Last night, WWE aired the first episode of its new season of reality TV show Tough Enough – in which contestants who aren’t professional wrestlers compete for the chance to win a $250,000 contract from the company and join developmental. Prior to this episode, they aired a ‘competition special’ to introduce the audience to potential competitors- one of which was Daria Berenato. Daria is an MMA fighter and, seemingly unplanned, came out as a lesbian on WWE programming. It’s an interesting turn of events when they are handed someone who is gay, and they are aware of it prior to hiring them. This is obviously not the only determining factor on whether or not Daria lands a career with the WWE, but it’s definitely something to watch for.
There is a storied history of how professional wrestling views the LGBTQ+ community, and there has been a push as of late to turn over a new page, so to say. It’s a rough gamble when there are these crossed wires. Currently, the NXT superstars are tweeting in support of GLAAD in a campaign called #WWEqual, while simultaneously housing storylines in which Diva Paige uses transphobic jokes to gain crowd support, and a whole other slew of homophobic bigotry in the past few years. As of the 2015 Money in the Bank PPV, WWE now has its first openly gay male tag team champion in Darren Young. Yet, on commentary from RAW they can be heard saying “…and Darren Young, we know his story, he’s a tremendous role model as well.” He’s gay. His story is that he’s gay. Say this were an injury, or anything else pertinent to the viewer, there wouldn’t be a moment in which the broadcast team would gleam over the finer details. But this isn’t the first time they’ve skirted around mentioning anything with regards to non heteronormative sexual identities on broadcast- in the original broadcast of the ’96 IC Feud between Goldust and Razor Ramon the moment when Lawler asked if Goldust was ‘queer’ was bleeped out. At the same time, there was no issue in the King using slurs in a directed manner during a promo.
These are not the only instances of gay wrestlers in the main stream, although a lot of them haven’t been out during the height of their careers: for instance Pat Patterson and Chris Kanyon- who claimed one of the reasons for his WWE release was his homosexuality (the statement was later revealed to be a publicity stunt, but his fears of homophobia were well founded and rooted in truth), and Sandy Parker from AJW.
For the fraction of sports entertainment that is heavily focused on the theatrical mockery of masculinity, it’s curious to see such blowback against legitimately queer performers yet support for gay panic gimmicks. There have been a multitude of straight performers playing gay dating as far back as the original Gorgeous George- an act that was an allusion as it was never uttered aloud on broadcast. Adrian Street, regarded as the spiritual successor to George, sported makeup and a garish wardrobe in order to elicit heat from the crowd and make fun of this over aggressive machismo. Heck, even Macho Man Randy Savage was billed as this savage manly man… yet came out in glittery robes to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance.
Turn it to the women, and lesbian story lines are utilized to elicit titillation from the male audience and fear from the women. One of the more notable moments being with Mickie James’ ‘obsession’ with Trish Stratus. Not only does this venture into the territory of poking fun at those with any mental illness, but feeds into our good old friend Gay Panic.
In the world of Lucha Libre, there is the tradition of Exoticos- men who wrestle in drag. Unlike in mainstream American pro wrestling where these men in a dress matches are used as a form of humiliation, Exoticos- although often viewed as rudos and not tecnicos – are well respected. It’s not common for exoticos to be gay, but Cassandro is one, and his career has been a fruitful and open one.
The indies aren’t too far off from mainstream pro wrestling when it comes to this lack of representation. There are a lot of homosexual advances in the ring utilized in order to gain cheap heat or a pop from the crowd, and the bullying that makes its way into the locker rooms. Thankfully, despite this permeating culture there are openly queer positive performers and leagues that come out from behind all of this such as the League of Lady Wrestlers or Go Deep! Lube Wrestling put on by Red Hot Burlesque in Oakland, California.
There is absolutely room for multiple openly gay performers in all facets of pro wrestling. So, seeing how Daria fares on Tough Enough may open doors for more people to been seen and represented on TV. Wrestling needs to continue to make strides towards being and open and inclusive safe space for all involved: from those shown in the ring to the fan sitting in the front row whose story isn’t known. This needs to come at the cost of men fretting over how they’ll be received in “kiss me arse” matches and punches to the face if someone is alluded to be queer in a promo. We’re not your insult, we’re not your punchline, but we are people who would love wrestling even more if you eased off the slurs and just got to the bodyslams already.