In her era, being a Black, openly gay female pro wrestler left many flabbergasted. And hers was a tough road to travel. Sandy Parker was not just a wrestler but a pioneer of women’s wrestling. Way ahead of her time, we examine her life, struggles, and impressive career.
Sandy Parker: From Fan to Grappler
Sandy Parker was born Jolene Cassandria Parker in Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 2nd, 1952. Deserted by her mother, Sandy was raised by her grandmother.
Growing up, Sandy was a self-professed tomboy who climbed trees, played baseball, and beat up the boys in her neighborhood.
Sandy was 15 years old when she saw her first wrestling match. She was enraptured immediately upon watching two people grapple in the ring. From then on, she was instantly devoted.
So many young people experience the obsessive feeling she described, the buzz of finding something to identify with, discovering a baking form to pour their batter in.
Soon, Sandy Parker would attend matches every week, sometimes two or three times in the space of days. More and more, she fell in love with wrestling. She would even travel across the border and all the way to Seattle to see the matches.
As a spectator, Sandy witnessed with fixed eyes as Judy Grable tormented another woman in the ring. Finally, her friend turned to her and said she thought Sandy could do just as well as any woman they had seen wrestle. Sandy must have taken it to heart because she began talking to the wrestlers who frequented the area.
A few of the wrestlers offered to train her, but Sandy was hesitant because of her age at only 15 years old. She told them she would rather wait until she was a little bit older.
A bit older, when she was ready, Sandy went to the local library to riffle through the phone directories of the biggest cities in North America. One can easily conjure a picture of her in a large, wood-covered library- notating anything that stood out, names that Sandy may have recognized from her time at wrestling matches.
Sandy sent out a few letters to trainers inquiring about their services.
When she got a response from Lou Klein out of Detroit, only a bridge away from her then-home in Windsor, she decided to try it.
Klein was once known as "The Man of 1,000 Holds," and trained The Original Sheik (Ed Farhat). Sandy later told a reporter when it came time to visit Klein’s gym, she went alone when her friend backed out last minute.
Her first moments in the ring were with Lucille Dupree, a veteran who had been wrestling since Sandy was seven.
After getting started at Klein’s gym, she was mainly trained by wrestlers Mary Jane Mull and Dupree, and Lucille later said that in their downtime, on the unbearably hot days, they took breaks at a nearby ice skating rink to keep cool.
After only four months of training, Sandy Parker debuted in the ring in Battle Creek, Michigan, going up against her trainer Mary Jane.
In a 1969 interview, Parker claimed, "When I first got into the ring I was scared to death. All those people down there either booing you or cheering you. Later you’re nervous but you say to yourself ‘I don’t know, these people and they don’t know me.’"
Soon after her first match, Sandy chose her ring name from pure necessity. When cashing a check from a promoter, she realized it was made out to her wrestling alias at the time, and the bank declared it null and void. To prevent it from happening in the future, she decided her in-ring name would be her real one: Sandy Parker.
Foundations Set Before Sandy Parker
Black women wrestlers had been carving out their place in the industry for decades before Sandy Parker stepped foot in the ring for the first time. Women like Marva Scott, Babs Wingo, Ethel Johnson, Kathleen Wimbley, Sweet Georgia Brown, and many more were crowned champions.
Sandy was drawn to being a heel, the venom to the babyfaces. In the documentary Queer for Fear, director Karyn Kusama intellectualizes women villains as a trope asking, "When you start to explore female heroines who might be the monster, we have to ask ourselves what is frightening about femininity?"
Sandy would come to wield her femininity like a sword later in her career. Parker would state, ‘Supposedly, we follow the same rules, but it seems it’s women’s nature to fight dirtier. I go by the idea do unto others before it gets done to you.’"
An eye for an eye is classic heel territory.
Sandy’s propensities for the villainous side of wrestling were halted at first. The promoters she worked for, usually white men in positions of power, expressed that a Black woman as a heel would be too "hostile" for American crowds.
Sandy’s circumstances did not exist in a vacuum. In the essay "Racial Violence in Southern Professional Wrestling," author Hughes explains that in the 1940s wrestling industry, "Heroes like Sailor Art Thomas offered a safe and smiling image of black heroism that affirmed the goodness of American culture without spotlighting its racial disparities."
Many wrestlers like Ernie Ladd, Thunderbolt Patterson, and later New Jack turned this stereotype on its head by antagonizing white wrestlers and fans.
History of Queer Villainy in Wrestling
Gay villainy had already been explored long before Sandy Parker started wrestling. Queer-coded (when characters may not be explicitly stated to be queer, but there is enough subtext available for an audience to read them as queer) and gender-subverting characters have been showcased as spectacles since the carnival days. Since wrestling grew from that very same soil, it followed a similar path.
For example, the first to come to mind is Gorgeous George, a wrestler active during the 1940s and ’50s. He would float into the squared circle with heavily peroxide-bleached white hair while his flowing, embellished coat was doffed by his valet, Jeffries.
He often took to the stage first to spray Chanel No.5 perfume over the perimeter of the ring, pumped from a comically large fireplace bellows. His relationship to masculinity, the expected virtue of a wrestling man, became subversive, and these actions translated into a wicked queerness in the eyes of the audience.
Queer wrestling characters cross time and space. In Lucha Libre, Exóticos are known as flamboyant, gay-coded wrestlers who traverse the lines between heel and face.
Historically, people of varying identities perform as Exóticos, from cisgender men, gay and straight, to transwomen. These characters have been prevalent in Lucha Libre since the 1940s.
In outfits more akin to showgirls than a singlet, gender subversion is the name of the game, and through taunting, blowing kisses, and all-around animated behavior, Exóticos laugh in the face of machismo. Their in-ring presence becomes a much-needed relief from the hypermasculinity.
At the same time, Sandy was coming up, Welsh wrestler Adrian Street dipped his toes in as a gender-subverted character. He was described in the essay, "The Exotic Masculinity of Adrian Steet," as "the flamboyant king of the ring, and queen of it too."
After being inspired by the aesthetics of grappler Buddy Rogers, Street donned eccentric clothing and bleached his hair, hoping for adulation, but what he received was anger. Street pushed the lines, putting make-up on the macho men he beat in he ring, destabilizing their own masculinity in the process.
“Adorable” Adrian Adonis and many others over the years capitalized on homophobia with antics that incensed the fans.
Sandy Parker Heads Down to Fabulous Moolah’s Camp
After getting all she could from her training in Detroit, Sandy Parker was advised to seek out Lillian Ellison in Columbia, South Carolina. Ellison, known as The Fabulous Moolah, would be able to train her further and get her regular work in the States.
Sandy packed up her life and went down South to live and train on Moolah’s compound. At first, Sandy said the process was really positive, and Moolah was attentive and encouraging.
Trailers were sprawled over Moolah’s 42-acre property for trainees to stay in, and Sandy said the accommodations were nothing to complain about. But, as the months went by, and she was going on jobs, Sandy started to detect something suspicious.
It was about six to seven months in when Sandy started noticing she and the girls’ checks were collected by Moolah herself, who took her cut off the top. It was never a fixed rate, but a range from 25% to half of the cash accrued depending on the wrestler. And it went further than that. Sandy alleged Moolah only gave good-paying, high-profile gigs to the girls who remained on her good side.
In an interview with Slam Wrestling in 2008, Sandy stated, "Everybody knew that if you weren’t on Lillian’s good side, you got crappy bookings. I wouldn’t do what she wanted me to do. That was one of the reasons I never worked Madison Square Garden.”
She continued, “As far as I am concerned, I could wrestle just as good as Donna Christenello or any one of those girls."
According to Sandy Parker, Moolah was not only fickle, but she was also uncompromising and set strict rules for those who would train with her.
After finding out Sandy went to some local gay bars in Columbia, Moolah ordered her not to go back. Moolah also tried to set Sandy up with her nephew, a definite power move made only to bother Sandy.
Sue Green, another queer wrestler who trained with Moolah like Sandy, later said that she had to hide her gayness from Moolah because she knew there were consequences.
Later, Sandy said she thought Moolah was a hypocrite who had her own "dalliances" with girls who trained under her. There remained a colossal power differential between Moolah and those who worked for her. Simply put, she controlled their lives.
Sandy also alleged that, like her, Moolah attempted to set up her workers with a variety of men at different times, cajoling some to sleep with promoters for more money in Moolah’s pocket. This happened over decades because ten years earlier, Susie Mae McCoy, aka "Sweet Georgia Brown," stated similar goings on.
Later, McCoy’s children confirmed that their mother divulged that Moolah withheld funds from the wrestlers if they did not do what they were told.
More of these stories can be read in the Pro Wrestling Stories article, Fabulous Moolah: Her Career and Controversial Legacy.
Moolah controlled Sandy’s income, housing, and career and made repeated attempts to prevent her from having any personal, romantic, or social agency while encouraging her to participate in sex work. Thus, Sandy did not last long at the compound.
But even when she was still in Moolah’s grasp, Sandy and the aforementioned Sue Green were christened the NWA Tag Team Champions, a nice uppercut to Moolah’s controlling and homophobic hypocrisy.
The NWA ended up recognizing this, so there lives some poetic justice in that success.
The Villain Who Wore Lipstick
Done with Fabulous Moolah and Columbia, Sandy Parker joined forces with Mildred Burke and traveled with her to Japan, where she debuted at All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling in April 1973.
Sandy quickly appealed to the crowds, and within her first few months in the promotion, she defeated Miyoko Hoshino for World Championship, ending Hoshino’s almost 300-day streak. She was not only the first Black woman to win the title but simultaneously became the first out gay woman to be a world champion wrestler.
The WWWA titles have interesting provenance, first created by wrestling’s mother, Mildred Burke. When her career blossomed from the circus, Burke designed a championship belt in the 1930s.
According to the book, "Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend," by Jeff Leen, the NWA did not acknowledge the title, but now some look to the title as the first recognized women’s championship in history. There is a parallel to Sandy and Sue Green’s tag team win that was not upheld by the NWA, either.
Burke’s title belt, however, remained in the US until she took it with her to Japan in the 1950s.
In the late 1960s, with Burke’s approval, AJW created women’s championships in her honor, and this connected Parker to the dawn of women’s wrestling as we know it. The next Black woman to grasp the titles would not be for another 20 years, with Aja Kong and then Awesome Kong.
What made Sandy Parker an icon of her sport was that in Japan, she was given the opportunity to embrace the heel personality and character she was attracted to. In the face of a largely homogenous population, the Japanese placed many foreigners in the position of villains. Japanese societal scripts differed from that of America, then and now.
While in Japan, Sandy remained incredibly successful in the promotion and became an eight-time WWWA Tag Team Champion. Four of those times, she was teamed with wrestler Betty Niccoli who had, a couple of years earlier, worked tirelessly to legalize women’s wrestling in New York state.
Back To The States
After Sandy Parker finished her run in Japan, she decided to return to the United States and utilize her heel wrestling persona. While there, she was a part of the first women’s match in Oregon in over fifty years.
In a 1975 article titled "The Villain Wears Lipstick," the reporter, aghast, divulged that Parker was disqualified 15 minutes into the match for slapping the referee right in the face.
Sandy got to bask in all of her villainous glory when she got this opportunity.
Legacy of Sandy Parker
Sandy Parker retired from professional wrestling in 1986. Like many other ex-grapplers, Sandy worked different jobs, such as a bartender and store manager, to keep herself afloat post-wrestling.
When it came to how wrestling progressed in the last thirty years, Sandy said the more mainstream the industry got, the less it appealed to her. She expressed her opinion that Vince McMahon Jr. had sullied the business with lurid storylines.
Her career seemed to remain entangled with her romance for wrestling, just as she was in her first moments as a fan in the audience.
Being out is a maze gay people have had to navigate, and throughout history, merely surviving takes priority for many. In times and spaces where Sandy resided, being gay was illegal in many parts of the United States and recognized as a mental illness well into her career.
In 2004, Sandy Parker was a Cauliflower Alley Club honoree; the organization maintains wrestling’s history.
Sandy and her career were discussed in the documentary Out in the Ring, which celebrates queer wrestlers of the past and present.
It is a relief to have come to a time where wrestlers can establish their own narratives, and we can look to a number of queer wrestlers like Effy, Sonny Kiss, Mercedes Martinez, Nyla Rose, and many others. Queer villainy can still exist as a weapon in wrestling, wielded to subvert but, hopefully, done in the hands of the person behind the character.
Sandy was a reluctant hero in the United States, a welcomed heel in Japan, a villain in lipstick. She created a captivating legacy.
In a time of rising discourse around identity politics, it remains important to remember those who did so much even though they were given so little. It is easy to be so distracted by the present that history’s details become hazy.
Sandy Parker had a legendary career, but she is not remembered the same way as some of her compatriots; she should be.
In a 1969 interview, Sandy admitted, “Sometimes I can’t sleep at night thinking about wrestling. I just lie there thinking about what I’m going to do when I get into the ring, what holds I’m going to use.”
For Sandy Parker, one can only hope for more dreams about wrestling and the recognition she deserves.
Listen to author Alexa Pruett dive further into the history of Sandy Parker on her podcast, "That Wrestling Wench":
These stories may also interest you:
- Babs Wingo, Marva Scott, and Ethel Johnson: Wrestling’s Unsung
- Jacqueline Moore – A Tough, Shining Star Out of Texas
- Wrestling’s Gay History and Optimistic Future
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