Entertainment sports have a dilemma to grapple with: the performers are real people. They are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning. In the history of their sport, they have largely been allowed to be one thing: straight, except when it is convenient to be queer. The queer wrestler only gets to hold an identity for the beats of a storyline. Like so much wrestling kayfabe (the acting of events in wrestling that read as true to the story), wrestlers get to be so many things. Why would they not get to be consistently queer? It’s a prompt that runs through Out in the Ring as a point of contention.
There have always been queer wrestlers. Of course there have. There have always been folks of all identities in our sports. Whether or not they are given the stage to exhibit who they are is another matter. Even when they do, they work under the strictest guidelines. In Out in the Ring you’ll find a rough history, largely about gay performers and straight performers harmfully performing gay storylines. It covers most of the general ground, a brief background (wrestling stories just go for many months these days, any movie is relatively brief), posing the importance of queer identities in entertainment sports, but sadly not yet arriving at any conclusion of perceived equality.
It still feels like an act, a performative show, when a queer wrestler gets their moment. The important thing, of course, is that kids get to see these personalities staged at each event and that diverse people proliferate the squared circle. It is, like most issues of entertainment, a problem of capitalism and the folks in power being blinded to actual audiences, and their needs. The suits never were on our side. It was always an uphill battle. There is a thing wrestling fans do where they play into the show dynamics. The people in charge are evil, they present as evil on the show, and that somehow cushions the criticism. It’s like the average wrestling fan is in on the game and views the person who complains as contributing to this grander manipulative scheme wherein the status quo is reinforced by make believe bullshit.
So we see a whole history of wrestlers. Starting way back in the 1940s, queer-coded wrestling was the real deal. These acts always drew, were always “over”, as is the nomenclature for a popular performer, they always got some “pop”, they were beloved by audiences. Do I know wrestling lingo? Is this an essay of tangible credibility, or am I just another “mark”, believing that certain segments of the wrestling profession truly need to resonate and be seen at a larger level? Understanding that even straightness in wrestling is performative — and when wrestling is not homoerotic, it is so often performatively masculine — we still must allow every wrestler to have an identity beneath the mask, something that is not written for the show. There is merit in representation but there is greater merit in authentic representation, wherein characters in these shows get to act out the way they are and even better, the most radical version of how they envision themselves. Those are the performances I would really love to see. This is already drag culture that should celebrate its truth. Professional wrestling just must understand itself.
There is the fortunate matter that there is not only one game in town. It’s not just WWE anymore, and not just AEW. Many of the minor circuits are effervescent in their celebrated diversity. They are colorful, the performers are raw representations of their true selves, the important things about a person are not buried under gimmicks and fear. And sure, even in the big shows, we now see actors who are members of diverse groups of people. They just are that and they are out and it’s fine. The leagues tolerate that. The leagues will even give them titles. Everyone gets to win. But their truest victories remain quiet ones. When AEW signs a transgender wrestler and they win a belt, that should be the promotion’s calling card. That’s great entertainment. A passionate audience would go and support programs where this happens. And while it’s an event, queer performers are allowed to win, the wins are measured. They are not celebrated for their identity around their great level of athleticism. Until this changes, popular entertainment sports just don’t have anything you can use in them.
Which brings us to a point where our documentary is perfectly fine in outlining the broad history of these things. The individual acts that showed queerness and then pulled the rug from under the audience once they’ve expended their usefulness in a story beat. It all remains deeply frustrating by the end then. No real conclusion is reached that could not be broached without seeing the picture: diversity of all kinds, shown at the front of all things, is vitally important to the strength of these industries. That diverse peoples are under the employ of various companies is not an achievement, yet. It’s literally the least these shows can do. The next step is honoring the people in these companies for who they really are: inspirational queer performers.