Wrestling’s Battle Against Homophobia Tackled in “Out In The Ring”

In the gritty landscape of the wrestling territory era, one aspect remained unspoken and hidden beneath the surface: the struggle of wrestlers who dared to be openly gay. Enter “Out In The Ring,” a groundbreaking documentary that peels back the layers of wrestling’s old days, where homophobia lurked in the shadows of locker rooms and echoed through the stands.

Gorgeous George and Wrestling’s Early Homophobia: The Untold Story

Wrestler Gorgeous George.
Wrestler Gorgeous George. Photo Credit: Sunset Pictures.

Known as the “Human Orchid,” George Wagner, better known to professional wrestling fans as Gorgeous George, had created his wrestling persona by growing his hair long, dyeing it platinum blonde, and putting gold-plated bobby pins in it.

Transforming his ring entrance into a memorable spectacle, he strutted to the sounds of Pomp and Circumstance accompanied by his valet “Jeffries,” who carried a silver mirror while spreading rose petals at his feet.

On top of it, a purple spotlight beckoned him into the squared circle.

While removing his elegant robe, which sported an array of sequins, Jeffries would spray the ring with perfume. His valets arrogantly sprayed the referee’s hands before the official was allowed to check him for any illegal objects, and he would cry, “Get your filthy hands off me!”

The most famous wrestler of his day, his flamboyant image evoked no shortage of homophobia and cruel comments.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Doris Lockerman once wrote, “Even in this mad, mad world, I don’t see how Gorgeous got started. Even in Hollywood, some of the residents should have a normal allergy to a man dressed up like a woman.”

The Clones of Gorgeous George

Wrestler Richard Phelps as Gorgeous George Jr.
Wrestler Richard Phelps as Gorgeous George Jr. Photo Credit: Alchetron.

Gorgeous George, of course, inspired countless imitators.

Decades after his passing, it wasn’t a secret that a heel turn replete with the prerequisite blonde dye job guaranteed heat and ticket sales from homophobic crowds.

Some stars were not shy about borrowing their inspiration’s gimmick.

The late Richard Phelps appeared in Memphis in the late 1970s as ‘George Wagner’ and ‘Gorgeous George Jr.’

Phelps even legally changed his name to George Wagner when the widow of the original Gorgeous George sued to stop him from using the name.

In 1995, Robert Kellum began wrestling in the United States Wrestling Association (USWA) as Gorgeous George III, a tribute to his great-uncle, Gorgeous George.

He later took the gimmick a step further as The Maestro, who, along with his valet Symphony, came down on a platform from the ceiling as he “played the piano,” ala a buffed Liberace.

Although he descended from the heavens, the fan reaction wasn’t always heavenly like many such characters.

Adrian Street “Horrified” By the Fans’ Reaction

Wrestler Adrian Street.
Wrestler Adrian Street. Photo Credit: WWE.

The late Adrian Street also carried his androgynous look and character to main events around the world.

In so many of the tough British Clubs and U.S. territories of decades ago, he was less than welcome, and homophobic slurs reigned on him at these venues.

Street noted, “I thought I would have a good reception, but people started saying things like ‘Isn’t she cute,’ ‘Give us a kiss, Mary!” and whistling.

“At first, I was horrified, but I have always been a sucker for attention and wanted more, so I began strutting around, playing up to it and pushing it farther and farther.”

Adrian Adonis: The Fans Didn’t Bring Him Flowers

Wrestler Adrian Adonis with manager Jimmy Hart (left).
Wrestler Adrian Adonis with manager Jimmy Hart (left). Photo Credit: WWE.

Similarly, Adrian Adonis transformed from a leather-clad tough guy into an effeminate “Adorable” Adrian.

The “Adorable” gimmick was reportedly a punishment from Vince McMahon for Adonis’s huge weight gain.

His “Flower Shop” talk segment elicited rampant homophobia.

Both wrestling fans and the television announcers covering him showered abuse on Adonis. Homophobic signs attacking him were even spotted on their TV programming.

In a promo for a Hogan-Adonis bout, Hulk stated, “Well, all I’ve got to say to you, Adrian Adonis-Cow Palace, San Francisco! This is Hulk country, brother. And you’re going to take a walk on the wild side. Not the kind of walk you like to take because there ain’t going to be any swishing around.”

During the Roddy Piper-Adonis feud, Piper stated that he didn’t want his children watching Adonis’ segments on TV as if a gay character would somehow poison kids’ minds.

Sadly, the insult drew appreciative applause.

The Genius Draws Heat

Wrestler "The Genius" Lanny Poffo.
Wrestler “The Genius” Lanny Poffo. Photo Credit: WWE.

There are many other instances of wrestlers evoking homophobic reactions from WWE fans.

Chad Parenteaus of Medium.com had this to say about the late Lanny Poffo‘s “The Genius” gimmick and his match with Hulk Hogan on Saturday Night’s Main Event, in particular.

“The match demonstrated Poffo using classic heel tactics of refusing to directly confront the babyface and using dirty tricks to outsmart his stronger opponent. Lanny mixed it in with his usual trademark gymnastics while striking ballerina poses to affect effeminacy, which Hogan joined the crowd in mocking.”

And Then There Was Goldust

Wrestler Dustin Rhodes as Goldust.
Wrestler Dustin Rhodes as Goldust. Photo Credit: WWE.

The androgynous Golddust wasn’t greeted with open arms by fans or his opponents of the 1990s either.

Dustin Rhodes, as Goldust, would make suggestive comments and physical advances at opponents and even “threaten” the audience that he would kiss them.

In 2020, Dustin Rhodes, who had faced much homophobia with his Goldust character, tweeted: “Sick of this Trans phobia crap. My son is Trans, and it saddens me to see so many hateful people on the attack!”

“Metrosexuals” and More: Gay Storylines in Wrestling Being Used to Cause Jeers

The "wedding" of Billy and Chuck (Billy Gunn and Chuck Palumbo).
The “wedding” of Billy and Chuck (Billy Gunn and Chuck Palumbo). Photo Credit: WWE.

Promoters went to that homophobic well again and again.

The Billy (Billy Gunn) and Chuck’s (Palumbo) wedding angle was denounced by Glaad (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) when the actual wedding segment fell through amidst its silly wrestling storyline.

Writer Colette Arrands, who has written on wrestling’s gay characters, discussed Ring Of Honor’s Christopher Street connection:

A tag team of mincing rough trade known as The Christopher Street Connection—appeared on the very first ROH show. They were roundly crushed by a pair of big nasties called Da Hit Squad and ushered from the building as the crowd chanted homophobic slurs.”

Also, the “Metrosexual” character Rico kissed opponents to the horror of the day’s audiences.

But the tide has turned, and being “out in the ring” is embraced. The new documentary, Out in The Ring, addresses just that.

Director Ry Levey’s Insight: How “Out In The Ring” Redefines Wrestling History

The many wrestlers featured in the film 'Out in the Ring.'
The many wrestlers featured in the film ‘Out in the Ring.’ Photo Credit: Out in the Ring.

‘Out in The Ring’ director Ry Levey details his love for professional wrestling and why wrestling’s current LGBTQ-friendly space is so important to him.

As a Canadian child, Levey loved the legendary Calgary Stampede Wrestling and later became a WWE fan, even attending WrestleMania 6 in Toronto. Though his interest in wrestling waned over the years, he saw its potential in this full-length documentary.

“As a filmmaker, I’ve always been driven to look at stories through my own experience as a queer man,” Levey shared with CBC.

“Seeing glimpses of myself in the stories presented in the cultural spectrum, whether through literature, art, or cinema, has been an integral part of my human evolution.

“So, when the time came to follow up my previous short documentaries with my first feature, it was inevitable that I would try to make a film about something I knew and that had a special meaning for me in my childhood- professional wrestling.”

A Hidden History Uncovered

Pat Patterson.
Pat Patterson. Photo Credit: WWE.

Upon researching his film, Levey was surprised to discover a wealth of material to mine.

“What wrestling was lacking was a prominent ‘out’ wrestling component. At the time, no major wrestling federation had any openly gay talents on their rosters.

“Indeed, as with other sports, some would come out after their careers were over, but I felt there was a hidden history to uncover.

“So, I chased the rumors of who might be gay and followed the scandals that would force closeted legends like Montreal’s Pat Patterson into the unwanted spotlight and the few retired wrestlers of the past or indie queer stars that peppered the industry.

“Little would I be able to fathom how this once intensely homophobic and closeted industry full of flamboyance and glitz would see an explosion of queer gender expression.”

‘Out in the Ring’ Director on Honoring ‘Brave Stars of the Past’

Photo Credit: Out in the Ring.
Photo Credit: Out in the Ring.

After nearly five years of fighting to finish the film, which was delayed like so many projects by the pandemic, Levey feels satisfied with what he’s created and documented.

Levey is proud that his film will “honor brave stars of the past, forced to stay in the closet, or punished and exiled from the business for living their truth and introducing audiences to the now hundreds of out stars from across the globe.”

He continues, “This journey to bring these stories to the screen has allowed me to find a now greater love for the profession, a respect for the pageantry and amazement at the bravery and athleticism of their performance and profound respect for the risks and hard work these unique performers put in.

“With Out In The Ring, I hope to enlighten and inform others, showcase the incredibly storied history, and hopefully, create a few new fans.”

Out In The Ring: Our Honest Review

Pat Patterson Comes Out in the program WWE Legends' House.
Pat Patterson comes out in the WWE Legends’ House program. Photo Credit: WWE.

We were given early access to view Out In The Ring, and we found that the film functions well on a variety of levels.

It has a strong sense of history, chronicling a variety of gay wrestlers and promoters and their various challenges both in and out of the ring.

Pat Patterson, for example, had a partner of forty years whom he would only address as his “friend.” Although it was common knowledge that Pat was gay, he didn’t come out publicly during his career until 2014 on the WWE Legends House reality show.

Wrestling Legends Susan “Tex” Green and More in ‘Out in the Ring’

Retired pro wrestler and pro wrestling trainer Susan "Tex" Green in 'Out in the Ring.'
Retired pro wrestler and pro wrestling trainer Susan “Tex” Green in ‘Out in the Ring.’ Photo Credit: Michael Galinsky.

The documentary also examines the stereotypical gay wrestling characters generally portrayed by heterosexuals.

With topnotch historians like author Bertrand Herbert, Greg Oliver, Wade Keller, and Vandal Drummond on hand and living history in grappling great Susan “Tex” Green, they know from whence they speak.

Fabulous Moolah, who pretty much ran women’s wrestling, does not fare well here. She allegedly would not hire gay women and would fire them if she discovered the truth about their sexuality. And Herbert addresses the longstanding “rumors” about Moolah “selling or pimping her girls.”

Some legends covered include Gorgeous George, Sandy Parker, Adrian Street, Adrian Adonis, promoter Jim Barnett, and the openly gay wrestling couple Chris Colt and Ron Dupree.

Today’s Wrestlers Emotionally Share Tales of Coming Out in ‘Out in the Ring’

Explore the hidden struggles of gay wrestlers and the layers of homophobia in wrestling's territory era and beyond in 'Out In The Ring.'
Explore the hidden struggles of gay wrestlers and the layers of homophobia in wrestling’s territory era and beyond in ‘Out In The Ring.’ Photo Credit: RBL Films 3DMC and Orama Filmworks.

The film is most potent when wrestlers Mikey Parrow, Charlie Morgan, and Dani Jordyn speak openly and emotionally about coming out publicly and to friends and family.

Trans-Persian wrestler Dark Sheik from Oakland’s Hoodslam is particularly open and affecting.

Out In The Ring also features interviews with Ashton Starr, AC Mack, NWA star Pollo Del Mar, and former AEW star Sonny Kiss.

Corporate WWE does not come off well, either. Kanyon’s coming out on TV in a Boy George outfit and being beaten down by the Undertaker was particularly painful for many, as were the various gay stereotypes like Adrian Adonis and the Billy and Chuck fiasco.

Honest Critique of the Film

Out in the Ring.
Photo Credit: Out in the Ring.

My one qualm with the film is that it tries to do too much. At an hour forty-three minutes, there are too many “talking heads” commenting on legends they never knew or even met.

It could easily hit the same points in a shorter, tighter 80 or 90 minutes. A barrage of wrestler photos during the credits was also overkill. This otherwise-quality film lagged a bit towards the end.

Despite that, there are many moving moments, and the filmmakers are smart enough to emphasize their subjects’ harrowing and inspirational journeys more than in-ring moments.

The wrestlers here pour their hearts out; you feel for and root for them, and the film ultimately triumphs because of it.

From Anthony Bowen and Beyond: Wrestling’s New Era of Acceptance

Wrestler Anthony Bowen.
Wrestler Anthony Bowen. Photo Credit: AEW.

Today, when a flamboyant peacock-like Dalton Castle enters an arena with his “Boys” or Anthony Bowen of The Acclaimed cuts a promo saying he’s gay, there’s a very different reaction.

The fans erupt in adoring cheers. Yet they would have been booed out of the building decades ago.

Finally, there’s progress and acceptance, and you can now be who you are and “out in the ring.”

‘Out in the Ring’ premiers on FUSE TV and its digital platform on November 15th, 2023.

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Evan Ginzburg is the Senior Editor for Pro Wrestling Stories and a contributing writer since 2017. He's a published author and was an Associate Producer on the Oscar-nominated movie "The Wrestler" and acclaimed wrestling documentary "350 Days." He is a 30-plus-year film, radio, and TV veteran and a voice-over actor on the radio drama Kings of the Ring.