Three months ago, NBA star Jason Collins came out of the closet and publicly stated his homosexuality. As an active and high profile professional athlete, his announcement created a stir; unfortunately that was because there is still a stigma surrounding homosexuality in sports. I called the article ‘Unforgivable Gayness’ (which can be found here: https://rtvwrestling.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/unforgivable-gayness/) because despite the support Collins got for the most part, it was strongly tempered with cynicism and homophobia from casual fans.
Happily, that atmosphere isn’t the backdrop to this article, which is born of the news that current WWE ‘Superstar’ and one half of the Prime Time Players, Darren Young, himself came out as homosexual. While many fans will tell you otherwise, professional wrestling is not a sport; it is seen, however, to suffer from the same stigma as legitimate sports both in parts of its fanbase, and professionally as relates to homosexuality. In a climate where tradition and respect are so highly valued by wrestlers, it has never extended fully to homosexuals in the locker-room where there has been, at best, a don’t ask-don’t tell policy – an atmosphere that may have contributed to the untimely passing of Chris Kanyon. Pat Patterson is trotted out as a token gay wrestler who has demands a lot of respect and influence, but it must also be said that as an active wrestler, he didn’t allude to his sexual orientation (which, too, is quite alright. More on that later). And while WWE has worked to improve its image as a progressive corporation through partnerships with ‘Be A Star’ and GLAAD, its progressive fanbase has been rightly sceptical – through John Cena’s numerous throwaway remarks such as suggesting Justin Gabriel enjoys ‘alternate lifestyles’ because (and I’m meeting him more than half-way here) he has nice hair, to his schoolyard back-and-forths with The Rock regarding sexuality, bringing up his role in the Tooth Fairy and the possibility that The Rock might receive ‘pearl necklaces’ (which I don’t want to tell you about but you can feel free to look up), and suggesting, vapidly, winkingly, that either man was gay and so … not as good at wrestling, I suppose. That is just Cena-related homophobia alone, in a history of winks, nods, and innuendos about ‘bizzare’ or flamboyant characters in the wrestling business. Bearing in mind that one is WWE’s ‘Franchise’ star, and the other is it’s mainstream bragging point, it has been hard to take WWE seriously as a progressive company when they see this as acceptable.
So it is with this background that today’s news comes, out of nowhere, unexpected, but incredibly welcome. Darren Young, in the midst of an interview with a TMZ reporter who asks about how a homosexual would be received in wrestling, just out and answers the question, informing the reporter that he is in fact gay, and “very happy”. The interview may not have been as organic as it is supposed to seem (it seems a little odd that the reporter asks that question) , but that is irrelevant; what matters is that Darren Young answers the question frankly, but also doesn’t label it as significant, either with his words or his body language. He is gay and that is that, let’s move on. It is an absolutely perfect way to make a significant move for gay-rights and appreciation while completely downplaying the significance of his sexual orientation.
But since the announcement I have been locked to twitter, waiting helplessly to see a wave of homophobia, but, despite a few disgraceful comments which I won’t reproduce here, and a strange soliloquy from Shannon Moore comparing having tattoos and their stigma to being Homosexual, the response has been absolutely overwhelming in its support for ‘Mr No Days Off’, from fellow professionals and fans, many of which I will reproduce here because they were a ray of sunshine to me.
Congratulations to @DarrenYoungWWE for being the first openly gay WWE Superstar!
— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) August 15, 2013
— Jim Ross (@JRsBBQ) August 15, 2013
— Triple H (@TripleH) August 15, 2013
History in our business will remember @DarrenYoungWWE as a pioneer with the courage to say proud, this is who I am. Hell of a talent & a man
— Drew McIntyre (@TheDrewMcIntyre) August 15, 2013
— Natalya (@NatbyNature) August 15, 2013
— Matt Morgan (@BPmattmorgan) August 15, 2013
Wow! @DarrenYoungWWE is fearless. This is a historic day for the sport of professional wrestling. Good for you D-Young!
— Curt Hawkins (@TheCurtHawkins) August 15, 2013
Way to go @DarrenYoungWWE! Your courage in coming out is going to make a profound difference in the lives of so many. Proud of you,man!
— Mick Foley (@realmickfoley) August 16, 2013
Proud of you bro @DarrenYoungWWE
— Zack Ryder (@ZackRyder) August 15, 2013
… and one that brought a tear to my eye … current co Prime Time Player,Titus O’Neill, who also spawned an #InFullSupportofDarren hashtag
— Titus O'Neil (@TitusONeilWWE) August 15, 2013
The support of his colleagues, including Cena, is both what you would expect from high-profile employees of an international corporation, but also hugely gratifying given the attitudes of many ‘old-timers’ in the business who wouldn’t allow openly gay colleagues any respect or opportunities. It is a sign that attitudes are changing in both the wrestling community, and the wider community (though still, we should remind ourselves, slowly). It’s a sign of the times that a smart-phone filmed interview for internet sharks TMZ was the lowly outlet for this, but that doesn’t detract from the power of it all – I genuinely believe that Young’s brave decision could lead to other current or future superstars coming out and starting the ‘winds of change’ towards homosexuality not just being acceptable in wrestling, but a non issue. (Apologies for the Nexus reference, but imagine if gay equality was what they wanted all along).
Among the tweeters were WWE executives and heirs to the throne, Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, both of whom supported Young in no uncertain terms, but among all this outpouring was a ‘statement’ from WWE – another statement of support, but something rang strange about it. I don’t for a second think WWE is taking credit for Young’s decision, but something about their official response seemed to almost commercialise the move. This feeling grew stronger when WWE announcer Jos Matthews tweeted “Very proud to be apart of @WWE today. Tremendous show of courage from @DarrenYoungWWE” which, though positive, seemed to attribute something to WWE that it didn’t deserve. Why does it make him proud to work for WWE? Because it employs openly gay people? That’s something it should just do. While i’m glad they support him in his sexual orientation, and while the fact he works for WWE is significant to the narrative, this just isn’t about WWE, it’s about Darren Young. Dave Cuttle (@davecuttle) shed some light on my feelings when he compared it to one of WWE’s infamous ‘Did you know’ segments from their TV shows. The image of a “Did You Know: WWE is one of the world’s most progressive organisations, employing more openly homosexual performers than any other major promotion!” doesn’t seem that much of a flight of fancy to me unfortunately. The question is, why does one of your employees being openly gay require a press release? Though it is a well-intentioned show of support, it does the opposite of what Young’s initial announcement does by making a huge deal out of his sexuality. It’s the same problem I have with quotas being enforced in the working place – while well intentioned, it ends up making sexual orientation, gender, race, disability even more important and self-defining than it was before the quota instead of showing it as completely irrelevant. That is why the statement jarred me, it treated Young as an attraction for WWE because he is gay instead of a wrestler. Stephanie and Triple H had already given sincere messages of personal support via twitter, which was enough to show de facto support from WWE management; the statement commodified him by commodifying the response.
I don’t want to dwell on that niggly voice in my head though – as long as WWE don’t make Darren Young in to Gorgeous George Mk. 2, force him somehow on to Total Divas, or even worse, have an entire HHH/Steph MC’d segment on RAW when he comes out formally on live TV to a chorus of confetti and balloons while WWE screams about how great it is for employing a gay guy, we’ll be fine. I’m not so cynical as to think that WWE don’t care. Steph especially seems very sincere in her support of gay rights, and I’m sure that the overwhelming response of his colleagues was also sincere. I don’t know what will happen to Darren Young. The perfect response is to treat him exactly the same, because nothing has changed, but especially since he deserves it from a talent-basis, I hope his career trajectory is high so that he can be the role model he’s perhaps unwittingly made himself to the millions of WWE fans around the world, countless of whom may be unsure or scared about their sexuality. That could be the great power of what has happened today, and the fact that we still think about Coming Out in such terms shows the great bravery of Darren Young in doing what he did.