WWE performer Darren Young’s decision to informally come out to a TMZ reporter this week has sparked some minor national attention. Surely, this occasion is not as monumental in terms of media fanfare as when Jason Collins of the NBA did so in April. However, given professional wrestling’s distressing history portraying homosexuality in a negative manner, Young’s choice to come out now, although professionally risky, might be more meaningful as it relates to gay rights
As when Jason Collins recently came out, peers quickly jumped out in support of Young. What was interesting about the hours after the story broke was the cross section of wrestling personalities who voiced their backing. Very swiftly, the face of the WWE, John Cena, was briefly caught on camera, expectedly issuing encouragement for his locker room mate. From the other spectrum of popularity, independent star Joey Ryan sent out an inspirational tweet:
“Let us hope we can all spend at least one day of our lives as courageous as @DarrenYoungWWE is today”
Hall of Famer Bret Hart did the same, stating, “Im (sic) more than proud of Darren Young for having the courage to come out. The trust is that WWE & Pro Wrestling in general have long been ahead … of the curve when it comes to accepting sexual orientations.”
Hart’s comments bring up the real issue: how will Young’s employer react to outing himself? On the surface, a business entity such as the WWE must do the right thing in the eyes of its shareholders and the media, they sent out a statement praising Young, filled with the corporate platitudes these releases often have. But the WWE, and professional wrestling in general, has a long, notorious history of demonizing homosexuality, depicting the population negatively along with other marginalized groups, in order to gain cheap heat. One of the first character-driven wrestlers, Gorgeous George, used his bleach-blonde hair, effeminate mannerisms and “perfume” to get crowds from the 1950s to boo him unmercifully. Over time, WWF/E wrestlers such as Adrian Adonis, Goldust and the team of Billy Gunn and Chuck Palumbo have all used homosexuality as a weapon. In the case of the latter, the WWE was more duplicitous, pushing the couple as legitimate, garnering national media coverage until “outing” the union as a sham in a televised 2002 commitment ceremony.
Despite this history, it is not any overt reaction by the WWE that causes me concern. 2013 is a far cry from the 1950s and even 2002, so an overly dramatic public angle played out on television is highly unlikely. There would be considerable backlash within the national media, and any such programming would wildly violate the WWE’s anti-bullying campaign. What worries me are the more covert forms of discrimination that often find their way into the WWE’s product. Commentators have notoriously snuck in one-liners against WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson’s sexuality. Despite the aforementioned anti-bullying campaign, employees as high up as Triple H and Stephanie McMahon have been portraying themselves as bullies on television within the last year, and they were considered “good guys” at the time. The same John Cena who publicly backed Young earlier today has used anti-gay slurs as part of his televised promos as recently as this year. And backstage, wrestlers have been known to haze their peers for far less than publicly outing themselves. Let’s also not forget what disturbing slurs that fans have been known to chant at male wrestlers who even moderately display feminine characteristics in the past.
My sincere hope is that the combined unprecedented shift in the past decade of public’s view of homosexuality, the views of the “new guard” of the leaders of the WWE (Cena, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, et. al), the scrutiny of the media and perhaps even the McMahon’s libertarian leanings will make Darren Young’s brave decision a non-issue. In the end, it should be just that. And while we, as an American society are leaning that way, it would not be surprising if the WWE Universe lagged behind.