In a March interview with TMZ, prominent pro-wrestler John Cena was asked his thoughts about the possibility of the WWE ever featuring a transgender character.
“I’m a storyteller, my friend–and that’s what we do in WWE,” responded Cena. “It’s not segregated to sex, race, creed, religion, any of that–so as long as the story’s good, it belongs in WWE.”
The question of what makes a “good” LGBTQ story in the medium of wrestling–in which the lines between the actual personal lives and the personas the performers play on TV are often blurred–is one that has perplexed WWE writers for the company’s entire existence. The WWE’s history of unkindness toward the queer community is well-documented, ranging from botched gay marriage story lines to the overt and open usage of anti-gay slurs. But as the WWE reinvents itself for a new generation of viewers, the topic of queerness in their company has once again become a matter of debate.
“The treatment of queer folx/characters in WWE was hot trash,” says Adam Serwa AKA Sweetie Tuff AKA Jeff Istopholes, a queer pro-wrestler with the inclusive comedy federation, Party World Rasslin’. “I’ll never trust the WWE to do anything correctly when it comes to human sexuality because they can barely even handle writing a non-toxic heterosexual romance.”
Indeed, the WWE continues to struggle in non-violent depictions of sexuality of any kind. For years, especially during the so-called “Attitude Era,” women were objectified in rape-driven scenarios, often culminating in “Bra & Panties” matches and pudding fights. Even today as the company works hard at revamping its women’s division to focus on gender parity and empowerment, storylines involving non-consensual sexual contact were used as recently as the 2016 Royal Rumble, when the elderly Ric Flair landed an unwanted kiss on female wrestler Becky Lynch, distracting her from the match and thus costing her a victory. Romances between wrestlers often feature women being passed around like trophies, as was the case with a recent 205 Live storyline, where the WWE’s smallest male brawlers battled for the “crazy” Alicia Fox’s heart.
LGBTQ people in particular have quite often been the objects of derision in the WWE’s history: from Gorgeous George to Adorable Adrian Adonis to Goldust, characters clearly coded as queer and have been written as dastardly, disgusting bad guys. The violence incurred upon them made it clear that their characters’ identities were viewed as deeply silly or grotesque, thus making beloved stars of their brutalizers. More subtle references to gay sex still garners laughs from the company’s biggest stars, as recently as earlier this year.
“I think that the WWE has followed suit with entertainment in general in the US. For a long time, being queer was a punchline,” explains Sarah Shockey, co-host of the popular wrestling podcast Marty & Sarah Love Wrestling. “People say that it’s hard to go for small, nuanced character traits in wrestling, but I think they could do a lot better and allow gay and trans characters who are more than their sexual preference.”
As the WWE shifted away from the “Attitude Era” ethos and began programming more kid-friendly content around the late 2000s, many of the most egregious sexual subplots disappeared. Amidst the rebranding of the women’s division in 2016, the WWE’s Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon (who, confusingly, plays a villainous, fictionalized version of herself on WWE shows), announced that the company would undertake a series of meetings with GLAAD to learn how to better tell LGBTQ stories and that queer content was in the works for the company. Until rather recently, it was hard to see the results of this meeting.
Then, at Wrestlemania earlier this month, one of the roster’s most popular characters, Finn Balor, appeared in rainbow socks and trunks, flanked by members of New Orleans’ LGBTQ community. Balor, whose IRL sexuality has never been publicly announced, had been tweeting rainbow versions of his logo in anticipation of the event. Announcers have recently been noting his support “for everyone.” Unconfirmed rumors on at least one wrestling gossip site had hinted that Balor might be getting re-written as a non-stereotypical gay character, although that new facet of his persona remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the official WWE merch with Balor’s rainbow logo has already sold out.
Out lesbian wrestler Sonya Deville also sported a rainbow version of her gear at Wrestlemania. Deville has been open about her sexuality on social media, identifying herself vaguely as a “part of the LGBT community,” but the subject has never been broached in kayfabe (that is to say, within the self-contained narrative universe of the WWE).
Deville is also rumored as a cast member in the semi-scripted WWE reality show, Total Divas. Again, it’s unclear if her sexuality would be discussed openly or with tact–we know Sonya (the person) is queer, but will the WWE let her character be?
And at the same time, possibly inspired by the runaway success of The Golden Lovers, the WWE has been playing with the ambiguous sexuality of new performers like Velveteen Dream and The Iconic Duo (recently renamed the IIconics [sic]). Both Dream and the team of Billie Kay and Peyton Royce flirt with a certain are-they-or-aren’t-they dynamic, garnering unexpectedly large fanbases despite their heel (wrestling slang for bad guy) tactics. Whether the WWE will pull the trigger and officially proclaim any of these characters as outright queer is unknown.
Seeing the changes being put forth by such a mainstream company has many wrestlers on the indie circuit excited about the future.
“I believe the change is happening before our very eyes with a number of openly queer wrestlers in the WWE as well as in independent wrestling. It’s a wonderful sign of the world as a whole opening their minds and accepting people for who they are,” says“Have Mercy” Percy Davis, an openly gay, Indiana-based wrestler.
“I’m actually a bit shocked that they’re not trying to sensationalize it at all,” says Serwa. “Subtlety goes incredibly far, and not making someone a freak show attraction while trying to hide behind the diversity card goes even further.”
That being said, the sincerity of the WWE’s inclusive gestures are certainly suspicious, considering the WWE’s massive, million dollar donationsto President Trump’s presidential campaigns. What may appear to be earnest attempts at inclusion could easily be understood as a cynical publicity ploy rather than a good-faith change: “Philanthropy is the future of marketing,” McMahon infamously wrote on Twitter, leading fans to cast doubt on whatever goodness they’ve seen the WWE exhibiting lately. But the WWE’s more coy approach to queerness represents an almost seismic shift from the outright homophobia of decades prior. To what extent does it really matter what the intentions are if the results are ultimately empowering for some audiences? Or, on the other hand, are queer people so desperate for queer content in mainstream media that we are willing to celebrate even the smallest amount of it from deeply conservative sources?
The WWE’s latest moves raise even more questions: Why is Balor being used as the face of LGBTQ progress within the company rather than an actual gay person? Is it ethical for the WWE to play with sexual ambiguity, considering their less than sensitive handling of LGBTQ issues in the past? Will fans even be receptive to respectful LGBTQ storylines when the WWE eventually tries them? Where exactly is the line between positive representation and pandering? Is it improvement or deception when conservatives corporations espouse progressive ideals?
And perhaps the biggest question of all: how should the WWE handle queer storylines? Many people from within the industry noted that the WWE’s penchant for flattening complicated personalities into one-dimensional characters would be particularly egregious in the case of a gay character.
“I don’t want them to shoehorn a queer romance or queer storyline if it doesn’t make sense As a gay man, it would come across as pandering, which I feel is patronizing and insulting,” says wrestler Tommy Purr, AKA The Sin City Kitty. “I wouldn’t make being queer the focal point of their character.”
“In an ideal world, the queer element to their character would be just part of them, not the entire foundation of who they are,” echoed Shockey. “It’s weird that needs to be said, but it’s just taken for granted that most of the talent is straight and we can just assume that about them.”
Sam Carey, a non binary wrestler-in-training with Party World Rasslin’, offers another idea.
“Honestly, I would love to see a babyface queer character,” they say. “A nonbinary or trans femme character who kicks ass and takes no shit I don’t want to see slurs, or people questioning the character’s identity or validity, or misgendering or using the wrong pronouns just to get easy heat. They’ve shit on us so much, I think we deserve one badass queer character in a roster packed with cishet, white men.”
What seems clear is that the WWE is going to have an increasingly difficult time getting away with homophobia in the ways they had in the past. With more eyes on their behavior than ever, how they’ll navigate the issue will impact their obviously growing queer fanbase.