Chanel, Sequins and Goldust: WWE's History with Homosexuality
Peroxide blond hair flopping comically, "Gorgeous" Wagner didn't walk to the ring as much as he pranced. Clad in lace, chiffon and silk, pink silk at that, he had his valet spray a custom perfume to mask the smell of the "peasants" at ring side. "Chanel No. 10" he called it. The famous Chanel No. 5, it seems, wouldn't do for the Gorgeous one.
It was a flamboyant act, one that turned Wagner, a journeyman at best as a clean cut and serious grappler, into the biggest star of wrestling's television golden age in the 1940s. America had never seen anything like Gorgeous George. As historian John Nash explained, he didn't just star on television—he helped sell the medium to the masses:
Television sets they buy because of him. He will be credited with selling more of them than even Uncle Milton Berle. He will be named Mr. Television in 1949. "I don't know if I was made for television, or if television was made for me," he will famously say.
His impact will go WAY beyond the ringed circle and television. He will be credited with introducing "camp" to the mainstream public. A Reader's Digest Poll will suggest he is better known than the President. Muhammad Ali will claim he learned his trash-talking from him. Dylan, James Brown, John Waters, Liberace ("He stole my whole act"), and more, are inspired and influenced by one "Gorgeous" George Wagner.
For 12 years, George's was one of the leading acts in all of professional wrestling, especially in Los Angeles, where the cream of the Hollywood crop accepted him as one of their own. But it was an act, George's biographer John Capouya said, that came with an ugly tinge. In Tacoma, Washington, the public safety commissioner investigated whether or not George was a threat to the public decency. And the audience response was sometimes beyond the pale:
George clearly invited the curses and shouts of "Queer!" and "Sissy!" directed at him, becoming a lighting rod in the arenas. In his business any strong reaction was a good one; homophobia was just another form of heat. Yet, amid the indignation the crowd worked themselves into over George's taboo behavior, they admired his daring too.
...more importantly, the wrestler earned a star entertainer's immunity. Gorgeous George was an accepted fact of life, practically an institution—if he was swishy he was a celebrated swish.
It was a less-than-nuanced portrayal of homosexuality. But, like all things in wrestling that are successful, it bred copycats. Almost every territory, over the years, had its own version of Gorgeous George.
Nearly 50 years later, little had changed. The WWE didn't venture far from George's template. Sure "Adorable" Adrian Adonis was fatter and Goldust weirder, but they were variations on a theme. And they were the bad guys. When the company decided to make Goldust a hero, it first had him announce he wasn't really gay in the most emphatic way possible. That was the sensitivity level at the turn of the century.
It appeared, for the briefest of moments, that WWE was ready to shift the narrative in 2002, introducing Billy Gunn and Chuck Palumbo as a gay couple on SmackDown. The Washington Post, alongside many mainstream media observers, took notice:
It was a whirlwind engagement: In front of God and everybody last week in an arena in Green Bay, Wis., Chuck got down on one knee, pulled a diamond ring from his tights and popped the question. Billy wept with joy, and accepted.
Two and a half millennia after the Greeks first grappled with the curious homoerotic aura of wrestling, Billy and Chuck have spent the current WWE season overtly flirting with one another - delighting the audience and taunting their opponents with their blooming togetherness.
Love fuels their powerful rampage. It's hard to know if the audience loves them back or cringes at the sight of them; perhaps both. The Billy-Chuck story monkey wrenches much of what people presume to know about middle America, homophobia, showbiz and machismo.
In the end, they didn't go through with it. Billy and Chuck interrupted their own wedding to announce they weren't really gay after all, an act that incensed Scott Seomin of GLAAD, who had supported the promotion and helped promote the angle.
“The WWE lied to us two months ago when they promised that Billy and Chuck would come out and wed on the air,” Seomin told the Associated Press. “In fact, I was told (lied to) the day after the show was taped in Minneapolis that the wedding took place and all was well.”
Things were a bit better behind the scenes but far from perfect. Pat Patterson, a former wrestler and Vince McMahon's right-hand man, was openly gay as was WWE executive Jim Barnett, who once ran Georgia Championship Wrestling with an iron fist and counted Ted Turner as a personal friend.
But acts like Billy and Chuck seemed to have a dampening effect on gay wrestlers like the late Chris Kanyon, who considered coming out of the closet and decided against it. Sure, the reasoning went, Patterson was protected. After all, he was Vince's right-hand man. Others, those still active in the locker room and the ring, might not be so lucky. Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer explained Kanyon's mindset in The Wrestling Observer (subscription required):
He kept his homosexuality secret, but it tore him up when other wrestlers would, in front of him, talk about how much they hated gays or made gay jokes. He constantly feared if they knew, that he’d never be accepted, even though many gay pro wrestlers are accepted, and those conversations are just part of the high school locker room mentality.
Darren Young's casual admission of his own homosexuality to gossip site TMZ comes at a very different time in our cultural consciousness. In the wake of Jason Collins's announcement earlier this year, and the outpouring of support he received in its aftermath, there is every reason to believe Young will find a supportive home of his own in the close-knit WWE locker room.
When asked a few months ago about whether a gay wrestler would be welcomed in the WWE, former announcer Jonathan Coachman was adamant the answer would be "absolutely:"
There were several openly gay wrestlers and some of our old school guys as well. Never an issue and not only were we getting naked in front of each other, but we were wrestling each other in the ring and it wasn't an issue.
...When I say that it was never brought up, it was never brought up. It was never an issue. And we were together five days a week, you know, on the road where when you're on the road you spend so much time together than if you're at home. And maybe that's why it was no big deal, because you get to learn about the person and the sexual orientation really not only becomes secondary, but it just doesn't matter.
Young, it seems, is betting on that being the case. And, so far, so good.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.
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