Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: A Brief Overview of Homophobia in Wrestling

Stereotypes in entertainment are inevitable. Either because they allow an audience to expend little effort in connecting with a character or because a writer is lazy and doesn’t want to exert the effort of developing a character beyond the obvious two dimensions a stereotype entails, stereotypes crop up in every aspect of entertainment – movies, music, literature, and, yes, even wrestling.

In fact, more than any other form of entertainment, wrestling seems to rely on stereotypes to “help” its audience identify with the characters it creates. Some of the more common stereotypes are the Samoan savage with a head as hard as steel or the jive-talking black man that exudes soul. Rightly, in recent years, many of these stereotypes have begun to disappear as it becomes more and more obvious how out-of-touch and offensive they really are. Unfortunately, there are still some stereotypes that continue to lurk within wrestling’s darkest corners. Some seem innocent enough at first, such as the dumb bimbo but when held up to closer examination reveal a very disturbing view on the characters being portrayed. More than any other stereotype, though, the portrayal of homosexuals in the world of professional wrestling is a cause for concern.

It would be hard not to notice the homoerotic undertones that are present in the world of professional wrestling: nearly-nude men with oiled bodies and pristine skin/hair/physical traits grappling with each other to assert dominance; a figure like Sigmund Freud would have had a field day with these sort of sexual contractions. It was also be hard not to notice that the most successful wrestlers the industry has ever seen were also the most conventionally attractive; while early on wrestling promoted the likes of tough guy everymen in the vein of Harley Race and Dusty Rhodes, eventually it grew into preening bodybuilders like Hulk Hogan, Lex Luger, and the Rock. Couple these together then and it becomes very hard to understand wrestling’s derogatory attitude towards homosexuals. More than any other form of entertainment, wrestling seems as if it would be accepting of gays and lesbians – it’s a form of entertainment that frequently revels in its own camp, often times knowingly aware and proud of its contradictions. It’s also a form of entertainment that is often attacked and openly mocked for the perceived ambiguity of the sexuality it presents.

So it becomes odd then homosexuals have almost exclusively been treated as villains in wrestling, with no positive role models being developed for the LGBT community. In wrestling’s earliest televised days, its greatest heel was none other than Gorgeous George, a preening, flamboyant coward that preyed on America’s fear of the effeminate man. George dyed his hair a bright, bleached blond that was considered unnatural for men of his era, he would wear extravagant robes on his way to the ring, and his valet, Jeffries, would lavish him with rose petals as he entered only to spray down the ring and referees with Chanel No. 5 to rid the ring of impurities.

In the context of George’s era, it’s not hard to see why he became such a reviled villain: the ’50s were very much an era of sexual repression built around the ideas of masculinity and conservative politics. The two would often become intertwined in entertainment, with wars and westerns, the two most popular subjects for film and television, reflecting those values. In fact, Hollywood would go so far to present this image that it would blacklist many of its most talented figures if they represented any sort of threat to these perceived traits, while prominent figures who embodied these traits like John Wayne would openly sneer at the men and women he had a hand in blacklisting.

It then becomes very clear why a character like Gorgeous George became such a phenomenon. As a character, Gorgeous George vocalized a very direct threat to both of those concepts, allowing the audience a tangible target to direct their bile at. Every punch George took allowed the audience an air of moral superiority, and every time he cheated, it proved to the audience it was right in its perceived views on “men of that persuasion” – impish figures that were little more than cowards.

As time progressed, and attitudes changed, nothing about wrestling’s portrayal of homosexuals, ambiguous or otherwise, changed. Many characters would act as carbon copies of Gorgeous George over the next thirty years, frequently changing the moniker from Gorgeous to Precious or Adorable, but always retaining the same negative stereotype. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a new figure emerged that, for a time at least, skewered and upended wrestling’s portrayal of homosexuals.

Emerging in the late 1970s, but not gaining true prominence stateside until the 1980s, “Exotic” Adrian Street at first resembled an even more direct attack on gay men – taking George’s flamboyance to the next level, Street would wrestle in pigtails, pastels, and glitter; to avoid being pinned, he would outright kiss his opponent; and he would affect a speech pattern that would include phrases such as “dear” and would openly refer to himself as a “bitch.” Not only that, but he would exploit the burgeoning popularity of the music video to create pieces that allowed him to preen in front of the camera to enhance his image as openly effeminate.

The stark difference between George and Adrian Street, though, would be once the two entered the ring; where George was a wily coward, Street was a vicious madman that was more likely to break your bones than run away. While Street in many ways could have been considered another negative attack on homosexuals, this was the first time in wrestling that an ambiguously gay character was allowed to be anything more than a victim. Here, Street was the aggressor, often even mocking his own opponent’s sexuality by covering his downed victims in paint and glitter, as he reveled in defiling their masculinity. Unfortunately, Street saw little success outside of Memphis and other small territories, though, he would influence wrestling’s next prominent gay figure: Goldust.

The outward theatricality of Street’s character and the perceived extravagance of George’s character combined to create Goldust. But unlike Street, and more in line with George, Goldust’s original iteration seemed intended to confirm the worst aspects of wrestling’s ambiguously gay stereotype. Goldust was a man that relied more on cowardly cheating and theatrical mind games than his own skill to win matches – to get one up on the steamrolling monster that was Ahmed Johnson, instead of engaging Johnson, Goldust chose to kiss him while he was being carted away on a stretcher, sending Johnson into an insane rage; to gain an advantage on Razor Ramon, instead of just wrestling, Goldust chose to emerge during a Ramon match with a heart scrawled on his own chest bearing Ramon’s name.

Even worse, when the WWF decided to get a definitive answer on Goldust’s ambiguous sexuality, with Jerry Lawler outright asking the question, he responded to the intended slight with violence, confirming that he could only see himself as a true man if he rejected his perceived homosexuality. This has become a recurring motif for the company, with the tag team of Billy & Chuck responding in almost exactly the same way during a marriage ceremony, claiming they were forced to “play gay” by their also ambiguously gay stylist, Rico, who wanted the attention the ceremony would bring.

Rico probably presents the oddest example of the ambiguously gay stereotype, as he began as a note-for-note copy of Street right down to the vicious attitude, but eventually developed into a face as he began teaming with Charlie Haas, one of the first and only notable examples of a gay character getting to play the role of a face. Unfortunately, this face turn revolved mostly around Rico’s ambiguous sexual advances towards his partner, Haas, who himself was more interested in Rico’s valet, Miss Jackie. It was played for a short time as a comedic love triangle until the team completely disappeared with no real explanation as to why.

These stereotypes in some way all confirm society’s worst views on homosexuals. While a character like Street may have been progressive in his portrayal of a gay character as a strong figure, he was almost always characterized as a villain, never allowing his character to grow beyond the one-note representation he initially offered. This is no fault of Street, as he obviously intended to skewer wrestling’s perceived masculinity but rather a fault of the wrestling industry, which continues to carry an outwardly hostile attitude towards homosexuals. Rarely, if ever, are there openly gay wrestlers in the industry, and once they come out, their career inevitably suffers for it. Outside of Rico’s brief turn and the Christopher Street Connection, there have been almost no gay characters portrayed as faces.

Why does this occur? Wrestling is an industry that pulls in mostly outsiders and weird figures. Wrestling fans are almost universally scorned in some of the most offensive ways imaginable. Why then do these two groups, groups that should identify with those same feelings of resentment that homosexuals deal with, carry such a strong resentment of their own towards them? Wrestling is an industry built around perceived masculinity, yes, but it’s also an industry that consistently lampoons its own status as insane He-men launching barbed insults at each other. Wrestling has grown a sense of meta-awareness about many of its own faults and cliches, so why hasn’t it done so with its history of homophobia?

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