sweaty men in underwear grope each other, so who is actually the gay one?"
The WWE has long been interested in copying the energy of the indie leagues, and the triumphs of LGBTQ wrestlers in the underground could translate to the success of queer people in the mainstream, although the battle is surely uphill. WWE storytelling has a general lack of subtlety, and already fans are engaged in heated arguments about whether wrestlers coming out should be celebrated or kept quiet. Yet, as small promotions begin prioritizing inclusivity, it seems inevitable that major federations will have to follow suit to keep up with the times.