This morning, I opened up my Facebook feed, as I normally do on any given morning, and was greeted with a link to an article regarding the fact that Darren Young, one half of the WWE’s Primetime Players, had told a TMZ ‘reporter’ that he was gay.
Awesome. Totally made my morning.
I proceeded to share the link, as is the style at the time, adding my own witty addendum that “Now if only we can get his caucasian doppleganger to stop using 'gay' as a pejorative, and we'll be getting somewhere.” After that, I did some work, and then went to the Wrestling Observer website to see what the good people at the Observer/F4W had to say about the story. And was sorely disappointed.
While they acknowledged the story, the article dismissed the news as a ‘non-story,’ citing the history of homosexual pro wrestlers such as Pat Patterson, as well as promoters like Jim Barnett and WWE executive Jane Geddes. (Although no mention of Bob Mould...What, no love for Husker Du?) The underlying logic was that there is a long history of gay people in professional wrestling, and as such, a pro wrestler publicly coming out shouldn’t be considered newsworthy.
Now, I love me some Wrestling Observer. I respect Dave Meltzer as a journalist, and a historian. He was more than deserving of the NY Times piece a little while back, and anyone involved in sport history should know his name, and what he has contributed to this sport.
But I must take umbrage with his dismissal of this story. This is not a non-story. This is not a non-issue. Darren Young’s public acknowledgement of his sexuality is an important story, and part of a much larger, significant issue.
Yes, there is historical precedent for homosexuals achieving great success in the world of professional wrestling. But while most fans who are ‘in the know’ are aware of Pat Patterson’s homosexuality, this does not mean that all fans are. Wrestlers like Orlando Jordan, who came out as bisexual, and the late Chris Kanyon (Klucsaritis) came out as gay, but did so after leaving the WWE. The fact remains that there has never been a professional wrestler who has openly and publicly acknowledged his or her sexuality while employed by the WWE. This, in and of itself, makes this an important news story.
Just as important are the reactions. TMZ caught up with John Cena (with a Bella) and asked him about Young’s admission. Cena, displaying the grace, dignity and intelligence that make him such a great face for the company, applauded Young’s decision. When pressed, he praised both Young’s bravery, and professionalism, making it clear that he is proud of his coworker, acknowledging the fact that coming out can be, for many young men and women, a difficult and challenging decision to make. The WWE released a statement applauding Young’s courage, making sure to point out that Young will be part of their Be A Star anti-bullying initiative.
But this does not mean that all reactions to Young’s acknowledgment of his sexuality have been positive. And this is the larger issue that makes this story so significant.
A quick glance through the comments on the TMZ footage reveals the homophobia and hatred that such positive announcements bring out. Terms like ‘sexual deviant’ are used to describe Young. Accusations that he is just coming out to keep from getting fired. Disparaging comments regarding both his race and his sexuality.
Similar to the recent Sports Illustrated story on Jason Collins, there are those who will use this moment as an opportunity to attack Young, and through him, to attack the LGBT community. After Collins came out, there were news stories from conservatives deriding the use of the word ‘hero’ to describe Collins, calling it a watering down of the definition of the word. Such attacks are premised on the belief that gay men and women are treated equally, and as such, public acknowledgements of their sexuality are not only unnecessary, but somehow gauche. Their argument is the same as those who argue that race doesn’t matter, now that the United States has a black president, and that gender doesn’t matter, because women are treated the same as men. And the argument against publicly coming out as being a story is just as wrong as these others.
Gay men and women, and trans men and women, and bisexuals, and others who self-define as queer, are not accepted. Yes, things have gotten better. But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t work to be done. It doesn’t mean there aren’t still battles to be fought, rights to be protected and gained, and dignities to be preserved.
We are living in a world where the next country to host the Olympics has one of the most regressive and oppressive anti-gay legislations enacted in recent history. A law so vile that public displays of one’s sexuality can lead to arrest and imprisonment.
Even worse, the International Olympic Committe, a group that likes to pat themselves on the back for their significant contribution to the end of apartheid, is burying its head in the sand and telling athletes to shut up when they get to Sochi, because the IOC can’t do anything. (Of course, what can you expect from a group whose former President went to Nazi Germany, took one look and said, ‘It is good.’)
And as vile as this legislation is, what is even worse is how it furthers the perception and belief that homosexuality is not only wrong, not only something to be feared, but something to be hated. Something to be punished. Leading to beatings of gay men in Russia. Leading to ‘corrective rapes.’ Yeah, you read that right, they are trying to RAPE THE GAY out of lesbians.
Not that Russia is alone in their hatred and criminalization of homosexuality. Uganda recently passed a law criminalizing homosexuality, but we applaud them because they had the decency to alter the original legislation that called for the death penalty. Good for them. A recent article in the Toronto Star described the persecution, both social and criminal, faced by homosexuals in Jamaica.
But of course, that’s ‘the rest of the world.’ Such horrible things don’t happen to homosexuals here in North America. And since Darren Young is an American, he doesn’t have to worry.
Virginia attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is trying to implement an anti-sodomy law that would make homosexuality illegal in the state. (Virginia is for Lovers...But only Straights!) The law, also known as the ‘Crimes Against Nature’ law, has been declared unconstitutional, but Ken won’t let a little thing like the Constitution get in the way of his hatred of homosexuality and blowjobs.
Of course, Kenny’s not alone in his homophobic hate mongering. It seems that hardly a natural disaster can go by without Pat Robertson claiming that the (hurricane/fire/tidal wave/swarm of locusts/Kaiju attack/new Twilight book) is either a punishment or a sign from God that America has failed to heed his word. And there’s the American Family Association, who regularly (and religiously) speak out against homosexuality, usually tying acceptance of homosexuality to a decline in some nebulous notion of ‘decency’ and/or ‘American values.’
And let’s not forget the good Reverend Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist Church is a travelling show of homophobia, hatred and harassment, protesting at military funerals, comic book conventions, and anywhere else they think they can get some TV time.
While most reasonable people dismiss what these people have to say quicker than a hiccup, not everybody is a reasonable person. And these groups, and their followers, help to fuel a culture of homophobia and queerphobia that continues to devalue, degrade and disenfranchise LGBT people. It is why gay couples have to fight for the right to get married. For the right to be in the hospital room with their partner of thirty years while they are dying. For the right to survivor benefits. For the right to adopt children and raise them as part of a loving family. For the right to be who they are.
Homophobia is not dead. It may be legally mandated in some places, but just because a country doesn’t have laws that criminalize ‘gay propaganda’ doesn’t mean that they’re accepting of homosexuality. Queer teens are still subject to bullying and harassment. It is still legal in some place to fire someone for being gay. It is still considered okay to kick a vendor out of a farmer’s market for hiring trans workers.
And in the world of professional wrestling, being gay is still a slur. The Rock may have played a gay man in ‘Be Cool,’ and may talk about Pat Patterson being a major influence in his career, but that doesn’t stop him from questioning an opponent’s sexuality, and deriding him for it. I was impressed with John Cena’s reaction to TMZ’s question about Darren Young, but I’ve been just as disgusted with the way his character has a tendency to create linkages between perceptions and accusations of homosexuality and inferiority. Only CM Punk has impressed me with his embrace of homosexuality both on-screen and off. When he put his arm around his ‘best friend’ Paul Heyman’s shoulders when being taunted about their relationship, I saw a man who not only didn’t care if you called him gay, but would challenge you to tell you why that is supposed to be a bad thing. (Plus he loves grammar!)
Darren Young’s statement to TMZ IS a story. It IS an issue. Because he didn’t have to. Because he did so in a world that still likes to mock, belittle, degrade, and attack homosexuality. Because he admitted who he is, and because he is happy about it. Because he has nothing to be ashamed of, but still has plenty to fear. Because as long as making gay jokes is an easy way to get a crowd of 15,000 wrestling fans to cheer you and boo your opponent, Darren Young will always be ‘other.’
Now, I’m not putting all of this on Darren Young’s shoulders and asking him to be QUEERCULES, THE HOMOSEXUAL SUPERSTAR! I want Darren Young to keep being Darren Young. I want him to stay teamed up with Titus O’Neill in the Primetime Players. I want him to keep using his pick. I want O’Neill to keep blowing his whistle. I want him to be the wrestler he wants to be. I want him to be entertaining. I want him to be fun. I want him to make millions of dollars. He doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of being the gay pro wrestler if he doesn’t want to. It’s up to him to politicize this as much or as little as he likes. Because by coming out, he’s already done so much. He’s told wrestling fans that, Yes Virginia, there are gay pro wrestlers. He’s told his coworkers that he trusts them enough to not judge him based on his honesty. He’s told his employers that he is proud of who he is, and has nothing to hide. (Not to suggest that they’ve asked him to hide anything.) And he’s told TMZ that he’s happy. And I’m happy he’s happy.
In a world built on masks, false identities and scripted narratives of self, the world of professional wrestling is one where the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred. A world where maintaining illusion and deception have been ingrained in those who live in that world. A world of hyperbole and grandiosity. A world where stereotypes are both embraced, but also shattered. A world of paradox, where performativity is valued as much as athleticism. A world where characters abound, personalities are enhanced, and exaggeration is the norm. In that world, it’s too easy to see how Darren Young’s homosexuality could be made into a gimmick or a parody. But I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. I’m hoping that Darren Young just keeps being the best damn Darren Young he can be.
This is not a non-story. This is not a non-issue. Being gay in the inside world of professional wrestling may not be a big deal. But being a gay professional wrestler in 2013 is.