Is WWE Too Scared to Go LGBT?
In August of 2013, WWE wrestler Darren Young took a leap and came out publicly as the company’s only active and out gay athlete, propelling pro wrestling along with him into a progressive new future. Like most historic moments in celebritydom, it was captured at an LAX baggage claim by TMZ.
“I’m a WWE superstar and to be honest with you, I’ll tell you right now—I’m gay. And I’m happy. I’m very happy,” Young said, a few well-timed days before one of wrestling’s biggest pay-per-view events of the year.
The WWE—home to generations of pumped up performers hyping packed arenas with thinly veiled homoerotic ring theatrics and occasional homophobic slurs—issued a statement of support. Young turned face that Monday, four days after his landmark revelation. Critics and fans wondered if and when Young’s orientation would be written into the show.
Two years later, they’re still waiting for the WWE to fully embrace its only current out-of-the-closet superstar. In Los Angeles for the ESPYs last week, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer and sometimes-onscreen villainess Stephanie McMahon hinted that Young’s wrestling coming-out party is still on the table.
“Darren Young was the first WWE superstar to really come out as being homosexual, but his character in the show is not,” she told The Daily Beast. “At least, we haven’t done anything with it either way—just yet.”
Cheering ESPYs guest of honor Caitlyn Jenner for courageously coming out as trans on the world’s stage, McMahon suggested that a gay character could yet still make an entrance into the WWE. That is, when it makes business sense. “It could very well pop up in WWE because we are all about what’s relevant, and what’s pop culture, and what people want to see,” she said. “So if there is an opportunity, we might just take it.”
WWE history is dotted with a handful of gay caricatures in the ring, none particularly flattering to the LGBT community. Before his death in 1988, “Adorable” Adrian Adonis took on the persona of a cross-dressing gay wrestler with a penchant for wearing garish makeup and wearing dresses, provoking the crowd and his opponents with his flamboyance. A decade later Goldust toyed with audience perception by playing androgyny as a gimmick before setting the record straight, so to speak, in 1996.
The WWE came closest to integrating a timely same-sex relationship angle in the early 2000s with wrestlers Billy and Chuck. Their tag team shtick developed into an “ambiguously gay” storyline that saw them march into the ring to become life partners in a well-publicized commitment ceremony stunt that attracted national media attention, including the support of GLAAD.
Alas, the enlightened union of two male wrestlers in love was a sham. The duo got cold feet during their planned in-ring wedding and revealed to the SmackDown audience that it was all a stunt, and that neither of them was really gay.
The stone-cold stunner came as such a shock after weeks of media buildup that GLAAD’s Scott Seomin issued a public scolding to the WWE for lying to the organization for months to gain their promotional support.
But wrestling’s most gay-inclusive moment to that point had always been planned as a brazen attention getter, according to one former WWE writer who was in the room when the Billy and Chuck angle was pitched.
“We were looking for a publicity stunt for the season premiere of SmackDown in 2002,” he told me. “The charge down from Vince [McMahon] was that they wanted a publicity stunt, something that would get attention that wasn’t a wrestling match.”
WWE personality and writer Paul Heyman pitched the idea of two divas hooking up before someone suggested Billy and Chuck tie the knot—with one-time wrestler and ex-governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura officiating.
“Vince called on speaker and fell in love with it right away,” remembers the former WWE writer, who asked not to be identified. Wrestlers Chuck Palumbo and Billy Gunn were onboard, too. “They knew it was good business. They were both happily married heterosexual men. Coming out of the gay wedding the charge was, ‘Let’s now make these guys look as heterosexual as possible.’”
The same ex-WWE writer described another behind-the-scenes attempt to integrate the fast-changing social acceptance of LGBT stories into wrestling back in 2002. A suggestion was made by someone within the organization “to take one of our top guys and make him gay,” he revealed, refusing to name names.
“Not to make him gay like flamboyantly so, as had been done in wrestling before, but to make him gay—take a tough guy who kicks ass, who wins titles and is exactly who he was, but just turn his character gay.”
Needless to say, the suggestion did not fly—although a similar angle was reportedly proposed years later for WWE pro Daniel Bryan’s ring character. Back in 2002, the architects of the WWE mythos were less than enthused. “Some of the older people in the room looked around, like, ‘What are you, crazy?’”
Fast-forward 13 years into a social media-fueled milieu of far greater social and cultural equality, and the former WWE scribe thinks it’s even less likely we’ll see an LGBT storyline work its way into wrestling canon in a post-Caitlyn world.
“If you ask me if the WWE has the storytelling nuance and the audience has the ability to accept a character who is gay, and the fact that he is homosexual doesn’t define him or his character… I don’t think the WWE has the nuance, and I don’t think the audience is at that point—yet.”
Nuance—at least, the level of scripting sensitivity it would take to do justice to a gay character without resorting to stereotype, vilifying, or reductive characterization, doesn’t really exist in the campy macho theater of sweat and brawn that is contemporary wrestling.
“There’s no chance that there’s going to be a really flamboyant character today, even if the wrestler was a naturally flamboyant out gay man who just happened to wrestle,” says Ben Miller, columnist for Wrestling Observer. “I would not expect the WWE to allow that onscreen. My perception is that in theory, they would try to make a statement that being gay is no big deal and no different from being a straight character.”
A far cry from the over the top days of the Attitude Era, the corporatized and family-friendly WWE business model that has been deliberately remade into a four-quadrant, PG-13 audience attraction. Off-duty stars are amiable and social media savvy. They give back to the children, and often (see: Make-A-Wish champion John Cena).
GLAAD, the very organization the WWE pissed off after Billy and Chuck’s unambiguously not-gay uncoupling, became a corporate partner again when Darren Young elbow-dropped his way out of the closet.
“[The WWE] reached out to us immediately after he came out,” recalls GLAAD spokesperson Seth Adams, noting the WWE and GLAAD’s joint efforts on anti-bullying campaigns in schools. “I was happy to see that the WWE community and the fans were overwhelmingly supportive of his coming out. The space is not known to be accepting because of the machismo, but that’s a misconception because the audience and fans were very receptive.”
Wrestling has since seen a number of stars come out as gay offscreen, usually well after their prime. WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson disclosed his decades-long struggle to keep his open sexuality separate from his WWE career in 2014. He also kept the headline-grabbing truth bomb in the WWE family, dropping it on an episode of the WWE Network’s reality series Legends House.
In one of pro wrestling’s many tragic tales, WCW and WWE star Chris Kanyon came out in 2004 after his active run in the ring, reportedly hoping to resume his career by embracing his sexuality. He committed suicide by overdose in 2010 after unsuccessfully lobbying to come back to the WWE as an out wrestler.
In recent years, a policy forbidding talent and announcers from using anti-gay slurs, developed in conjunction with GLAAD, has been introduced. The WWE might not have to worry about embarrassingly un-PC on-air slurs staining their good name anymore from inside the ring—but what if hate speech came raining down from the stands?
“I think the big worry that WWE has is that they think their audience is really stupid,” said Miller. “So they worry that they’re going to have a character who comes out as gay, and it’s going to be like the Mexican soccer fans in Charlotte chanting ‘culero’ at [an opposing player]. I think they think that their fans would chant something homophobic at him, and that’s going to get press and make WWE look not progressive.”
“Wrestling has always preyed on the insecurities of its audience,” said the former WWE writer. “Wrestling has always made money off of, ‘Let’s boo the foreigner,’ ‘Let’s boo the guys who are acting ambiguously gay because we can’t do that at the supermarket… but when I’m here and nobody knows, I can tap into these deep-seated emotions.’”
The WWE’s current creative team can’t craft a storyline with enough grace to do justice to a complex homosexual character, he snarked. “Now, the biggest part of the creative process is trying not to offend Totino’s Pizza Rolls if we do this—not what’s the most interesting and creative way to get attention.”
“That being said… I would hope that we could reach a point where you could have two gay male characters on TV,” he said. “Wrestling has a history of teasing lesbian storylines not for the advancement of gay culture but to titillate heterosexual men. I’d hope we’d reach a point where we could have two homosexual wrestlers who maybe have their first kiss in the middle of the ring, like a lot of male and females have, and that the crowd would genuinely support them and not boo and throw things at them.”
He paused a beat, considering the possibility. “I don’t know that we’re there yet.”
Neither, it seems, does the WWE. In the two years the company has had to send an out and proud Darren Young to several youth and LGBT events, no major developments have been made regarding his character’s potential coming out. In February, Young deleted a Tweet directly criticizing the WWE for touring Abu Dhabi, where homosexuality is criminalized, later Tweeting, “My freedom of speech is gone. Gone but not forgotten” and “I feel like no none has my back and it upsets me. The struggle is real. I'm human.” The WWE responded, reiterating their support of Young and explaining that he wasn’t sent to perform in the United Arab Emirates “for his own protection.”
“You know, in WWE our storylines are a year long,” McMahon assured me. “They don’t go episodic, week to week—they really are the arc from WrestleMania to WrestleMania. So sometimes it takes a little longer than people would like for the seeds to grow. But we’re constantly planting them.”