"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.
Last summer, Darren Young became the first openly gay member of the active roster in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). For some considerable time, Young has been part of a tag-team called the Prime Time Players, a pair of comedy heels (wrestling parlance for 'bad guys'). Recently, his partner, Titus O'Neill turned on him, leading to a feud. This is how wrestling works for the most part - you put together a team, you have them become bitter enemies, and then you send them on their own ways.
However, this doesn't always work well for both members of the team. Exemplified by early-90s team The Rockers, sometimes one person becomes a big star while the other is destined for a much lesser role. It'd be a shame if this happens with Darren Young, as he's a good looking guy with a fair amount of charisma, that just hasn't found his niche yet. While his sexuality ideally shouldn't make any difference to how he's treated, the context of how homosexuality has been handled in wrestling in the past means that, for me, WWE has a level of responsibility to treat their first openly gay wrestler a little more carefully. If Darren Young can be given a chance to succeed, he arguably should be, if only to send the message that WWE are moving away from the open homophobia wrestling has shown 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
In 1996, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) - now WWE - introduced the character 'Goldust'. Similarly to his predecessors, Goldust camped it up hugely, and played up the sexuality of the character to a huge degree. He would wear a long blonde wig and feathered robe for his entrance, and would wrestle with black and gold facepaint and a tight gold bodysuit. He would blow kisses at his opponent, or slowly lick his lips. In his first feud, he got a fake tattoo with his opponent's name on a loveheart.
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.
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 into a 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.
And then Billy and Chuck were turned face by stating that they weren't gay.
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.
Billy Gunn (left) and Chuck Palumbo (right). Officially not gay.
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.
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 historically, a large number of them are young and impressionable.
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 tweeted or publicly stated congratulations (including Bret Hart, incidentally). WWE now run anti-bullying educational visits for schools, and Young became part of this. That's a great first move. And, while WWE didn't overplay it, they did turn the Players into 'good guys' shortly after Young came out. This is all good news, but the way they're treating Titus and Young now shows clearly that they think Titus is the star, which means that Young is in danger of being left out.
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. This is the first time that WWE have had an openly gay wrestler, and it would be a real shame and a wasted opportunity if all they they gave him was a mild push for a while, and then, effectively, dropped him. If I didn't believe that Darren Young had the ability to justify more than that, it may be different. But Young is good. He's shown flashes of being genuinely interesting, and it would be nice if WWE do give him the opportunity to do more. It'd certainly be a nicer ending to the story of WWE's first gay wrestler.