"He ain't nothing. Look at him, he's half queer."
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson about Triple H (1999)
"I just figured out what the 'H' in HBK stands for...You're nothing but a homo!"
Bret 'The Hitman' Hart to 'The Heartbreak Kid' Shawn Michaels (1997)
If you grew up during the 1980s or 1990s, you're probably aware of the Ultimate Warrior. A muscled madman, he was hugely popular with wrestling fans all over the world, and particularly popular with kids. What's not so well remembered is the time he led thousands of people in a chant of 'faggot' against a wrestler who portrayed a gay character. On live pay-per-view. In 1996. But then, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the deep-rooted homophobia involved in wrestling.
This week, Darren Young became the first openly gay member of the active roster in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). He came out during an interview with TMZ.com, which was obviously set up for exactly that purpose. Young is part of a tag-team called the Prime Time Players, who are a pair of comedy heels (wrestling parlance for 'bad guys'). They're young, well-built, good looking guys who have a higher opinion of what they're worth than most fans do.
|Darren Young, who came out days ago.|
A number of fans have been strongly of the opinion that WWE should keep him in this role, to send the message that his sexuality is not important. While I can see the merits of this, I disagree for a number of reasons. The main one is the context of how homosexuality has been handled in wrestling in the past.
While few characters in wrestling have been openly gay, there have been a number of 'flamboyant' characters. These include characters like Gorgeous George (who would insist on the ring being sprayed with perfume before he would wrestle) and Britain's Adrian Street (who would combine a sadistic wrestling style with his flamboyant appearance). Their characters were designed to generate heat from the audience by camping it up (and, usually, being abusive and unpleasant to their female valets).
|Adrian Street in what is frankly still the greatest picture ever taken of a pro-wrestler. (c) Jeremy Deller|
During his introduction, commentator Jerry Lawler said "Goldust is here. He may be queer. Get used to it, because he's going to be your next Intercontinental champion". Goldust was portrayed as a manipulative player of mindgames, using his sexuality to distract opponents, usually before receiving a beating. In his most high profile beating (against Rowdy Roddy Piper at Wrestlemania XII), during which he was kicked in the balls after trying to kiss his opponent, it was revealed that he wore stockings, suspenders and a corset under his outfit.
|Goldust - Probably the most prominent gay wrestling character ever.|
At a major event, he was set to fight the Ultimate Warrior. You can see the set-up for the feud here. During the match itself, the crowd started chanting "faggot", which the Warrior enthusiastically sang along to and conducted. He was, of course, portrayed as the good guy in the match.
They did turn Goldust face (good guy) at the end of the year, though. And how did they do so? They had him state categorically that he "wasn't queer".
In 2002, they did exactly the same thing with a tag-team called Billy and Chuck. After they started teaming for a while, they started camping it up and playing a couple - and also gained a personal stylist named Rico who would accompany them to the ring. This time, though, WWE took it one step further by getting the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to consult on the storyline.
The reason they did this was because they wanted to hype up the live commitment ceremony they were planning to broadcast. WWE hyped this as a full storyline, and GLAAD helped them gain mainstream media coverage. While humorous, it was portrayed as being a positive step for wrestling.
|Billy Gunn (left) and Chuck Palumbo (right)|
They called off their ceremony halfway through to clarify that they weren't gay and it was all a publicity stunt that had got out of hand. They were then beaten up by two other wrestlers. The following week (possibly in response to GLAAD anger and condemnation over being misled), WWE started a storyline about "HLA" - Hot Lesbian Action. The General Manager character, Eric Bischoff, brought out two women to strip to their underwear and make out. Once they did so, they were beaten up by the same pair that attacked Billy and Chuck.
|Yes, this happened this century.|
It's worth pointing out that they've also played real-life homosexuals for laughs as well. Pat Patterson (a long time WWE employee), during a high point of WWE popularity in 2000, wrestled in an 'evening gown match' with Gerald Brisco, in which both men wore dresses, and Patterson used a sanitary towel as a weapon at one point.
|Yes, this also happened this century with Pat Patterson.|
Meanwhile, they've also portrayed Dawn Marie, Mickie James, Victoria and Sable as lesbian stalkers at various points, which have pretty much been about as varied as they've got when it comes to their portrayal of sexuality of women. Although their portrayals of women are worthy of their own blog post at some point, so I'm not going to go any further into that right now other than to silently weep into my hands for a moment.
For decades, this has been how wrestling has portrayed homosexuals. As jokes. As manipulators. As bad guys. They have actively damaged perceptions of homosexuality, and have repeatedly had men and women turn face by revealing their heterosexuality. And, for years, it was common for homosexuality to be used as an insult, as seen at the beginning of this blog post through quotes from two of the most popular wrestlers in history. And even in more recent years, jokey homosexual insults have been used by fan favourites. It's a terrible message to send to fans, particularly when they've always had a large number of young, impressionable fans.
This is why I think it's important to have a face who is gay. Because WWE have, to be fair, mostly changed their ways. They haven't had a gay character (whether good or bad) in a long time, and Young's outing has been portrayed by WWE as something they're proud of, and a number of WWE personalities have tweeted or publicly stated congratulations (including Bret Hart, incidentally). WWE now run anti-bullying educational visits for schools, and Young has been immediately added to the stars who take part. That's a great first move.
It's important because I don't think it's enough to just have a gay wrestler. I think it's important to acknowledge the fact, and portray Young's bravery in coming out as a positive that the company is proud of. And not play it for laughs. And, if they do have someone attack him over it (because it is wrestling at the end of the day), have Young win in short and celebratory order.
It's not like the Prime Time Players are in a position that plans can't change over. They're generally on TV in order to lose, and usually in humorous fashion. They have nothing to lose by acknowledging and celebrating Darren Young being the first WWE wrestler to publicly come out. And he's a good person to have in the position. He's a young, good looking, charismatic guy. Use that.
While I take the point that it shouldn't make a difference, I'll agree unhesitatingly with that for every gay wrestler that comes afterwards. For the first time, it is different. WWE have been casually and aggressively homophobic over the last few decades, and they have the opportunity to start making up for that. And it's time to do so.