Monday, March 7, 2016

Wrestling with Homophobia

Strong let the longer F-bomb fly on Friday, and even he realized later it wasn't a good look
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Roderick Strong made headlines on Friday night at Pro Wrestling Guerrilla's All-Star Weekend 12 Night One for the wrong reasons. In an attempt to promote his match at the second night of the duet of shows with Zack Sabre, Jr., he called the British grappler the six-letter "F" word that originally was meant to refer to a bundle of sticks but is now the most vulgar thing one could call a homosexual man. Reports from the show said that the crowd followed suit, but other reports say the chants were isolated and even shut down by other fans. Either way though, someone thought it'd be alright to chant a word that if not as toxic as the "N" word, should be loud enough that people noticed it, all because a wrestler in the ring decided to use it as a way to build heat for an upcoming match.

To give Strong the slight benefit of some doubt, he apologized for the shitty language later on that night on Twitter. Self-awareness is a wonderful thing, but one, Strong has a history of using that kind of language in the ring, and two, it wasn't an isolated incident in terms of wrestling in general. AJ Styles' history with homophobia is well documented. Eddie Kingston repeatedly breaks out gay-baiting promotional techniques in companies that aren't Chikara. Brock Lesnar said he doesn't "like gays" and has never walked back the comments. In addition to outright homophobia, its cousin nad running buddy toxic masculinity penetrates facets of storytelling in nearly every wrestling company on the planet. Femininity is considered weakness, especially in men, and countless feuds have been conducted on the basis of who the "real" man was. That is to say, Roderick Strong shouting at Zack Sabre, Jr. to "stay down, f*****" was not an iconoclasm but maybe the worst of wrestling's problem with, and pardon the reference, the gay community bubbling up to the surface.

For years, wrestling promoters, competitors, and fans could all pretend they had no problems because being gay has been largely unacceptable in American society until recently. Even fairly liberal and progressive-seeming purveyors of the arts were comfortable enough making punchline after punchline about homosexuality. If those damn pinkos in Hollywood were getting away with making jokes out of these people's sexual orientation, then the conservative haven of entertainment that is pro wrestling obviously could have people who partook in it revel in out and out intolerance. Nevermind that most pro wrestling locker rooms were wardrobed appropriately for any city's Pride parades; flamboyance was acceptable in the ring because the guys were pretending to wail on each other. Violence, whether feigned or otherwise, can compensate for a lot.

As society started to push back against the religious barrier against the LGBTQ community, even wrestling had to feel the heat for its transgressions against those with sexual orientations different from what had been considered normal up to that point. The scrutiny has worked to a degree. While I wouldn't call WWE a company friendly to any oppressed community, it has at least eased up on the gay bashing in its scripted material. It's even been supporting, at least on the surface, of two employees in Darren Young and Pat Patterson who have both recently come out of the closet.

But with the scrutiny has come the push-back from more reactionary observers, who cite the fact that homophobia, along with other sorts of -phobias and -isms and the like, can be an effective heeling technique. The cries of "Why limit character development?" or "It's only wrestling, lighten up!" and the like pollute the discussion to the point where they're accepted as legitimate talking points. Granted, one probably shouldn't talk about taking creative beats off the table, but conversely, what would wrestling be missing without those heel characters on the table?

In 2016, racist, sexist, and especially homophobic heel characters are so limiting, so boring, and sadly, possibly ineffective. Imagine being a fan from a marginalized demographic and having to face shit like the wage gap, sexual harassment, police brutality, and other kinds of embedded prejudices in everyday life. All you want to do is unwind, so you turn on wrestling for entertainment. On one hand, you see that kind of ugliness embedded in a character, and you realize that this kind of thing invades your entire life. Even though in most cases, those traits belong to a heel, it's still not something that people who face those evils want to be confronted with in many cases. On the other hand, the political climate in this country right now has emboldened people to let their latent racism be worn upon their sleeves. Imagine turning on the television to find fans reveling in a gay-basher. Or worse yet, imagine being in a crowd surrounded by people chanting "F*****" after hearing it used in the ring. Even if it does get shut down quickly, the fact that it even happened can cause quite a jolt.

Wrestling is an art so steeped in storytelling potential that such strains aren't necessary, and are in fact boring ways to tell stories. Wrestling angles can remain confined in the basic, "pure sport" mold and still have near infinite amounts of mileage. But even if one wanted to tell a story that involved more of a literary or theatrical bent, so many other territories could be broached that didn't involve gay-baiting and gay-bashing. WWE tried beginning a story between two wrestlers over a shampoo commercial, and while that angle gets mocked in some circles, it is certainly the kind of fodder that in the hands of skilled writers could serve as an excellent launching pad for a heated feud in the high-money, high-vanity world of corporate, televised, mainstream wrestling. Chikara successfully implemented time-travel scenarios. The potential for villainy is infinite and includes so many different ways to garner heat that don't remind marginalized people who want to be fans of reasons why they shouldn't.

So, wrestling having a problem with homophobia and realizing the ways in which it has a problem are far-reaching and possibly innocuous-seeming are out in the open. How can companies begin to fix this image? How can wrestlers and fans and promoters all come together to nip this problem in the bud? Outside of sending everyone to mandatory sensitivity training, which would be unwieldy and expensive, no real easy answer is at the forefront. Luckily, more than a few fans know better and are trying to help. The fans who helped squelch the "f*****" chant at PWG are one example; fans at PROGRESS Wrestling in England who yelled at a particularly vulgar and transphobic fan are another. Those fans are the ones who need to be nurtured, encouraged, and enabled, not the shitty ones.

Frankly, that direction needs to come from the very top of the promotions involved. Chikara and Inspire Pro Wrestling have disclaimers at the beginnings of each of their shows warning fans not to engage in unsavory chanting. Chikara's warnings are for more of a family friendly environment, which okay, not every company wants to aspire to that level of fandom (although honestly, why not book companies so that kids can go watch, since they are literally the future). But Inspire Pro at times is beer-soaked and profane, and yet Brandon Stroud gets up on the mic before every show and asks people to be decent. Decent doesn't mean not cursing. It means maybe booing someone because that person isn't a good wrestler or they represent a character trait that deserves booing, not because they're men who like the sexual company of other men. Do these warnings shut down every bad chant? Obviously not, but I've also heard a lot fewer disgusting type chants at Chikara shows rather than at, say, NXT house shows, which do not have any sort of pre-warnings for behavior or couth.

It also means that promoters should probably think about not booking wrestlers who are so toxic to a group of potential paying customers. Lesnar and Styles are both popular wrestlers within WWE. Kingston is a guy who gets bookings across the Midwest and in Chikara for a reason. And yes, Strong has regular bookings in PWG and was the Champion there up until Saturday night when he lost the belt to the aforementioned Sabre because he is good at what he does in the ring. But it's not enough to be good at your job anymore, especially when part of your job is to be an ambassador to fans of all shapes and sizes.

Jetta Rae on Episode 2 of The Wrestling Podcast voiced her plans to divorce from watching WWE as long as Styles was there, not because WWE hired a homophobic wrestler, but because WWE is trying to project an image as a force for social good, made public relations hay out of a gay employee coming out, and still hired a homophobic wrestler. Actions speak louder than words, but in many cases, words really fucking sting too. If WWE really wanted to "B.A. Star," it should probably look at how it manages its roster. Honestly, smaller companies need to be even more vigilant. Indie wrestling companies work with a smaller pot to begin with, and while I don't have statistics to back any claims such as this up, it at least feels like a large portion of these promotions' clienteles are either queer or allies to queer people. If you're allowing shit like that to happen under your roof without repercussion, then you're telling a sizable chunk of your audience that you don't care about them. Boom or bust atmosphere, that is a horrible message to send. It's certainly not the kind of message for perhaps the highest-profile independent wrestling promotion in America to be adopting.

Again, Strong apologized on Twitter. But he needs to do more. PWG needs to do more. Everyone in wrestling needs to do more. Wrestling's problems with homophobia are superfluous ones, and ones that need to be eradicated sooner rather than later. It's time for pro wrestling to step out of the past and start embracing the fact that LGBTQ fans are invariably part of the core of the fanbases of each of these various promotions instead of potentially alienating them.