Professional wrestling is a strange beast. Non-fans often dismiss it with homophobic remarks along the lines of, “It’s just two oily men rolling around in their underwear!” Wrestling fans scoff at the attitude, but at the same time, the business itself is obsessed with hyper-masculinity. If you’re a WWE Superstar looking for a fight, the easiest way is to get to your rivals is to insult their manhood. A very, very common way to do that in WWE is to imply that one may be a homosexual, and even in today’s PG environment, the attitude is far from gone. So, in a culture that is both homophobic and derided by homophobes, it may be difficult to understand why current WWE Superstar Darren Young is making headlines for apparently coming out of the closet, and ultimately becoming the first openly-gay Superstar in WWE history.
Make no mistake: bringing one’s heterosexuality into question is grounds for total war in WWE. In 2006, D-Generation X’s feud with The McMahons was more or less carried by DX’s continuous double entendres, accusing The Boss of being a homosexual in less-than-subtle ways – as you can see from the t-shirt. Of course, you may think, WWE in 2006 was an entirely different animal than the company that Darren Young is a part of. A PG rating was still years away, and Chris Benoit was just some guy on the roster. It’s easy to look back on older programming and brush it off as some relic of a bygone era. And yes, there’s much less blood, and new Superstars have hand gestures that won’t get kids suspended from school, but attitudes toward homosexuality haven’t become more progressive in any real way.
In the “PG Era,” gay jokes haven’t gone away, but they’ve become more subtle. And you don’t need to wait for another DX reunion to hear them (although they won’t be in short supply then). It’s not hard to find a video of John Cena, from Thuganomics Era to present, making some kind of jab at his opponent’s sexuality. In 2010, coincidentally after making fun of a young Young, he implies that Justin Gabriel has an “alternative way of thinking.” It’s certainly a long way away from “I’M GONNA WEAR A SHIRT THAT SAYS ‘MY BOSS LIKES [PICTURE OF MOBY DICK]‘ BUT I’M NOT ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT THE WHALE, GET IT” but the attitude remains.
It’s worth noting that WWE now has an ongoing partnership with GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). Unfortunately, it is also worth noting that this partnership was a direct result of several weeks of John Cena promos directed at The Rock, which featured rhymes like “Don’t go racing to Witch Mountain, because your mountain is brokeback” (in addition to implying that his WrestleMania opponent, The Miz, and his cohort, Alex Riley, were gay). Unfortunately, it is also worth noting that less than a week after WWE and GLAAD partnered up, announcer Michael Cole publicly tweeted the slur “f—-t” to a fellow announcer.
So anti-gay attitudes, however subtle, casual, or hidden, are still around. So why would Darren Young choose to come out in such an environment? Young is certainly no John Cena. He’s better positioned than a fair number of Superstars – he’s got merch and he’s in a moderately successful tag team with Titus O’Neil – but he’s expendable enough that ticket sales likely wouldn’t drop too much if he were no longer around. Coming out didn’t even seem like a calculated move on his part. It just seemed as if he was noting some mundane facet of his personal life – which is, really, all it is. Despite this, WWE has some choices to make.
There will be press coverage about this, especially after the recent news of pro athletes coming out. There will be new eyes on WWE this week, which is what WWE craves. Even more convenient is the timing of the announcement: SummerSlam, arguably the second-largest event of the year, is this weekend. Superstars will be out doing media appearances all week, and Darren Young will come up. People will be wondering how, if at all, Young will be presented on Raw next Monday. Will Michael Cole allude to real-life headlines during Young’s match, as he does with a guy like David Otunga? Will nothing change, leaving Darren Young the character the charismatic loudmouth he was before? Or will the tag-team partner situation be too juicy for WWE to pass up? Could WWE be thinking of turning this into an angle?
Regardless of what ends up happening, I can’t see this turning out badly for Young. Worst case scenario, nothing changes and he stays in his position as goofy tag team partner until something else comes up. There’s absolutely no way that Young will be punished in any public way for this – and I doubt WWE will even want to. If WWE has a problem with Young’s news, it will likely have more to do with the delivery of the news (i.e. not letting WWE know first) rather than the homosexuality itself. The homophobic content of modern WWE shows is a result of ignorance, not malice. WWE is far from progressive in its writing, and those in charge are less in tune with the changing times as they’d probably like to think.
Most importantly, people will be investing in where Young’s character goes from here. A push would be interpreted as support for Young’s bold decision. If Young starts showing up less or is squashed on TV, that will be interpreted as punishment. The next time we see Young on WWE TV will be a calculated move. I imagine GLAAD will be in touch with WWE to help them make the best decision going forward.
The best decision being coming out in full support of Young. Young’s coming out should be acknowledged through press releases proudly lauding Young for his bravery. And above all, Young should not be turned into anything resembling a caricature. The Prime Time Players are already flamboyant, comedic characters, so it may be especially tempting to have Young adopt gay stereotypes, but GLAAD should put a stop to that before it begins. Additionally, Young should be celebrated, but he should not be defined by his homosexuality. Daniel Bryan is vegan, but that does not define his character. He should not be “the gay wrestler.” He should be “the charismatic and talented wrestler who is also gay but that’s not a big deal.”
Opinion polls show overwhelming support for pro athletes coming out. WWE has been given a huge chance to generate organic good press. Gay jokes have been played out in the wrestling industry for years, and the world is ready to embrace a gay wrestler. Without a doubt, WWE needs to use this opportunity to show that they can adapt to 21st century culture. Campaigns such as Be A Star and Stand Up For WWE certainly don’t hurt its image, but when WWE is presented a perfect opportunity to shed some deeply-ingrained ideas about pro wrestling being lowbrow entertainment for backward, stupid people, the only right course of action is to take it.