“A Secret Fascination”: Professional Wrestling, Gender Non-Conformity, and Masculinity

Co-Authored by Josh Howard and guest contributor Elizabeth Catte

On August 14, 2013, a reporter from TMZ caught up with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar Darren Young at the LAX baggage claim. The reporter asked, “Do you think that a gay wrestler could be successful within the WWE?” Young responded with a smile and a laugh before answering, “Absolutely. Look at me. I’m a WWE superstar and to be honest with you, I’ll tell you right now, I’m gay. And I’m happy.” And with that, Darren Young became the first openly gay professional wrestler in the WWE and the first active wrestler to “come out” while signed with a major promotion.

Gorgeous George and Betty. Photo credit John Pantozzi.

Gorgeous George and Betty. Photo credit John Pantozzi.

As the WWE celebrated Young’s decision to speak openly about his sexuality, a fresh wave of journalists and fans of wrestling  began to pour over the history of American professional wrestling, looking for other moments the sport “grappled” with issues of sexuality. A few ambitious authors connected their initial observations to studies by Sharon Mazer, Danielle Soulliere, or Nicholas Sammond, and noted, as Mazer once did, a range of masculinities “between the flamboyantly feminine to the lumpen macho.” While these popular discussions of the importance of Darren Young’s “coming out” disengaged from more theorized frameworks, what they shared with the authors above was a tendency to view all of wrestling’s non-heteronormative masculinities as part of an evolving genealogy that begins with Gorgeous George and ends with Dustin Runnels’ sexually ambiguous Goldust persona.

The implied place of Darren Young’s authentic and unperformed sexuality as part of this genealogy is problematic for reasons that are the subject of this post. Namely, that the artificial spectrum from Gorgeous George to Goldust obscures an important shift in professional wrestling from a loosely connected and managed enterprise to the singular entity of the Vince McMahon’s WWE. Placing WWE performers with limited artistic agency on the same spectrum as self-made performers like Gorgeous George obscures the fact that, for over twenty-five years, the WWE suppressed rather than celebrated alternative expressions of male sexuality and masculinity. To begin, we must first take stock of the pre-WWE world of wrestling masculinity.

Pre-World Wrestling Federation/Entertainment (WWF/E)

Since the 1930s, professional wrestling has followed a simple script. Good guys, commonly referred to as faces, fought bad guys, referred to as heels. Fans knew these were staged fights and were expected to participate by cheering faces and booing the heels, but it was not until the 1940s that wrestling “gimmicks” emerged that exaggerated character traits to more clearly delineate just who was the face and who was the heel in a match.  Adopting a gimmick was a method of survival for wrestlers. Wrestlers with quality gimmicks – whether face or heel – attracted more people to matches, which then resulted in more pay and higher likelihood of appearing again in future events.


Gorgeous George postcard from 1940s. Wikimedia Commons.

Gorgeous George, the wrestler most frequently cited in discussions of professional wrestling and gender, pioneered a distinct style of effeminate character, and through engaging in anti-masculine performance is largely credited with creating the entire concept of a gimmick or wrestling persona. Before George, wrestlers easily fit within one of two categories: those who portrayed themselves as legitimate athletes who could become either a face or heel, and performers whose race or ethnicity usually forced them to assume the role of heel. Beginning in the 1940s, Gorgeous George turned gender transgression into an art form and business model by dressing as the Human Orchid in pastel colors, lace, and chiffon selected and styled by his adoring wife. In a war-time and post-war culture that valorized bravery, strength, and moral conviction, George’s gender-bending and questionable principles made him an anti-hero that everyone loved to hate. Despite his status as a heel, Gorgeous George became the secret inspiration for a nascent generation of gay men coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s with few role models. Film maker John Waters recalled watching George on television, “It was probably the very first thing I ever saw that I thought is this, maybe it was gay, even though he wasn’t gay, right? And I didn’t know what gay meant yet. I just knew that this was something very, very different and something that could very much interest me. He became a kind of secret fascination.”

Ricky Starr was another early wrestler who leveraged an anti-masculine persona into a successful career. The British-born Starr became a professional wrestler in 1953 after a stint as a Broadway ballet dancer, and incorporated the aesthetics of ballet – including his hallmark ballet slippers – into his style of wrestling. Starr pirouetted and pranced in the ring, but often defeated opponents with expertly delivered drop-kicks. If his fondness for ballet wasn’t enough sign of gender non-conformity, later in his career Starr began to brag that he was taught to wrestler by a male burlesque dancer named “Toots.” But despite his apparent femininity, Starr was a popular wrestler. As one commentator observed, “Starr’s a good wrestler when he wants to be, when he cuts out the clowning…but who wants him to cut out the clowning?”

Adrian Street and his father. Photo by Dennis Hutchinson.

Adrian Street and his father. Photo by Dennis Hutchinson.

Adrian Street – the son of a Welsh coal miner – debuted as a wrestler in 1957 and for a decade embodied the persona of a young body-builder. In the late-1960s, Street abandoned this gimmick to become “Exotic.” Street slowly added effeminate aspects to his character, peaking with glitter make-up, mini-pigtail haircuts, and a signature move that involved applying makeup to opponents against their will after a victory. Street also recorded a somewhat suggestive song and music video entitled “Imagine What I Could Do to You.” Street’s unconventional persona spoke to and against constructions of manhood associated with his upbringing in a blue-collar mining community in which industry, not entertainment, was the stuff of life. Although the popularity of glam rock and performers like David Bowie buffered Street’s commercial success, he displayed a constant anxiety about being mistaken for gay and often brought his valet and real-life spouse Linda into the ring with him.

Collectively, these wrestlers challenged an idea often accepted in competitive sports that to “best,” one must be physically aggressive, emotionally restrained, successful, competitive, tough, courageous, and, of course, heterosexual. While these personas seem unconventional by today’s standards, it is important to remember that these performers existed in a world in which the boundaries between what was considered normal or abnormal had not solidified into our modern categories of “gay” or “straight.” As George Chauncey demonstrated in his monograph Gay New York, these categories did not fully appear until after the 1940s, and even then constructions of gender remained more fluid outside metropolitan environments. Only Adrian Street, who achieved celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s, worried that his professional persona might have personal consequences.

The Era of Vince McMahon and the WWF/E

The structure of professional wrestling changed in the 1980s. With Vince McMahon’s consolidation of power, gender non-conformity within professional wrestling came to be more limited. Before McMahon, an expansive network of territories ensured any drawing wrestler could find work, no matter how “unorthodox” their gimmick. But in the 1980s, now that McMahon held control over the majority of these areas, opportunities came to be severely limited. If a wrestler wanted to earn a paycheck, their persona had to conform to Vince McMahon’s worldview, and Vince McMahon’s worldview was (and is) one that idolizes traditional hegemonic masculinity and aggressive heterosexuality. This transition between the previous generation’s good natured gender subversion and the more sinister implication’s of McMahon’s worldview can be seen first in the career of Adrian Adonis.


“Adorable” Adrian Adonis circa mid-1980s. WWE.

Adrian Adonis was a popular wrestler in the late-1970s and early-1980s as one half of the East-West Connection with Jesse Ventura. In this tag team and others, Adonis represented himself as a hyper-masculine, arrogant playboy from New York whose northern toughness was the antithesis of Ventura’s slick west coast vibe. But in 1985 after his character had grown stale, Adrian became “Adorable,” bleaching his hair blonde, donning pink ring attire, and applying far too much eye shadow and rouge. On the surface, Adonis seems to be in line with anti-masculine characters such as Gorgeous George and Adrian Street, but Adonis represented a divergence in presentation. Adonis was the worst type of gay stereotype – and he was a gay stereotype, using the term “coming out of the closet” during his “Adorable” debut and appearing during the early days of the AIDS crisis, a time when public perceptions of the gay community were largely homophobic and misunderstood. Adonis’s predecessors presented alternative forms of masculinity, but Adonis falsely represented a social group that – in Vince McMahon’s organization – was only worthy of comedic mockery.

After Adonis, Goldust became the next WWE performer to adopt an anti-masculine persona and the first to appear regularly on weekly, national cable television on Monday Night RAW. He debuted in 1995, dressed in golden, feathered robes, a blonde wig, and a complete golden mask of face paint. Goldust relied on sexual ambiguity with occasional implication of gay sexual attraction, this despite the presence of his female valet and real life wife – Marlena. Goldust’s sexuality was often questioned by both fellow wrestlers and fans, and Goldust embraced every instance. The only moments where the WWE “scaled back” Goldust’s sexuality was when a WWE commentator referred to him as a “flaming fag” and fans began chanting “faggot” while he wrestled. Goldust began his career as a heel, but in the late-1990s era of crash television and anti-heroes, some fans took to cheering the character who defied social norms with his “deviant” persona and dishonorable signature move (which was simply a kick to the opponent’s testicles). Like Street, Goldust’s persona also spoke to concepts of blue-collar masculinity, but where Street’s father was an unnamed Welsh coal miner, Goldust’s was known by fans as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.

Goldust debut video. WWE.

Goldust debut video. WWE.

But in McMahon’s WWE, Goldust’s gender ambiguity often became sinister and menacing, not playful. It should be noted that, at times during his decades-long career, Goldust participated in homophobic mockery as well. At least once, Goldust performed “mouth-to-mouth” on an unconscious man and “felt up” other unwilling men. With this, Vince McMahon’s WWE traded on the stereotype that all gay men are deviant sexual predators. As Brett Grubisic points out, so unnatural was Goldust that he stood out in a world populated by imagined serial killers, maniacs, and the risen dead.[1] Goldust today – while his appearance is largely the same – transitioned years ago away from his homoerotic in-ring actions. Within the recent PG world of the WWE, (former) Tag Team Champion Goldust is just a “weirdo.”

McMahon delivered a final blow to queer possibilities with the saga of Billy and Chuck. Initially, the two stagnant wrestlers paired together and adopted a comedy gimmick reminiscent of Saturday Night Live sketch “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” and their antics were not that different from those of Goldust or Adrian Adonis. One major different though was their manager was not a busty blonde like Goldust’s, but instead Rico, the duo’s hair and “personality” stylist. After a few months of popularity, the WWE took the gimmick a step further: Chuck officially “came out” on television and asked Billy to marry him in a commitment ceremony. Billy said yes. The WWE heavily promoted the upcoming ceremony, and numerous LGBT groups – most notably GLAAD – praised the WWE for its progressive programming. For those familiar with the WWE, it was no surprise when Billy and Chuck revealed their wedding was a publicity stunt that had gone too far and they were both heterosexual. From that point forward all references to their gay or implied gay past were suddenly forgotten.

Beyond these notable centerpieces, the WWE also engaged in repetitive and often crude cross-dressing gimmicks. Crossdressing has a long history in wrestling as a form of comedic punishment for male performers. Occasionally, a popular wrestler will be forced to “wrestle in a dress” as a form of humiliation only to embrace the punishment and flaunt their new attire for one night only. Once, wrestler Mark Henry was introduced to a woman backstage. A camera followed the two to a seclude area, where they began to undress. Suddenly, the audience heard Mark Henry express in a panicked tone: “Sweet Jesus! You got a penis!”

Cassandro, one of Mexico's most popular exoticos. Photo by Saúl Armendáriz.

Cassandro, one of Mexico’s most popular exoticos. Photo by Saúl Armendáriz.

It is important to note that Vince McMahon embodied an exaggerated but not uncommon worldview that meshed with conservative backlash and cultural homophobia. For example, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) – owned and operated by Ted Turner and Time Warner from 1988 to 2001 – debuted a new tag team in 2000, the West Hollywood Blondes, Lenny and Lodi. These two preceded Billy and Chuck, and their personas could be described in much the same way except their attire was pink, emblazoned with triangles, and Lenny sported pigtails and glitter makeup. Within but a few weeks of their debut, Lenny won the Cruiserweight Championship with Lodi’s help only for the two to suddenly disappear from television. Turner Broadcasting Standards and Practices pulled the duo from productions only after public protests and receiving numerous complaints, again most notably from GLAAD. According to an unnamed Turner executive: “Nobody here is out to do any gay-bashing,” this after fans were encouraged for weeks to chant gay slurs at the two.[2] This moment aside, without the totalizing force of Vince McMahon one wonders if professional wrestling might have achieved a different trajectory and perhaps witnessed more dynamic representations of gender and sexuality embodied in, for example, the Exoticos of Luchador wrestling.

Gay Wrestlers

Chris Kanyon. WWE.

Chris Kanyon. WWE.

Apart from Darren Young, two gay men also wrestled with the WWE, although their sexuality was concealed at the time they were performers.

Chris Kanyon was a somewhat, occasionally very, successful wrestler in the late-1990s and early 2000s, who came out after his retirement in 2004. At several points after his retirement, Kanyon accused the WWE of discrimination, to the point that he claimed the WWE released him because of his homosexuality. Kanyon often recanted these statements and never brought suit to the WWE.

About a year after Darren Young came out, so did retired, seventy-three year old wrestling legend Pat Patterson. On the June 13, 2014, episode of Legend’s House on the WWE Network, Patterson spoke of his private life for the first time publicly, most notably telling stories of relationships he kept secret and the mental anguish he went through to hide this life. Patterson’s decision to speak openly was met with applause and praise from his fellow pro wrestlers, co-workers, fans, and the company itself. The past two years have been exemplary for the WWE in terms of gay rights and acceptance. The WWE emphasizes the positive qualities of the Young and Patterson stories in the hopes they (along with the WWE’s Be A Star anti-bullying campaign) will be considered alongside other recent out athletes like Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins, and Michael Sam.

Concluding Remarks

Despite these strides, the way that the WWE grappled with issues of gender non-conformity and sexuality left a lasting impression on the way we think of professional wrestling. When recent scholars discuss wrestling and masculinity, they are doing so in terms of modern post-McMahon wrestling. In 2013, David Shoemaker – an author for – Grantland—released his popular history of professional wrestling The Squared Circle, in which he asserted: “Gorgeous George invented the pompous heel. Within that archetype many subsets flourish: the scaredy-cat heel, the self-obsessed heel, and, of course, the faggot heel.” With this simple, and arguably callous statement, Shoemaker gathered all presentations of homosexuality and gender non-conformity under one umbrella, represented by “faggots” who are to be booed by the fans. In his book, he used the word faggot “to convey the offensiveness that they were employing with the character at the time.”[3] With this, one may assume that wrestlers who adopted anti-masculine personas would thus always be bad guys – or “faggot heels” as Shoemaker would put it.

As we have shown though, wrestlers who adopted anti-masculine personas were not always the bad guy. It is clear that David Shoemaker is speaking to professional wrestling’s most recent past in which the WWE provided both a script and blue-print for what masculinity should, or should not, look like. For now, the WWE is content to make amends in deeds, rather than words, but it must be noted that its ability to do so takes advantage of the assumption that the stigmatization of gender non-comformity and gay people is a regretful but inevitable relic of the past. In other words, many organizations and individuals have diluted the force of past transgressions with the belief that homophobia was a natural product of the visibility of gay or non-conforming individuals. But this is not the case, and the long history of professional wrestling offers us a glimpse into a world where diversity was celebrated rather than abused. The interpretation offered here may suggest that a more meaningful reading of professional wrestling can be achieved through interdisciplinary project of queer history and theory, which attempts to restore – rather than cleanse – cherished cultural products of their gender ambiguity.

Josh Howard (@jhowardhistory) and Elizabeth Catte (@elizabethcatte) are both PhD Candidates in the Public History Program in the Department of History at Middle Tennessee State University. They can be reached at Joshua.Howard@mtsu.edu and Elizabeth.Catte@mtsu.edu respectively. Josh and Liz will be presenting a version of this paper at the 2015 annual conference for the International Association of Communication and Sport on March 8, 2015.

[1] Brett Grubisic, “”Testing Mettle: Goldust and the Spectacle of Masculinity in the World of Wrestling,” Popular Culture Review 10, no. 1 (1999), 145.

[2] Lisa de Moraes, “TNT Finally Tosses Its Staged Gay-Bashing Spectacle Out of the Ring,” Washington Post, October 12, 1999, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/1999-10/12/049r-101299-idx.html.

[3] David Shoemaker, Twitter post, February 20, 2014, http://www.twitter.com/AKATheMaskedMan.

2 thoughts on ““A Secret Fascination”: Professional Wrestling, Gender Non-Conformity, and Masculinity

  1. Pingback: Friday Five | elizabeth catte

  2. Pingback: Professional Wrestling: A Sports/Queer History Mix-tape | J. Howard, History

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