I’ve been a wrestling fan since I was a little kid. Wrestling in the late 90s and early aughts was built on extremes. My favorite characters and storylines pushed boundaries: there was a mock crucifixion, home invasions, and sham marriages. People got hit with chairs and set on fire. But amongst all this campy chaos was some truly questionable stuff. Multiple instances of Blackface. Rampant misogyny. One time pro wrestler HHH—who would later become an executive vice president in the WWE—tried to have sex with a corpse. But the thing that was the hardest to swallow on a personal level was the homophobia. As a questioning kid it was difficult to watch wrestlers villainize queerness or treat it as a joke. Gay Panic was a constant undercurrent to my favourite kind of entertainment, to the point where it felt alienating.
The wrestling business has come a long way in the past few years. The WWE—by far the largest pro wrestling organization—still has its problems, including their relationship with Saudi Arabia, but on a surface level the company have been making an effort to acknowledge their gay performers. Startup promotion All Elite Wrestling has pushed inclusivity—using the slogan “AEW is for everyone”—and championing their queer and trans performers. On the independent scene LGBTQ wrestlers and personalities have been thriving, finding new perspectives on storytelling, and revolutionizing the sport. The diversity has been a welcome transition from the close-minded stereotypes usually associated with pro wrestling.
Recently I had a chance to speak with some LGBTQ wrestlers and wrestling personalities about what queer represenation has meant to them. You can read their answers below.
EFFY , Independent Professional Wrestler
I grew up in the Bible Belt. Both of my grandfathers are Christian ministers. Growing up I had a secret burning a hole in me that could alienate me from all the people in my life. That’s something every little gay kid has felt. It’s horrifying. In a lot of ways that feeling has made LGBTQ people tougher than the average person. We've always had to be on the defensive. The world of wrestling is no different. Up until recently, the gay athlete was always the butt of a joke. They were in silly segments without meaning. But we’ve been changing that.
When I started out, I knew I was going to get heat from wrestling fans as a flamboyant gay character. What I didn't expect was the changes I'd see in the audience as they watched me over time. There were groups of southern fans that started out despising me. Then a few months later they were buying shirts and begging to take pictures. That's why transparency as a queer performer is so important to me personally. Queer wrestlers have the opportunity to present this over the top version of themselves, and not only can that change the opinions of the old guard wrestling fans, but it also lets the new generation showing up know that being queer shouldn't get in the way of being the real you.
I feel a deep responsibility as my wrestling career grows to make sure we are pushing the envelope even further as LGBTQ wrestlers. The growing amount of queer fans and athletes in wrestling are pushing out the hate and homophobia. Fans at shows have come up to me and said we didn't think we'd be safe at a wrestling show, but we saw you were on it, so we knew we'd be OK here even though we're different. Having these performers who are open and confident in themselves that come from all different ethnicities, sexualities, religions, and beliefs helps our business. It shows potential new fans that wrestling isn't this one dimensional redneck sport. The wrestling business expands financially and creatively by having a diverse group of individuals. They can tell the stories someone else may not be able to.
DJ Accident Report, Pro Wrestling Critic The Nobodies
This might sound a bit hyperbolic but seeing the wrestling community embrace LGBTQ performers and seeing LGBTQ performers able to forge their own paths within the industry has restored my faith in straight people. Before getting as deeply involved in wrestling as I am now, I had very limited contact with straight people outside of my work and family. Seeing how straight people willingly lift up and defend LGBTQ people reminded me that not every straight person is the enemy and that many are willing to learn and think and grow and change—you just sort of have to trick them into paying attention in the first place, which is sort of which is sort of the thesis of our show, Nobodies Watching Wrestling. We got straight people to pay attention to drag by getting drag queens to review wrestling.
I wouldn't say that there are similarities between drag and wrestling, I'd say they're the exact same thing. The only difference is that drag tends to be a commentary on femininity and wrestling tends to be a commentary on masculinity—but not always. The way that both drag and wrestling have a widely popular yet watered down mainstream version and a much more exciting indie scene is exactly identical. Both Drag Race and WWE are ruled by out of touch tyrants who won't compromise their vision of the art form even as the social climate changes—and both are expanding their global empire by the second. Both are inherently campy. Both have very idiosyncratic visions of glamour. Both have elements of over-the-top pageantry. Both are commonly viewed as low class and low-brow art forms and have been objects of condescending derision from the fine art world and academia for decades. Both require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief: drag queens aren't “real” women in the same way that wrestling isn't a “real” fight. Oh wait, there's actually one major difference between the two: wrestlers show up three hours early to shows, drag queens show up an hour late.
During Wrestlemania weekend this year The Nobodies presented an event called The Gay Young Classic, in which we had drag queens and pro-wrestlers facing off in lip sync battles. It was the wildest party we've ever thrown. It was amazing to see these two subcultures merge into one frothing mass. My goal with the event was to show wrestling fans the cool things we do in the queer community—there was a sort of slight of hand to the show, we got wrestlers involved so straight people would be interested in what we do—and it turns out everyone was on board, appreciative, and excited to learn about a new art form many of them had literally never seen before.
The wrestling industry used to be this over the top manly thing that really played to a target market of cis white heterosexual males between 12 and 25. Now it seems the industry is embracing the fact that wrestling has many components that appeal to an extremely broad array of people, and that even in doing that, it doesn’t have to change or compromise what it is at its core, a dramatic sports competition.
Being trans, I don’t really have a choice compared to someone gay, les, or bi. People who don’t go through any physical changes when being out. My decision to be out as a bisexual, and be open about being trans was intentional. I want others to see the normality in a life that may be different than theirs. I want people to see that there is someone that may be like them thrive and hopefully it can help them find their own courage... it may not even be related to anything doing with sexual or gender identity, inspiration comes in many forms. Aside from getting to work alongside and learn from some of my heroes growing up, the biggest thing for me as a performer is definitely be seeing everyone in my family beaming with pride that after all these years to finally achieve one of my biggest dreams.
Mike Parrow , Independent Professional Wrestler
I grew up during the Attitude Era. Every other joke was a gay joke putting down gay men, that it was somehow weak to be gay. It was very difficult. I often talk about how the Chuck and Billy storyline [where two straight wrestlers pretended to be gay in order to enrage the crowd] affected me greatly, more than I even knew. Because it was the first time as a closeted teenager I saw characters similar to me… and when it ended the way it did it made me feel that wrestling did not respect LGBTQ wrestlers.
The wrestling community as a whole often says that wrestling is for everyone, but to truly be for everyone, everybody needs to be represented. One of my major reasons I came out to the world was to be the wrestler I needed to see when I was young. I made the decision to be out because I got tired of living a lie. Before I made the decision Danny Burch gave me some great advice. He reminded me that I had felt alone, that nobody represented me… so wouldn’t it be worth it if I could help one person not feel like that? In 2019 my one hope is that every major company has an LGBTQ wrestler on their roster. I think the wrestling world underestimates the importance of visibility. There are many young talented athletes dying for an opportunity. If wrestling really is for everyone, let's have everyone represented.
Charlie Morgan , Independent Professional Wrestler
It’s absolutely amazing to see how many LGBTQ wrestlers there are coming forward. They’re able to inspire other people. Whether that’s a fan, a trainee, or another wrestler themselves. I came out in the ring in 2017 and it was one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had. The decision to be out as a wrestler was a really long time coming.... I always knew it was something I wanted to show off and represent but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. When I started this badass gimmick of Charlie Morgan I was put on a platform at Pro Wrestling EVE. I told the promoter that I wanted to be open. They were all for it. We went back and forth on the best way to get it out there. How do you be an out and proud LGBTQ wrestler? How do you be the first person like that? So I did the promo and it was amazing. It was a crazy positive reaction. But a couple months later I did an interview where I was asked what it was like to be the first wrestler—period—to ever come out in a wrestling ring? I literally sat there and started to well up. It finally sunk in. That’s me. It’s so incredible to inspire other people to be OK and open with themselves and others.
These responses have been edited for length.
Graham Isador is on twitter. @presgang