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Grappling with homosexuality: Will WWE finally get it right with Darren Young in 2013?

Given pro wrestling's checkered past of handling homosexuality, fears persist that WWE will turn Darren Young's sexuality into cheap fodder for an onscreen angle and that the backstage environment isn't quite as tolerant of gay men as WWE is currently portraying it as.

Hopefully Darren Young fares better than both Kanyon and Orlando Jordan
Hopefully Darren Young fares better than both Kanyon and Orlando Jordan
Photo by simononly of Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.

WWE executed quite the publicity stunt this week. A TMZ reporter just happened to strike gossip gold by asking Darren Young about his thoughts on homosexuality within wrestling and he out of the blue came out as being gay and claimed to be very happy with his life as a WWE performer. Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, John Cena, Titus O'Neil and many other WWE superstars rushed to publicly congratulate his courage at such a sudden, shocking revelation of raw honesty. He got the red carpet treatment at the Be A STAR anti-bullying rally that coincidentally was held the day after his coming out party. WWE sources then leaked to TMZ that his boyfriend of two years that he's deeply in love with was the driving force behind his decision to be open about his sexuality.

Of course, that narrative is as phony as the "reality" WWE has been serving up on Total Divas for the past four weeks. Dave Meltzer has since confirmed our suspicions that Young's move was indeed orchestrated by WWE and Irv Muchnick claimed that WWE had to settle for the story being published by TMZ when other more highbrow media outlets weren't interested in the exclusive. But even though the announcement was a big work, WWE has to be credited with handling it in a dignified manner. So far, so good.

But given pro wrestling's ultra complex history with homosexuality, perhaps due to its inherent nature of sweaty, scantily clad men rolling around with each other on the canvas, where "homophobia [is] locked in mortal combat with homoeroticism", there is some cause for concern in the future.

As Jonathan Snowden rightly pointed out, ever since the days of Gorgeous George, who was the first wrestling star to be made into a mainstream name by the power of television in the late 1940s, the audience's homophobia has been routinely exploited either by characters that subtly teased they were gay to generate catcalls of sissy, queer and worse or were full blown homosexual predators that would grope and kiss their opponent to get extreme heat.

Like other promoters, Vince McMahon dabbled with this heel character from time to time, but his sin was worse, as he pushed them when he promoted a product that was primarily aimed at kids. At the height of Hulkamania, we had an obese "Adorable" Adrian Adonis prancing around in pink whilst fans frequently chanted faggot at him.

No-one complained about this questionable practice until British Columbia gay activist Ken Walker happened to be watching when The Bushwhackers encouraged the fans at a Vancouver house show in November 1991 to chant faggot towards their opponents The Beverley Brothers and their camp manager The Genius. Walker rightly stated that the WWF "sent the message that it's okay to abuse gays and make them an object of hatred" and managed to procure a public apology from the company, but it made little difference to how the characters were portrayed on TV.

Things got worse when Vince McMahon had the golden opportunity to repackage the talented Dustin Rhodes, who had been fired by WCW despite his father's management position after he bladed at the Uncensored 1995 pay-per-view, which was strictly forbidden in the company at the time. Vince had stuck it to his booking rival Dusty Rhodes on several occasions already, naming Ted Dibiase's black man servant Virgil after Dusty's real first name, spoofing his American Dream gimmick by turning The One Man Gang into Akeem, the African Dream, a white man pretending to be black in a completely over the top manner, and forcing him to wrestle in yellow polka dots as "Common Man" Dusty Rhodes when he worked for the WWF from 1989-1991. Vince really surpassed himself when he turned Dustin into a bizarre Hollywood obsessed movie buff called Goldust that dressed like a real life gold Oscar statuette and when that gimmick unsurprisingly bombed out of the gate having him push the gay envelope to new lengths.

In the run up to their WWF Intercontinental Championship match at the 1996 Royal Rumble, Goldust showered Razor Ramon with unwanted attention through explicit letters, gifts from his usher including a centrefold with Goldust's head on Razor's body and the revelation that he had tattooed a heart with his Latin lover's name inside it, which led to a vicious gangland style gay beating on Monday Night Raw in the go home angle for the match. Life imitated art, as Scott Hall, uncomfortable with the storyline due to having a five year old son, ostracised Dustin backstage. That didn't stop Dustin from doing even more outrageous stunts over the years like snogging "Rowdy" Roddy Piper at WrestleMania XII who proceeded to strip him of his gold bodysuit to reveal stockings and suspenders, and administering unnecessary CPR to a knocked out Ahmed Johnson. Of course, his babyface turn later that year entailed Goldust revealing that he was 100% straight and was a "real man", when Jerry "The King" Lawler made fun of him for being a queer.

Pretending to be reformed characters, WWE marketed Billy [Gunn] and Chuck [Palumbo] as stereotypical blonde muscular gay heel adonises with the flamboyant hairdresser Rico as their manager in 2002 (how original), whilst working the LGBT media into believing that they would actually get married on WWE programming and were portraying positive gay role models. It got the company tons of positive publicity at the time before everyone found out that it was a bait and switch when they watched the big show itself with the tag team refusing to go through with the ceremony and revealing that they were straight men that had been pressured into the idea by Rico, before being beaten up by Eric Bischoff's cronies Three Minute Warning. Hilariously, Matt Lauer from GLAAD even presenting the happy couple with a wedding gift of a gravy boat on the Today Show, two days after the "wedding" had been taped but before it had aired on UPN. GLAAD's Scott Seomin learnt the hard way that you never trust a carny:

"The WWE lied to us two months ago when they promised that Billy and Chuck would come out and wed on the air. In fact, I was told the day after the show was taped in Minneapolis that the wedding took place and all was well."

With WWE wisely eschewing the gay heel gimmick after Rico's metamorphosis into a poor Adrian Street knockoff replete with female valet Miss Jackie and straight man tag team partner Charlie Haas flopped, they thankfully didn't hear from GLAAD for another nine years.

WWE still frequently scripted their top babyfaces to make gay cracks at their heel opponent's expense throughout that period, but they largely flew completely under the radar of the gay rights group. That was until Make A Wish poster boy John Cena ramped up the homosexual innuendo in his feud with The Rock in 2011 to garner cheers from his Attitude Era inspired "edginess", which finally led to WWE knocking off the homophobia inherent in their scripting once and for all when GLAAD made a stink again, along with being the impetus behind their Be A STAR anti-bullying campaign.

One fear is that WWE will turn Darren Young's sexuality into cheap fodder for an onscreen angle. Though in 2013 they surely won't be stupid enough to cast him as a heel, a gay babyface character is littered with minefields too. The audience may be indifferent or openly hostile to it. WWE may cross the line of good taste with the verbal putdowns used by the heels to make fun of Young for being gay, like race based angles in the past, such as Kurt Angle wanting "perverted, bestiality sex" with Booker T's wife Sharmell. When push comes to shove, will they allow Young to give the heel the comeuppance he deserves? This is far from guaranteed, as Booker found out when they heavily played the race angle in his feud with Triple H in 2003 only for him to crash to a humiliating defeat at WrestleMania XIX. Maybe Vince McMahon just won't find it credible to push an openly gay athlete as a real, take no prisoners, ass kicker, like he has a difficult time pushing undersized talent in such a role?

There's also the concern that wrestling's backstage environment isn't quite as tolerant of homosexuals as WWE is currently portraying it as. Sure, plenty of wrestlers before Darren Young were completely open about their sexuality to their co-workers, but all of them had to put up with the ribbing that came with the territory. For example, Kanyon, who many people suspected was gay before he came out, had to put up with the locker room pranksters talking about how much they hated gays and making homophobic jokes to his face.

Likewise, many gay men rose to positions of power within the industry, but that's an even bigger hornets nest. Almost every gay booker, management figure or promoter in wrestling history, from Jim Barnett to Antonio Peña to Victor Quinones to Pat Patterson on down have had to face rumours that they abused their power to obtain sexual favours from their underlings.

For example, even though it's been debunked a zillion times, people still ask whether Tommy Rich won the NWA Heavyweight title for four days in 1981 because he had oral sex with Barnett, when the reality was Rich was hugely popular at the time and the brief switch was done to boost Georgia Championship Wrestling's business, as the belief was return matches with Harley Race over the belt would draw better after he had proven to be championship calibre.

The claims of former NFL player turned Jim Wilson in his book Chokehold in 2003 that he was blackballed by the NWA after Barnett hit on him and he refused to have sex with him seemed equally as preposterous at the time the book came out. However, seeds of doubt were placed with the publication of the book "The Thin Thirty" four years later about the 1962 football team at the University of Kentucky, which revealed that Barnett had lavished many of the players with gifts in return for sexual services rendered.

The sad fact is that the wrestling business wasn't just tolerant of homosexuality, but also was willing to turn a blind eye to a wide range of sexual indiscretions, both gay and straight, until the modern day. WWF wrestlers sniggered about ring announcer Mel Phillips's foot fetish and were aware of how gay office worker Terry Garvin creepily hung around the ring boys, but they did nothing about it. Eventually this laissez-faire attitude blew up in Vince McMahon's face when former ring boys like Tom Cole started suing the WWF with genuine complaints about sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of Garvin and Phillips, which led to a publicity scandal that brought the company to its knees.

Thus, my colleague Rex Ivanovic was correct to point out that people like Bret Hart who pointed to wrestling being ahead of the curve for gay acceptance were whitewashing wrestling's tawdry history with homosexuality, noting how WWE publicly mocked Kanyon's closeted sexuality and scripted him to take a brutal unprotected chair shot to the head in the most mean spirited burial in wrestling history and how when Orlando Jordan came out as bisexual, Vince Russo portrayed him as a freak, like he did with Goldust in the past.

It's worth adding that Jordan's sexuality did become an issue with WWE when he started showing up backstage with a male companion (who later briefly became his onscreen valet Cameron in TNA) that management believed was underage (at least in certain states), which led to his firing in 2006. Well, that's what the dirt sheets told us anyway.

Backstage at TNA he was treated even worse. It was known before the bisexual angle was shot that some powerful people within the promotion were dead set against the idea, similar to the Goldust angle with Scott Hall and how a similar lesbian idea with Marlena showing unwanted affection towards Sable was quickly nixed after such complaints (ironically Hart was one of those who voiced his disapproval at the latter suggestion). A marked man, Jordan soon provided his enemies with the ammunition to kill his bisexual gimmick dead. Apparently, the wife of a major executive at the hotel bar was very grossed out when she saw his boyfriend making out with Jordan. Instead of sticking up for the couple, Ric Flair told them to stop and cut an irate promo on Jordan's boyfriend that left him in tears after his inappropriate behaviour continued, which seemed like the height of hypocrisy coming from a notorious drunken flasher. Then came unsubstantiated gossip that Jordan was still a heat magnet for "hitting on various people", presumably heterosexual men. Soon thereafter, Jordan formed a comedy opening match tag team with the mad Eric Young who was oblivious to his sexuality and lust for him, before being fired when that one note joke had naturally run its course after being beaten to death. Coming out certainly worked wonders for his career!

Which brings me to the kingpin of the wrestling media, Dave Meltzer. It's one thing for people within the business to dishonestly crow about the industry's "success" in accepting performers who happened to be gay, quite another for the top journalist in the field to support them in their spin. Meltzer tabbed the historical event of the first publicly openly gay active WWE wrestler as a non-story, citing how:

"WWE has been pro gay rights as an organization for years and such a thing would have clearly been a non-issue internally for decades considering Pat Patterson was No. 2 in power of creative for years with the company.

It was no secret that Orlando Jordan was bisexual when he was with WWE, but at the time, the company never publicized that fact.  But he not only came out but it was part of his gimmick when he worked for TNA."

Yes, this is the same guy who is aware of how Kanyon's onscreen bullying regarding his sexuality contributed to a suicide attempt in 2003, reported the strange rumours behind Orlando Jordan's WWE firing and knew the crass nature of OJ's bisexual gimmick in TNA and the heat his sexuality gave him there, along with how pro wrestling has demonised the LGBT community for over 60 years in it's storylines, but none of this was mentioned in his write up about the Darren Young story.

That sort of lax attitude is partly why it's taken until 2013 for WWE to come to the point where it may finally have the right answer to tackling the conundrum of how to grapple with the contentious issue of homosexuality within the confines of the wrestling world. If WWE slips up with Darren Young, either backstage or in the storylines, then the likes of Meltzer will have to hold them to account. Hopefully that won't be necessary.

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