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The Word on the Rings: The Gay Gold

Why having a gay world wrestling champion matters, and why it shouldn't


Like in real life, a lot of things “shouldn’t matter” in professional wrestling. It “shouldn’t matter” if you don’t have the chiseled physique that wrestling demands. It “shouldn’t matter” if you’re a man or a woman, straight or queer. It “shouldn’t matter” what your race is.

However, like in real life, these things that “shouldn’t matter” do matter in professional wrestling. We consider it a great stride when less-muscular wrestlers become champions. We laud the business when women’s wrestling is given more attention. Great revelations are made when we explore the role of race in professional wrestling: Asian world champions, Black world champions, and so on.

The Prime Time Players win the big one. Source: wwe.com
At Money in the Bank 2015, something that “shouldn’t matter” somehow mattered, despite the whole narrative being an afterthought. The Prime Time Players didn’t just become the World Tag Team Champions, but Darren Young became (arguably) the first openly gay professional wrestler to win a WWE championship.

Allow the nuances of that moment to sink in for a bit: Darren Young is black, openly gay, and now carries a title, representing one-half of the world’s best tag team wrestlers (in theory), in the world’s biggest professional wrestling company. A black world champion is a step forward, especially in a business that always had a very complicated relationship with race. A gay world champion is something else altogether, especially in a business that always had a very complicated relationship with gender.

It shouldn’t matter, and at the same time, it should matter. Especially in a sport with a checkered history of gender.

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The “gay character” has always been a staple of professional wrestling, that stands in contrast with its traditional "macho" image. When Gorgeous George “invented sports entertainment” in the classic era of pro wrestling, he carried with him the “gay character”: his mannerisms, his capes, his hair, the atomizer full of perfume, the moniker of “The Human Orchid.”  Needless to say, Gorgeous George’s showmanship and effeminate behavior made him a very much-reviled heel. In the 1980s, “Adorable” Adrian Adonis was a heel in rouge and leg warmers, whose “Flower Shop” talk show was the segment that slowly catalyzed Paul Orndorff ‘s heel turn on Hulk Hogan.



In lucha libre, the exotico (a wrestler in drag) often brings comic relief to an otherwise sacred national pastime that celebrates myth and machismo. There’s Cassandro, who has found longevity in the ring as one of the most famous exoticos in lucha libre. There’s Pimpinela Escarlata, who figures very well with the many figures and characters in Lucha Underground.

Puroresu, too, is not without its “gay" characters: the most famous being Razor Ramon HARD GAY, who himself has transcended into mainstream Japanese TV. Another such character is Danshoku Dino, whose moves are homoerotic parodies of famous wrestling moves (with colorful names like “Cock Bottom,” and a version of the Shining Wizard where he strikes his opponent’s head with his crotch).

He is, of course, a 7-time DDT Extreme Division Champion.

So many of these “gay" characters have passed through the gamut of professional wrestling history since George and Adonis. There was Rico’s “gay” character, of course, who brought in the “gay” duo of Billy and Chuck. Orlando Jordan, who identifies with being a bisexual, appeared in TNA with a “weird queer” gimmick, featuring a “weird” entrance that undeniably characterizes him as “queer.” Dalton Castle is a major sensation in ROH today, what with his “Peacock” gimmick, his “manservants,” and entrance gear that gives Ric Flair’s final WrestleMania robe a run for its money.

Salutations. He's Dalton Castle, and those: those are his boys.
The professional wrestling industry may tread really carefully with the “gay” trope, but history shows that it keeps a much looser rein on “lesbian” stories. Post-Invasion, RAW General Manager Eric Bischoff wormed and squirmed his way through sticky situations with authorities and hostile fans by offering them a dose of HLA (“Hot Lesbian Action”). Torrie Wilson and Sable, at one point, became ratings magnets through storyline lesbian undertones. And then there was the “Fulfill Your Fantasy” battle royal in Taboo Tuesday 2004: wasn’t exactly a “lesbian” match, but the undertones played out more than the “schoolgirl fantasy” overtones of a relatively bad match.

Then there’s real life. Pat Patterson’s sexual orientation may be one of the worst kept “open secrets” of the industry, but him coming out to his peers in “Legends House” is considered a great leap, in both personal and professional terms. Of course, there’s Chris Kanyon: after falling on trying times after his WWE release, the WCW stalwart and “Alliance MVP” plied the independent circuits, carrying with him (among other things) the identity of the “first openly-gay pro wrestler.”



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That complicated history of LGBT themes in pro wrestling brings us to Darren Young.

The WWE never made a big deal out of what Young achieved: in an age of Be-a-STAR and public trading, Young’s sexual orientation shouldn’t matter. Some might argue that it never did, and it never should: like his ethnicity, his gender has nothing to do with his wrestling skill, his chemistry with Titus O’Neil, or whether or not he “deserves” the title.

Yet the other argument presents itself along the same lines. When we consistently make remarks that no blacks get to have titles in the WWE, the PTP winning it should have merit (that they won it against The New Day, who have also been criticized for their portrayal of blackness, is something else that deserves a thorough examination). And when we talk about narrative, an openly gay world champion matters in a business with a complicated relationship with gender. Especially someone like Darren Young, who doesn’t play into the “gay” trope and doesn’t reveal his gender in the stories he tells in the ring. Young stands in the unique position of being the WWE’s voice for everyone in society who shares his stories and identify with his identity.



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I’m not saying that Darren Young should be anointed and/or saddled with the great responsibility of changing the way we look at LGBT communities and narratives in professional wrestling. It takes more than an impactful title reign (and the millions of dollars that come with it) to change that long history. There are many ways to read into the “gay” storylines as much as there are many ways to read into Darren Young’s achievement, and yet all of them have a lot to do with the things that should matter, and the things that shouldn’t matter. The answer, I think, is found in the history of the pro wrestling trope itself.

Looking back at history, the gay character was there to create heat. Heat means ticket sales: people did pay money to see Gorgeous George get beat up, to see Billy and Chuck “get married,” and the card for many lucha events feature exotico matches. The unfolding story of Darren Young features none of that.

It "shouldn't matter" that Darren Young is the first openly gay champion in this scale of professional wrestling, how he's handled from here matters even more. Wrestling is a history of fiction, with a very checkered history with gender (and the tropes and stereotypes that come with it). Young is the very first to not be saddled by that gimmick: to not be a heel because of his gender, to not have the "flamboyant" characterization, and to be in more neutral territory where his gender doesn't matter. And while this is a step above the usual ridiculing that sports entertainment accords to the “gay wrestler,” it doesn’t push the cause for equality and gender issues forward. At best, it's on a standstill.

How he's handled from this point forward makes (and somehow breaks) this checkered history for the WWE, and it's very delicate ground. Making Darren "flamboyantly gay" is a step back to gender issues, but not bringing his gender into the equation when he competes is to deny the importance of his milestone. WWE should not trumpet it as the only thing that makes Darren unique, but they shouldn't downplay the uniqueness that it gives a talented in-ring performer and a champion. Darren Young's characterization requires a lot of nuance and facets: one that requires not only creativity, but an understanding of the issues surrounding social situations similar to his.

Given his unique story and narrative Darren Young could be much more. The stories he tells in the ring can parlay into the stories he tells in real life. We root for Darren Young because his story resonates with those we care for and stand with.



But all my empathizing at this point will not pass for identification, and that is something that only Darren Young, and those who identify with him, should choose to make or not. It's his story to tell.

That stream of thought, with respect in mind for these issues, requires a full stop on my end.

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These creative choices shouldn’t deduct or detract from the importance of what Darren Young achieved. In a business still defined by biases and discrimination, Darren Young fought the good fight and won: his name is now immortalized in sports-entertainment history as the first openly gay professional wrestler who won a world championship in the WWE. In a business with a complicated relationship with a lot of things, that is a milestone that matters a lot.

It shouldn’t matter, as champions will come and go. At the same time, it should: to be the first comes with the great responsibilities of changing the future, given its very checkered past.

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Marck Rimorin is an advertising professional, writer, bookworm, and overthinker. While a lifelong WWE fan, he also watches puroresu, lucha libre, and old clips of European wrestling. When not caught up in reading, making brand communications, or eating waybread under the shade of mallorn trees, Marck writes the overthink piece for Smark Henry: The Word on the Rings.

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