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Wrasslin' Story Time: Why it's never been better (or worse) to be gay in pro wrestling

Steven Godfrey worked in professional wrestling for five years. Now he works at SB Nation. These are his stories.

Lee Harding

The following really happened. On a television program airing in 70 countries. You can find it on the Internet right now (I refuse to link it).

I was on the phone with a senior member of the creative team:

"Trust me on this, we've got a concept here that's going to push media interest. It's the right kind of controversy. It's something in the national conversation right now."

Whenever Creative got really excited about something they immediately called the marketing and PR departments. Anytime they'd convinced themselves pro wrestling was going "to direct a national conversation" on anything other than pro wrestling, the ideas were always horrific. I braced accordingly.

"So he's going to come to the ring in really effeminate colored gear. Usually pink. Then we'll have two valets come out. We've already got the girl hired."

Nothing new about that. Attractive female valets are a tenet of introducing new characters, face or heel. Guys wear pink a good bit, too. We'd even done a Breast Cancer Awareness campaign the year prior.

"Then the second one is male. He'll be dressed like a gay club kid."

Oh no.

"[The wrestler] knows the kid personally. This was his idea. The kid looks really young. In gay culture these are called 'twinks,' which is a kind of an underage male..."

Oh, no. No no no.

"...and [the wrestler] has got this one gimmick where he's going to spray himself with lotion. He'll hold the bottle out and it will cover his face and chest, just like he's..."

Oh my God, no.

Another voice got on the phone, a top executive.

"So we wanted to get you in the loop on this right away. If I were you, I'd reach out right away to Out Magazine, The Advocate, and any other gay publications you can find."

What.

"See if they're interested in an exclusive interview, about the cultural impact."

Google long enough and you'll find any number of stories detailing the horrors of professional wrestling's "closed society." Most of them are true. Pro wrestlers have no access to any kind of union, health care or even the basic protections OSHA would provide a steel mill worker. Additionally that closed society allows for all kinds of bias and discrimination to thrive. Real-life "shoot" feuds away from TV storylines are everyday issues, and if you're disliked by the wrong person, your career is doomed no matter what.

However, unlike the NFL or NBA or UFC, it's actually a hell of a lot easier to be gay in pro wrestling. While the stories of Michael Sam and Jason Collins interacting as openly gay men in a "locker room culture" are considered breakthroughs in 2014, they'd be shrugged at in "the business."

There are gay wrestlers. Some are open to the world, some are just open in the business and some are closeted by traditional standards. There are also gays working on the non-wrestling side of the industry. The ones who felt comfortable enough to talk about it would recall decades and decades of the secret gay history of the business - the talent, the gay groupies, and which regional and independent promoters were closeted (more than a few). Based solely on my five years of personal experience, most of the gay non-talent I knew were closeted not because of the "machismo" stereotype of combat sports (even simulated combat), but because of their concern about straight audiences writing off the industry as gay.

If you fall through the same tables, tear the same muscles and bleed for the same meager living, you are not gay or straight. You are a worker or you are not.

The joke has always been around - two guys in their underwear are grabbing each other, how straight could it be? - but the reality is that demographics of pro wrestling's sexual orientation is in line with any other industry's. If someone were to allege that the industry has a disproportionate amount of gays or lesbians relative to society, I'd be able to show them an even more disproportionate amount of drug addicts or born-again Evangelical Christians (with some overlap between the two).

I learned that none of this really matters in the ring. Inside of wrestling's closed society, cultural classifications are voided. Once accepted, you enter a world that's more colorblind and unbiased of orientation than any part of normal society. In five years I never heard a wrestler complain about working a program with a minority of any kind.

It's something I call The Tesco Theory: When we would tour Europe the staff and talent would share charter buses for days a time. Tesco is a supermarket/Walmart hybrid popular in the United Kingdom, and its cheap meal options made it a popular pick for our bus, as very few wrestlers are given a per diem.

Imagine standing in a Walmart or Target at 2 a.m. and a busload of pro wrestlers comes through the door. You may have never seen a seven-foot man or a Samoan or a 180-pound black woman trained in judo. You might be drunk or a bigot or trying to show off for your friends, and if you're inclined to make a comment about one of these oddities you would quickly learn that when faced with antagonism from the outside world, pro wrestlers are fiercely loyal to one another. I witnessed a drunk middle-aged man at a Tesco in the London suburbs learn that one inappropriate comment meant all 24 very strong people will gladly beat you to death in the frozen food aisle. Then they' d board the bus and resume making horribly offensive jokes about one another's appearance or ethnicity or sexual orientation. If you fall through the same tables, tear the same muscles and bleed for the same meager living, you are not gay or straight. You are a worker or you are not.

***

A day later the idea of a bisexual villain wrestler who mimicked masturbating to his opponents was pitched to the whole company, including my plan to launch a media campaign courting national GLBT outlets. An hour after the meeting I was approached by two individuals in our company who privately raged at the audacity and tastelessness of the idea. They begged me not to contact any LGBT outlets.

I never called Out or The Advocate, but only because I'm a sane human being, not because I'm some kind of civil rights crusader. An openly bisexual man volunteers to become an evil gay character who totes what's supposed to be an underage boy to the ring? This wasn't controversy, this was Fred Phelps' cut of "Birth of a Nation."

At that point I hated the futility of my job (and just the overall job), but I was six months from marriage and my first mortgage, a watershed life moment that, ironically, wasn't afforded to the culture I would be helping Uncle Tom by promoting our "lotion guy." There are very few moral quandaries in life that are truly black and white. So I did what any fiercely passive aggressive white collar employee would: I lied my ass off. I faked emails to nonexistent addresses at the corresponding LGBT media in case I was ever asked to prove I'd pitched them. I even called the editorial offices and hung up or asked to wait on hold, just to show the number history from my desk line.

That first lotion-orgasm scene started a storyline that absolutely tanked with our audience. Wrestling loves stereotypes - if you're Latino, they'll dress you up as a cholo gangbanger; if you look even remotely Middle Eastern they'll put you in fatigues and make you scream about "infidels." While those tropes are long overdue to be retired, they're defended as being effective in garnering some kind of reaction from the audience. The lotion bit appalled viewers, but not in that "love to hate" way heel wrestlers crave.

16 months later that wrestler was cut from the roster. Two months after that I was gone, ostensibly for a lack of morale. I was fine with both moves. But shortly after the debut, rumors swirled in the Internet Wrestling Community that Ric Flair himself had accosted that male valet in the hotel bar on the night of his debut. I was hounded for comment that Flair was homophobic and that the promotion was protecting such behavior.

I'll say this: The Nature Boy is far from a cultural attache, but a bigot he isn't. The valet in question drank too much and made fun of one of the wrestlers in the bar, the industry itself and then made an idiot of himself on the dance floor. From that night on he was dead in the eyes of the locker room. Just like that old drunk in the Tesco, he went after the closed society, and they responded.