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Inside the Fight for LGBTQ Equality in Wrestling

When it comes to leveling the playing field between gay and straight wrestlers and their characters, there's a lot to grapple with.

Joseph Jaafari

Darren Young, left, alongside Titus O'Neil and Sin Cara at WWE Live in Antwerp, Belgium. Photo via Flickr user Miguel Discart

When professional indie wrestlers Jarrett Foster and Steve Sterling first met in 2011, the chemistry between them was immediate.

The two are stars in the independent wrestling circuit, a series of lower-budget, raunchier, local versions of World Wrestling Entertainment's televised, high-gloss productions. Both had been training at the Independent Wrestling Federation in New Jersey when they had decided to go out for drinks one night. They told VICE that they instantly realized they were attracted to each other—but neither was out of the closet.

Recent developments suggest that after decades of discrimination, the culture of wrestling—in both indie leagues and at the WWE level—may be progressing toward a measure of inclusivity and acceptance of LGBTQ wrestlers. Over the past few decades, a handful of wrestlers (both active and retired, indie and WWE alike) have come out, including Terry Garvin, Rosa Mendes, Matt Cage, Pat Patterson, and the WWE's Darren Young, perhaps the most high-profile gay wrestler working today. Additionally, Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer of the WWE, publicly acknowledged earlier this month that the company wants to include more LGBTQ themes in the "near future" (though the company has not yet disclosed specifics).

But homophobia is deeply ingrained in wrestling, and the path toward equality for LGBTQ athletes in the sport runs uphill. Sterling and Foster, for their part, say they felt forced to remain in the closet for far too long while participating in a sport that worships masculinity.

"The first time we were intimate, I remember I had all the regrets in the world afterward. I didn't know anything about Steve, if he was openly gay, or if he thought this would be an ongoing thing," Foster told VICE. "So the morning after, I just panicked and texted him."

"I'm not gay," the message read. "I like girls. We're not going to do this and this can't happen. This was a one-time thing."

"My heart just stopped," Foster recalled. "We had a show the next day, and I had to see him, and it was the most awkward day of my life."

The two played down their attraction. In their minds, being gay and wrestling were mutually exclusive. They kept their fling a secret, fearful of how they'd be treated if they came out.

"They don't know what it's like," wrestler Eddy McQueen told VICE. "They haven't had to deal with the bullying. It's not authentic, and it's like a slap in the face."

The WWE's LGBTQ storyline announcement this month came in the face of decades of missteps and insensitivity toward gay people, both in and out of the ring. In one 2002 stunt, WWE tag team duo Billy and Chuck publicly announced that they were gay, planned a marriage in the ring, received an official endorsement from GLAAD, and then revealed the marriage was a sham—a homophobic gimmick played up for ratings and an embarrassment for GLAAD. (Today, the WWE works closely with GLAAD to ensure equality in portrayals of gay and lesbian people in storylines.)

Chris Kanyon, a WWE and World Championship Wrestling character who came out in 2004, said he was forced out of wrestling for being openly gay and protested matches with signs asking fans to "pray for my gay soul." He committed suicide in 2010 after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And Darren Young, a WWE tag team champion who came out in 2013, claims he was excluded from performing in WWE shows in Abu Dhabi because of his sexuality, though the WWE responded he was left out "for his own protection."

In indie wrestling, straight men continue to play gay characters, drawing criticism from openly gay wrestlers within the indie circuit who say such stereotypes only perpetuate the problems gay men face within the sport.

"There's a problem when these straight guys [play gay characters]," Rick Cataldo, an openly gay wrestler from Brooklyn who wrestles as the Boy Divain in indie circuits, told VICE. "Those guys are just heteros mocking us gays and making coin. That's fucked up."

Cataldo's tag team partner, Eddy McQueen, says such characterizations are appropriated, sensationalized versions of what straight men think it means to be gay.

"They don't know what it's like," McQueen told VICE. "They haven't had to deal with the bullying. It's not authentic, and it's like a slap in the face."

Nicholas Valentino, a straight-identified indie wrestler who played a gay character for two years in Las Vegas, says that his character, a sex-crazed gigolo-turned-gay heel, was an attempt to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community.

"It's like playing a TV character," he told VICE. "If I go audition for a role, and it happens to be a gay character, I'm going to get into that mindset. I can see why people would be worried about me playing off stereotypes, because I wore rainbows and stuff. But it was never meant to offend anyone. I've been supportive of the gay community my whole life."

Valentino's openly gay tag team partner Tommy Purr had no problem with his partner's gimmick during their time together and views other gay characters — no matter their orientation—as a symbol of progress.

"I don't necessarily mind or get offended by the gimmicks," said Purr. "I wouldn't be offended by a gay guy playing a straight character. It's kind of the same thing. But what does happen is that [gay wrestlers] don't get the opportunity to show audiences that we are athletic and just as tough as the straight wrestlers."

Foster and Sterling, for their part, find gay gimmicks and characters anachronistic.

"The act is old," said Foster. "Why do we even need that when we have gay guys who will play and be themselves?"

Several months after their first date, Foster and Sterling did decide to publicly announce their relationship and come out of the closet—but not without a palpable sense of fear.

"I sat Jarrett down and just said, 'Are we doing this?'" said Sterling. "And once he said yes, I just told everybody in my private life. I think I was waiting for him."

But among fellow wrestlers, the couple remained quiet about their relationship for months.

"There was this feeling that if you were gay, you wouldn't be welcome," said Sterling. "Even though we never experienced any problems, because we aren't the most flamboyant of people, I truly believe that others who are [more flamboyant than us] might have issues in the locker room."

The couple now wrestle as the tag team Glitz and Glamour and are being featured in an all-gay wrestling event this September in Long Island, New York, called "A Matter of Pride."

"It's important that people see there is a large spectrum of gay wrestlers," said Sterling. "There's some who play the flamboyant character, which is fine and great, but there's more to us than that."

Follow Joseph Jaafari on Twitter.

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