From the Balor Club being for everyone to Drag Queens hosting Wrestlemania events, there’s the sense that there is a queer renaissance going on in wrestling today. Some might point to openly gay superstars whose sexuality isn’t part of their gimmick like Sonya Deville. Others may cite the emergence of groups like Matter Of Pride Wrestling, and the rash of signings of LBGTQ performers to the AEW flagship. All of these examples point to the idea that the treatment of queer workers and storylines is improving. However, in moving forward, one must also look back to be sure to recognize the past, as wrestling and the world moves to its future.
From the earliest days of wrestling’s history, there is a gay streak that runs right through the center. From its first steps out of sports and into entertainment, the squared circle has pulled from a multitude of theatre traditions, from soap opera to vaudeville. What’s less discussed is that from the very beginning, sports entertainment has historically borrowed significant pieces of gay culture.
This isn’t to say it always lauded the things they borrowed, or those they borrowed it from. In fact, most of the time pro wrestling has turned and used that culture to denigrate the very people from whom it took. It seems in wrestling, with its close physical contact between same sexes, there is the “inherently” gay. And historically because of that, wrestling became a space where LGBT characters were there to be reviled. The audience could boo and taunt the queer character to prove their machismo. As Heather Levi points to in her book The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations, and Mexican National Identity, it was as if they could point to the jeers and thereby confirm their masculinity. In the same show a babyface could borrow elements of camp to get over, and then in the next match denigrate a character for being gay. While this kind of behavior was probably at its peak in the ’90s, it hasn’t completely abated today. The irony isn’t lost on queer workers like DJ Summers. “It’s interesting to me how many homophobic fans there are because you are watching sweaty men, in their underwear, fake fighting. If you are going to be homophobic…maybe watch something less homoerotic?”
Of course, that’s not the only rainbow that ends at the squared circle. It’s a job and a lifestyle that often draws people that feel “different” so perhaps it’s not surprising that from the earliest days of sports entertainment gay men and women have struck out into the world of wrestling to make their fortunes. Their journeys paved the way for the present.
“They all shared a dream of being successful at the things they loved.”
Much of the journalism regarding early figures can be spotty, as kayfabe and “the closet” have a lot in common when it comes to obscuring information. In the ’50s and ’60s when homophobia was rampant, generally there is some evidence that the wrestling world was marginally more tolerant. If you could prove yourself a great wrestler or worker, that was more important. Pat Patterson may have come out on television in 2014, but he was out to the wrestling world by the 1970s. In that same period, Terry Garvin was always out and is one of those rare gay wrestlers who used a gay gimmick. (As we’ll see when a LGBTQ gimmick has been used in the past, the performer is usually straight.) These are all names that any casual fan will know, but once you scratch the surface there are so many stories of queer men and women in wrestling’s past. Through this abbreviated history are some of the lesser known names. Their stories are as varied as the finishers they used, but they all shared a dream of being successful at the things they loved.
When the AIDS crisis broke, the lack of information and fear of blood born pathogens made many wrestlers reconsider being open with their sexuality. Nobody wanted to chance their livelihood on the perception that they were more likely to have “The Gay Plague.” Though perceptions of queerness by the general public had begun to change, many wrestlers were forced to stay in the closet during the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. While many workers felt they couldn’t be open, the WWE continued to mine homophobic storylines with the intention of drawing heat or mocking a performer.
As a world audience takes baby steps towards equality so does the problematic product we love. Becoming more familiar with the queer history of wrestling makes one realize what a different product it would be today without gay culture. By examining lesser-known gay wrestlers, historical connections, and significant storyline events, you can track not only gay culture’s influence of the art form but the shifting perceptions of the industry and audience. This is by no means a complete history. Any one of these sub-headings could be a book. It does serve to drive one thing home- wrestling was gay then, it’s gay now, and it will be gay forever.
The Early Days: Gimmicks and Smozz: Linguistic Connections
Alright mark, are you ready to get worked? If you understood that sentence (let’s be honest if you’re on this site, you did) you understand a linguistic tradition that is indivisible from gay culture. “Wait!” you say “that’s just Carney!” You’d be correct. Carnivals are a distinctly American venture, growing out of the very first midway at the Columbia Exhibition aka the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The language spoken at carnivals by those who run them is much older. Sometimes called Carney in the United States, it has its roots in Europe, mainly England, where it’s called Polari. In fact, there is some indication there were versions of Polari as far back as the 16th century.
Often called a “Thieves’ cant“, Polari was a mix of Italian, rhyming slang, Romany, and Yiddish and spoken by those who could benefit by not being understood. Often the communication form of choice for circus showmen, criminals, theater folk, and other marginalized groups such as gay folk and prostitutes. In fact, Polari was still heavily in use within the gay subculture all the way up through the 1970s. David Bowie’s last album Black Star has an entire track in the cant. Gimmick, mark, work, smozz all of these wrestling words arose from this strange melting pot of linguistic peculiarities used by showmen, gay folk, seamen, and thieves.
1940’s Onward: Exóticos
In the world of Lucha Libre, there are the Technicos (faces), the Rudos (heels) and the Exóticos. Exóticos are a unique feature rooted in Lucha Libre, however, their influence can be felt around the world. These characters engage in performances that are a mix of wrestling and Drag. The Exótico will come out in exaggerated feminized attire. Their physical fighting style integrates aspects of camp and vaudeville, subverting and often terrorizing their macho opponent. It’s not uncommon for the Exótico to kiss their opponent as a form of attack, heavily playing into the fears of the machismo focused Mexican culture.
The very first Exótico was actually an American looking to use a different heel gimmick in Mexico. Yes, a Texan named Sterling Blake Davis is perhaps the very first Exótico. For most of his career, he was simply flamboyant. Hailing from Houston, Sterling worked the territory as Dizzy Davis.
He chose bright, sparkling robes so that he could be identified in the dark and smoky ring; but it was when he went to Mexico in the mid-1930s when he brought out the high camp. He came out with a valet who sanitized the ring and distributed Gardenias to all the women in the front row of the crowd. Then his “butler” would preen and massage him. This feminized display was the first time that we know of where a wrestler used queer coding– that is engaging in behavior to make the audience perceive them as gay. Think of almost any Disney Villain and you see queer coding at work. The desired result was to be reviled as both a homosexual and a narcissist and it worked. But Sterling was a tough guy from Houston and wouldn’t bring the act stateside. In fact, he was so confident the gimmick didn’t have legs that by 1941 he essentially handed the entire thing over to childhood friend George Wagner who used the gimmick all through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Wagner put his charisma to the gimmick with great success as the feminine Gorgeous George, who through television became one of the most famous people in the world. There is little debate that the cultural phenomenon known as the Exótico has international implications not only in the wrestling industry but in culture writ large. There are no sequined suits on James Brown or the verbal flamboyance of Mohammed Ali without Gorgeous George. And you definitely don’t have Gorgeous George without gay camp.
Up until the 1980s, Exóticos claimed that their homosexuality was simply an act. In a world where kayfabe was still king, the fact that they were willing to admit that a gimmick existed demonstrates the perilous position that revealing one’s sexual and gender orientation could put a performer in especially in the midst of machismo culture. In a world where good guys and bad guys wouldn’t travel together, this was an outlier.
There is much debate as to who the first “out” Exótico was. Lucha Libre grand duchess Exótico Cassandro claims that it was the wrestler known as Baby Sharon. Others claim that May Flowers and Pimpernella Escarlata, who were tutored by Rudy Reynosa take that title. No matter who was the first however, the tide of openly gay performers has turned in some part due to the influence and staying power of the Exótico.
Cassandro is considered by many to be an icon of the Exótico. Effy, whose own performances are rapidly becoming some of the most talked about in wrestling, says, “I’m still amazed that even within our own community Cassandro doesn’t get more outward love. As a queer performer he was groundbreaking and along with many other Exóticos, changed the perception of queers in wrestling by being so beloved, when typically we’ve been portrayed as heels that people are expected to hate because of their ‘gayness.’”
It seems that there may have been some support from within some of the larger promotions. In the excellent documentary, Los Exóticos directed by Michael Ramos, legendary Exótico Polvo de Estrellas says, “When Anthonio [Peña, founder of AAA in Mexico] lived I would always say ‘give the Exótico a chance.’ He would tell me, ‘The Exóticos are a fundamental part of AAA and also in any wrestling enterprise.’” The perception exists that an Exótico, in their beautifully executed makeup and glamorous clothes, fighting in their femininized style; provides a necessary aesthetic and choreographic variety to the product.
It would be simplistic to say that the Exóticos simply give the masculine audience an opportunity to show how straight they are. It’s tempting. Most Exótico matches have at least one moment where the performer or crowd takes an action that feels uncomfortably homophobic. But you also can’t deny that many, many times the Exótico performer is very much over. The love from the crowds is palpable and undeniable, and maybe for some of them, it opened an internal door. There seems to be a growing space in all wrestling for men who are both feminine as well as athletic and tough, it seems that paradigm owes a great deal of debt to the Exótico.
1960’s Chris Colt & Ron Dupree
In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont kicked off a period of a national obsession with the Hells Angels and motorcycle gangs. “The Golden Boys”, a blonde-haired tag team was about to change their gimmick to something that would capitalize on that fear. They grew out their hair and wore black leather vests. They were the Hells Angels, the ultimate tough guys and the audience loved the gimmick. Here was a pair of dangerous brothers from the open road, ready to raise hell.
But they weren’t brothers. Unknown to the fans, but open in the locker room, Russel Groves and Chuck Harris, who went by Ron and Paul Dupree, were romantic partners. Though NWA promoter James Barnett, wrestler Pat Patterson, and others were openly gay in the locker room- the Dupree’s were unusual by nature of also being a tag team.
The two toured the territories, getting a reputation as ferocious heels able to rise the ire of the crowd. There is something fascinating about a pair of gay lovers getting over with a tough-as-nails biker gimmick, though the leather element does have parallels in the gay community.
Ron Dupree suffered an in-ring heart attack in 1970, transitioning to managing his partner and creating in-ring attire and entrance gear. One design that was noted by several sources was a Janis Joplin robe for his partner who was obsessed with the singer. Five years later while doing commentary he had a second heart attack and passed away.
Many of his friends felt that Paul Dupree never truly recovered from his partner’s death. He took on the name Chris Colt and began to use a rock and roll type gimmick. Painting his eyes in a way that calls to mind more Norwegian Black Metal than Alice Cooper, who he was imitating. He took huge bumps and though he’d always been a prolific user he started leaning even more heavily on drugs. According to Roddy Piper’s biography, once high on who-knows-what, he wrestled a cage match at the Phoenix Madison Square Garden while hallucinating spiders scuttling all over the cage. He fought fans and security as he ran out of the arena.
The book Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels claims that Colt had a short stint in England that went haywire. His substance abuse seems to be the culprit. Though wrestling folk could be more likely to be accepting or at least turn a blind eye to homosexuality, that didn’t extend to being out and proud in public. According to the book’s author, Chris’ photo was published in a small newspaper covering a gay rights parade. He was immediately fired from the Northwest promotion that he was working for.
Lanny Poffo, who was Colt’s tag team partner in Detroit in the late ’70s said, “Chris Colt was probably the greatest wrestler that never made it. A lot of people don’t know who he was. He never ceased to amaze me with his imagination in the ring. He was an innovator. He was ahead of his time.”
Colt wrestled into the ’80s, continuing to take crazy bumps to put over young babyfaces. Like many wrestlers, he worked long after his body begged to be retired. Adrift without his partner Ron, at the end of his life, he was involved in gay pornography. Friends lost track of him, but then he resurfaced in Seattle, a born again Christian. After a strange nomadic life that was as unique as he was, Chris Colt passed away in 1996.
A 1970’s Hidden Figures: Sandy Parker
It’s shocking to me that most wrestling fans today have never heard of Sandy Parker. With all of the coverage on the women’s revolution, you’d think the first out, black lesbian wrestler would be a huge draw for retrospectives and interviews. A tomboy raised by her mother and grandmother, Sandy was once married to a man before coming out as a lesbian. Working under her real name after a check written to a wrestling pseudonym wouldn’t cash, she traveled the country as a tag team champions with Sue Green.
A Canadian by birth, Sandy worked as many territories as she could. She even stood up to the notorious Fabulous Moolah. Sandy hated that Moolah took such a significant cut from the girls’ checks. Moolah forbade Sandy from going to gay bars and tried to force Sandy to date her nephew. Sandy had enough, especially since Moolah also had sexual dalliances with female wrestlers, she couldn’t put up with two-facedness. In a move that many women couldn’t manage, Sandy left Moolah to work for Mildred Burke.
She played the heel for most of her career, a 1975 article about the return of women’s wrestling to Oregon describes her mercilessly slapping a ref throughout the match. She then worked in Japan for a spell, before returning to the USA where she wrestled until her retirement in 1986. DJ Summers told us, “This is why queer workers, as a whole, enjoy women’s wrestling so much. Because they have fought for their spot. They have put in blood sweat and tears. We have something to prove. To higher-ups. To the fans.”
Being both queer as well as black, Sandy fought hard for every step forward she made, blazing a trail for those who would follow her. However, it seems Sandy Parker lives a quiet life today. After she retired from wrestling she worked as a bartender, a store manager, and a security guard. A 2004 Cauliflower Alley honoree, Sandy has little love for the booking of today and the bluntness and honesty that made her famous is still on full display. “As far as I’m concerned wrestling is crap now. I give the guys credit for some of the things they do, some of the high spots and the falls, but I do not give them credit for the stupid storylines that they have.” Us too, madame. Us too.
Panic in the Squared Circle
The AIDS panic pushed many back into the closet, but in a sport as blood-soaked as wrestling, the effects were dramatic. The ’80s and ’90s and into the early ’00s seemed bereft of out gay wrestlers. Strangely this seemed to coincide with a huge uptick in queer coded characters and storylines. Most of the men and women involved in these storylines were heterosexual- using things that seemed gay to get a rise out of the audience. Perhaps it was a cultural pushback from the AIDS crisis, or maybe because they’d run out of ways to shock.
If it seems that the bookers and wrestlers often had little idea about the people and culture they were borrowing from, it’s true. Dustin Runnels, better known as Goldust had the character pitched to him as “androgynous” by Vince McMahon. He agreed to the part, but after hanging up the phone he had to go look up the word’s meaning. Matches like the one against Razor Ramon and Roddy Piper invited Goldust to be humiliated or humiliate others with his portrayed queerness, simultaneously weaponizing it and presenting it as a weakness. There was even a moment in time where Runnels contemplated getting breast implants to further push the envelope with his character. When that gimmick went stale they had his wife Terri Runnels valet for him as Marlena. With her sexy figure and giant phallic cigar they tried to backpedal on his homosexuality while continuing to subvert gender roles.
Other moments from this era continued to villanize gays. Billy Gunn and Chuck Palumbo began a simultaneous gay and heel turn that culminated in an in-ring wedding in 2002. Though just before the nuptials were about to occur they admitted it had been a publicity stunt, and after a beatdown from 3-Minute Warning they went back to being straight heroes.
There were some victories. After WCW premiered Lenny Lane and Lodi as the West Hollywood Blondes, characters designed to be homophobia magnets, GLAD and other groups reached out and asked the characters be removed as they felt the invited gay bashing. The Washington Post claims that this was the final misstep that made Ted Turner pull the reins from Eric Bischoff creatively.
“There’s so much said about the damage that the homophobic storylines of these years did.”
Lesbians didn’t escape the poor representation either. Though lesbianism was often seen as a way of titillating the crowd, like Kimona Wanaleia and Beulah McGillicutty’s lesbian angle in ECW, it could also be used to inspire fear. For example, the infamous Trish Stratus/ Mickie James stalker angle. Instead of simply relying on obsession or madness, the booking required Mickie to become an obsessive lesbian. Unable to control her “unnatural” sexual desires they ultimately erupted in violence. It seemed like a mockery of everyone who came out to a response of, “Well, don’t try to hit on me.”
There’s so much said about the damage that the homophobic storylines of these years did. In fact, in 2000 it seemed doubtful that we’d ever get fully fleshed out characters who happen to be gay. The Village Voice lamented, “It would be interesting to see a gay character who’s cute, good at wrestling, and sexual, but doesn’t look like a stereotype. But given the sport’s history, a no-holds-barred queeny cliché is more likely.”
Thankfully it seems that both in terms of wrestler’s personal lives and storylines things are shifting. In 2019 we have out wrestlers like Sonia Deville and Darren Young, where little is made of their sexuality, and the focus remains on their fighting style. Not that camp has been forgotten.
“To me,” says Effy, “all of wrestling is camp. It’s exaggerated choreographed fighting with loud music blaring and photoshoots and costumes and there’s such a history within the world of true professional sporting and fighting that the world of wrestling twists into their own over-the-top narrative. Camp is the too far, the too much, the scathing commentary on life and the wrestling is in a unique position to fall into those categories all the time.”
In NJPW, “The Golden Lovers” in Japan represented a watershed moment in wrestling worldwide. Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi are hugely over wrestlers that often allude or make direct overtures to being in a homosexual relationship. Though there hasn’t been something as direct as a romantic kiss between the two men at an event. Many accuse the storyline of Queerbaiting, a system by which creators depict an obviously queer relationship without acknowledging it. Though in tradition-loving Japan, both men’s status as mega-babyfaces and roster leaders demonstrates motion in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean the fight is done. Effy told us, “When people tell queer performers that we’re ‘acting too gay’ or ask us to ‘tone it down’, we have to refuse because there are still kids out there who feel like they have to hide themselves and we have the platform as queer performers to say, ‘No, you are allowed to just be yourself and there is no shame in that.'”
“In the past wrestling may have relied on stereotypes, but if it is to move forward it needs to instead rely on archetypes.”
Oftentimes arguments against stereotypical gay characters are shut down because “wrestling runs on stereotypes.” That all groups are subjected to this kind of ribbing, be you Hillbilly, Russian, or Native American. This may have been true, but I’d like to posit a different idea. In the past wrestling may have relied on stereotypes, but if it is to move forward it needs to instead rely on archetypes. I’d say in some way it always has. Conflicting desires, a hero’s journey, man against nature, or against another man- these are all parts of some of the most famous and engaging storylines. Stereotypes sometimes include archetypes but are lazy- they allow the performer and the booker to walk out and operate on the assumptions and prejudices of their audience without ever challenging or subverting them.
For today’s knowledgeable, media-savvy audience the status quo is not enough. In an era when the media landscape is dotted with dynamic anti-heroes, conflicted villains, and reprehensible do-gooders the old Heel Vs Face can’t always be the way things are booked. We can no longer simply hate a foreign heel, or a gay character on sight, we need a reason. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. The grand mythological arcs of wrestling booking will always remain, but ideally in good modern booking how the characters are positioned and their behavior will define them, not their LGBTQ status.