Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: A Brief Overview of Homophobia in Wrestling
by Robert Skvarla on January 13, 2010

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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Robert Skvarla

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  • http://russianblue8181.wordpress.com Ivan R

    I find this topic interesting, if for no other reason then that wrestling always takes the path of least resistance in terms of these characters. Gay characters? Heels that will totally make out with other dudes! Fear them! Hate them! Boo their vile faggotry!

    I would love to see a character that just happened to be gay, a wrestler who was masculine and totally capable in the ring, but simply preferred the company of men to women. The WWE, and wrestling in general, has such great chances to create outstanding role models and always, always chooses to paint these people in broad, despicable strokes.

    Of course, it leaves the arena of homosexual portrayal, but if you recall the gimmick of Mohammad Hassan, the WWE could have easily created a Muslim character who was fighting as an American, someone who knew that he would have to earn the trust of white America, but was a good, respectable man who would show that Muslims aren’t scary foreign terrorists, but good, law-abiding Americans like us.

    Nope. Terrorist. Natch.

  • John Kincaid

    Rob,

    Great article and I think Ivan hit it on the head. It is easier to potray homosexuals as heels because it plays to the base. Also, while there is a growing acceptance in our society to homosexuals, there is still the overt prejudice that is displayed in our vernacular: referring to something negatively as gay, queer, or faggy (South Park episode notwithstanding). It is the easiest way to challenge a person’s masculinity and abilities by making jokes regarding his sexual preference (look at just about every DX promo for the last year or so along with a large chunk of some of Cena’s promos). I also remember in Edge’s biograrphy him talking about Bradshaw’s “initiation jokes” which involved Bradswhaw grabbing and holding Edge’s ass, threats of anal violation, and other gay behavior as a form of hazing. It’s like the wrestling community knows the latent homosexuality involved and has to overcompensate.

    And it’s not just promoters and performers, but fans to. There were times in TNA when fans would chant “Brokeback Mountain” as an insult to a heel America’s Most Wanted. There wasn’t even a hint of homosexuality played between them, but yet that’s what the crowd came up with. It would be welcome to see Ivan’s idea, but when you look at the way any minority is portrayed, it will take a revolutionary organization. And I just don’t think the wrestling culture (fans and wrestlers) are ready for it yet.

    And to riff on Ivan’s thoughts on Muhammed Hassan: Vince had a chance to really change the landscape, but didn’t. After the infamous “terrorist attack” segment on Smackdown that led to UPN banning the Hassan character, the door was open to create an Arab-American face in Divari.

    Hassan wasn’t Arab, he was of Italian descent I believe. At the PPV in the match between him and Undertaker, have a huge Dusty finish that involved Divari costing Hassan and then JBL and his Cabinet running out to counteract it and attack Taker. Then on the next episode of Smackdown, have Hassan come out, under his real name with Bradshaw and be proclaimed the newest member of the Cabinet and how it was all a plan playing off America’s fears. This leads to Divari ripping on the Cabinet for doing so and suckering him in to thinking playing off fears was a good idea. Have him admit he’s proud of his Arab heritage, but at the same time is proud to be an American. Have Cena or some other big face come out to support Divari and boom huge feud that elevates both the former Hassan and Divari, a face Arab-American.

    But even a face foreigner, who isn’t played for laughs because he can’t speak English, is still too much to ask for.

  • Matt Briner

    I want to take the easy way out and say that it’s because the McMahons are staunch Republicans and Republicans think that homosexuals are the icky-poos…but I’ll instead just agree with the above comments.

  • David

    A really great article and an important question.

  • Mark Buckeldee

    This article lacks the most prominent gay gimmick the world has ever seen: DDT’s Danshoku Dino.

    Dino’s gimmick is a gay wrestler with a very high libido. His entrance sees him kissing random men in the sudience. His moveset often sees him grope opponents and lampoons the inherent homosexuality of 2 men grappling each other. His finisher sees him pilderive people while their head is in his underwear. Interestingly he isn’t really a heel, just an oddball that many fans love due to a mix of charisma and character.
    It’s an odd gimmick as it isn’tplayed as a pure heel thing, seeing as it is often played for laughs. It can be potentially very offensive I think, depending on who is watching.

  • Gene

    @Matt, Pat Patterson would not have been such an important figure in WWE if McMahon was truly homophobic. Patterson even tried to get Hogan to blow him as a rib according to Hogan’s book.

    I post on a fairly popular wrestling forum that has several openly gay and bisexual users. I don’t have a point to make, just wanted to put it out there.

  • Rob S.

    I didn’t mention anything from Japan because my focus is on North American wrestling. I don’t feel comfortable speaking about a culture I know very little about, as I would have a tendency to make generalizations on things in which I am not fully informed. I believe that would be doing the Japanese wrestling community a disservice.

    I also don’t think McMahon is homophobic, so much as the industry itself. Then again, there are organizations that have in the past overlooked their own standards if it will help them financially even if the party itself runs on an anti-gay agenda. There are the Log Cabin Republicans which exist, much like gay wrestlers, in a community that is openly hostile towards them but is willing to benefit from what they contribute. It’s this kind of double standard that bothers me.

  • Jordan

    With Vince His dependence is on the various families that make up his pg entertainment bring a gay character in even if it’s the positive role-model no doubt Some Families would have a problem with that in my opinion and make their feelings known
    This is probably why Goldust is toned down as a character nowadays..

    But I believe in that 10 or 15 years time we’ll get there as Positive Gay Role models will be seen in the wrestling community in and out of the ring

  • Jordan

    Let me also add to my post That I don’t think Mcmahon is homophobic either But he is a business man and a contoversial character in WWE now as it is ..it could be potentially bad for his business

  • Mark Buckeldee

    On the whole business standpoint, wrestling builds on stereotypes. Stereotypes are simple and often hotwired into people from a fairly young age. They are easy to use to make us feel emotions, even with the downsides of stereotypes.

    Foreign heels build up off of xenophobia and fear of the unknown/different. It’s an easy tool to get a reaction, even without playing to national stereotypes and cultural feelings towards specific nationalities. The latter is why the Japanese industry was built on Rikidozan beating dastradly Americans, why German heels were so big in the 1950′s/1960′s, and why Japanese and Arabic heels were so effective.
    Back around the era or Gorgeous George, and even in the era of Adrian Street, homosexuality was not as accepted as it is now. The thing is, wrestling stereotypes stick around for a long time, even with racist connotations. Look at the “Samoan’s have hard heads” gimmick, which still arises to this day. It used to be a staple of black wrestlers around the 1950′s (e.g. Bobo Brazil).

    Add in the fact that WWE tries to use concepts that most of the nation can understand and get behind. Most people understand evil foreigner. Most people understand excessive censorship or pushy rich people. I think homosexuality is still quite divisive, so they would fear that a face gay guy would not be accepted if they thought about it.

    The argument regarding WWE’s PG nature is also a good point.

  • Victor

    please, wrestling is a bastion of homosexuality…think about it: a group of muscular, oiled-up men in their underwear fighting over belts.

  • Victor

    (Not the same Victor as above)

    >It’s like the wrestling community knows the latent homosexuality involved and has to overcompensate.<

    That's part of it, too.

    Personally, I would love a gay face who just happened to be gay. In a way it is sad that Pat Patterson isn't a bigger legend, because a truly loved Hall of Famer coming out might do it.

    People have covered most of the comments I would want to say above so I will just add that I *adore* Exotic Adrian Street.

  • Jordan

    @Victor

    Well duh that’s not really the point though

  • Scott M

    This is part of the reason I find wrestling so fascinating. The stereotypes are so endemic into our culture. It’s just in wrestling they’re all out there on display. For everyone to see.

    I don’t have much to add to the comments about the portrayal of homosexuals in contemporary wrestling. The threat of the effeminate male actually predates Gorgeous George, as he took aspects of his gimmick from wrestlers before him. He was just at the center of a perfect storm of wrestling and the growing audience that the innovation of television provided.

    So, as wrestling stereotypes go, the effeminate male is as long-lived as the scary foreigner.

    One topic I would also like to see explored is the Anti-Intellectualism of wrestling. I mean, at one time, you had a reasonably popular guy like George Hackenschmidt who was a legit scholar.

    But since then?

    Pretty much everyone who shows any sort of intellectual capacity has been reviled. From Chris Jericho, to Lanny Poffo, to Nick Bockwinkel — all the way back to “Wild” Red Berry and even the first Dutch Mantel.

    Even today, the next surest way to turn someone heel in pro wrestling — besides insinuating they’re homosexual — is to accuse them of having a brain.

    What’s up with that?

  • http://tyciol.livejournal.com Tyciol

    I think this kinda ignores how things have changed. You do have to pander to the audience to some degree. If you just give out a positive gay stereotype then people will feel preached to. Furthermore, it is just not interesting.

    You have to read between the lines in pro wrestling. The fact is, regardless of whether or not they were heel characters… they were THERE. It was thought-provoking, and heels are frequently -over- as in people identify with and promote them. Just look at Chris Jericho, or more recently Randy Orton then Sheamus O Shaunessy.

    Goldust himself who was mentioned here is a clear lovable face, and like the Gilette model Cody Rhodes, is a son of the mentioned everyman Dusty.

    Gorgeous George was entered into the hall of fame. Pat Patterson too, while not a gay character, was gay himself and the first IC champion.

    Heck, current Spike TV UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar once kissed then crotch-bumped former Raw GM Kurt Angle who wrestles for TNA now…

    All I can say is read between the lines, basically. Homophobia exists and WWE wants to appeal to everyone. It is up to people to make up their own minds and have their own conversations, the pro wrestling industry is there to get people to watch, create controversy, make it exciting, not worry excessively about giving positive role models.

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