AEW Stars Discuss Pride Month, Being Role Models, Discrimination and More

Doc-Chris Mueller@@BR_DoctorFeatured Columnist IVJune 30, 2022

AEW Stars Discuss Pride Month, Being Role Models, Discrimination and More

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    Credit: AEW

    For many people around the world, June is a period of celebration known as Pride Month. It is a time for the world to celebrate the the LGBTQ+ community.

    The community's representation across the board in all forms of entertainment has made great strides, but it is still a long way away from being a true reflection of society.

    The pro wrestling business has been even further behind other industries when it comes to representation, but that has been changing more and more with each passing year.

    A couple of decades ago, it was extremely rare to see wrestlers on TV who were publicly out as anything other than straight and cisgender. Now, we have gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and non-binary wrestlers in some of the biggest companies in the world and across the indie scene.

    Not only does that kind of variety allow for more characters to be portrayed in non-stereotypical ways, but it also allows them to connect with fans in their communities who just want to see themselves reflected in the things they consume for entertainment.

    To help celebrate Pride Month, we reached out to All Elite Wrestling stars Nyla Rose, Sonny Kiss, Anthony Bowens, Aubrey Edwards and Mercedes Martinez to share their thoughts on a variety of topics related to the LGBTQ+ community, such as the meaning of Pride, representation in the industry, discrimination and more.

What Does Pride Mean to You?

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    Mercedes Martines (Credit: AEW)

    The dictionary definition of Pride probably hasn't changed in a long time, but it can mean different things to different people, especially in the LGBTQ+ community.

    So, our first question for each person we interviewed was: "What does the word Pride mean to you?"

    Rose: It's pretty straightforward, honestly. It's just taking ownership and being proud of yourself and living open, honest, free and not really backing down. And being out and just being happy.

    Kiss: What Pride means to me is basically us as a community celebrating who we are, our identity, our sexuality and educating ourselves and others, and comparing journeys. Our light and our testimony. We are just basically saying, "Hey, this is what we've been going through and now we're strong enough to overcome it."

    Edwards: Pride is about being yourself, being your authentic self, and not being afraid to be that person. I saw something on Twitter recently that said there are still some people in the world who think it is better to be dead than gay. And that is a big reason why Pride is such an important thing because if we don't talk about how it's OK to all be whoever you are, some people feel that they can't be that person.

    Bowens: I think it means acceptance in yourself. You know, a lot of times when you're in the closet and you're hiding yourself away, there's this fear, that anxiety. There's almost this lack of self-confidence. And then when you do come out of the closet, at least in my case, I feel happy. I am excited to show the world my personality, to show my true self. So, I think Pride is the celebration of that.

    Martinez: Pride is basically assessing myself. I know there's this big thing of saying, being your true, authentic self, but what people fail to realize is that you can be one thing, but feeling your true, authentic self is on a whole different level. So, for me, Pride is feeling and being my true, authentic self. You know, self-love is this self-acceptance where you can accept yourself, love yourself, and the world can love you as you are.

    For me, it's one big thing, as I've grown up and gone through my life cycles. Where I'm at right now is where the most Pride is, because the world as a whole is accepting me as myself and not being hidden in the shadows anymore. And people are embracing that and supporting that and loving me for that.

Representation in the Wrestling Industry

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    Anthony Bowens (Credit: AEW)

    The way the LGBTQ+ community went from having close to zero representation in pro wrestling a couple of decades ago to having multiple people in every company who identify as something other than straight or cisgender has been amazing to see.

    It might not be where it needs to be just yet, but more people can see themselves reflected in pro wrestling than ever before.

    We asked everyone to talk about how they feel their communities are represented and what can be done to improve things even more.

    Rose: First and foremost, I believe we are being better represented today than in previous years. A lot of people are just booked based solely on their talent and not so much for who they are, which is the goal. That being the goal is exactly what we want. In some places, they do highlight the queer talent, the LGBT talent, which is awesome.

    Having that spotlight, and showing the world that we're here and exist, is awesome. However, making improvements is simply just continuing to push forward, having more inclusive spaces, more inclusive language and highlighting and promoting these talents out there to the world and letting them know that they do have a place in various promotions and in the world, is key.

    Kiss: In pro wrestling, I feel like there are so many of us, whereas 10 years ago there was barely one or two. And we're not used as comedy acts anymore. A lot of us are taking it very seriously as badass wrestlers. A way where we can improve is not stereotyping and assuming a person is a way because of their presentation. I feel like that's what we can improve on, for sure.

    Edwards: I think a big thing that can be done is having more conversations. For instance, the reason I'm having a conversation with you today is that I'm bisexual and a lot of people will look at me and assume that's not the case because I've been in a relationship with a man for 17 years. And that is sort of a big thing that we need to work on as far as this society is breaking that assumption, that straight is not the assumption.

    There is no normal. Everyone is their own unique self. So I think having whoever in whatever form of media we have, and being able to listen to them outside of that space and hear their stories so we can know the people behind the characters and can associate with them a bit more, is really important. I also think these conversations should happen more during the year and not necessarily just during the month of June.

    Bowens: I think wrestling as a whole has come a very, very long way, considering when I first started there weren't many, at least to my knowledge, that I could turn on a television and watch. And Darren Young was probably the only out wrestler on television. Fast-forward to today and you have a diverse roster as AEW does, with myself, Sonny Kiss, Nyla Rose, Diamante and Mercedes.

    There are a lot of different people on the roster who people can look up to and relate to. And even from an independent wrestling perspective, I think there are shows now with all-LGBT talent. So we're moving in the right direction.

    Are we where we want to be? No, I don't think so. But I think that comes with having more LGBT athletes become successful and visible on television. But I think we're moving in the right direction, and I'm really excited to be helping lead the charge with that.

    Martinez: Oh, man. The LGBTQ community right now is being represented hugely. Obviously, there's always work to be done. Always. There's a lot that you can't just be content with what you see. But as a whole right now, it's being in the mainstream and you're seeing the diversity. Do you have work to do? Of course. And those improvements can be made not just in wrestling but also across the board.

    I think when it comes to improvement, every company in this or any industry has to be able to push the community, showcase the stories show that we are the entertainers, show that you are the athlete, and show how colorful we are, or not colorful. Everyone has their own story, but also not just push us on Pride. You know, everyone does that. They put these stories out on Pride Month. All of us are Pride 24/7, 365 days out of the year. Put the focus on us in August, September, and October.

Being a Role Model

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    Nyla Rose (Credit: AEW)

    A lot of people are not comfortable being called role models because it puts pressure on them in some way, but performers in any part of the entertainment industry are likely going to be seen as that by somebody.

    It's inevitable because they are in a position so many others would love to be in themselves. Even outside of major promotions, stars such as Effy and Kidd Bandit have become inspirations to many fans.

    The wrestlers we spoke with talked about what it means to them to be seen as role models by others in their community and whether that puts any kind of pressure on them as performers.

    Rose: For me, it doesn't so much affect all of that. I'm a wrestler. I go out there, I do my job, whatever that may be, be the villain for the evening, be the hero. There are a few mixed feelings when people start to gravitate toward the "heel," you know? But I think wrestling fans are smarter now than they used to be in the past; they can kind of separate my in-ring performance from who I am as a person. But for the most part, I just go out there and I do what I'm supposed to do.

    [Being a role model] is a little weird. Not so much in a bad way. Not in a bad way at all, but it's a little weird, you know? When I started this journey, when we all start our journey seeking our dreams realistically, they are a bit selfishly motivated.

    But as you do that, you kind of start to see what you mean to other people. And if you are not at heart a selfish A-hole, then you kind of need to tweak those things a little bit and realize that you do have an impact and realize what you may mean to other people.

    Kiss: I feel like a lot of fans who definitely look to me as their reasons for coming out, their reason for wanting to be a wrestler. And I don't want them to think that I'm just a pushover. But I definitely have a different approach in the last year, though, because I wanted them to feel empowered and I want them to know that they can do that.

    They can be strong, they can be athletic, they can be sexy, they can be fluid and so kick-ass and not live based on stereotypes of other people.

    Edwards: It's interesting because I don't really see myself as anything different than I was before I had a platform. I'm still the same person. And now I have this understanding of everything I say is going to be scrutinized. So I need to think about the fact that my story is about me. My story is not everyone else's story.

    So if I am having conversations publicly about who I am or my position in things, a lot of it has to be thought about very carefully and worded very carefully, because I want people to know that my story is only my story. We're all different. These are just different perspectives and different lived experiences. I do not represent the entire bisexual community at all, and I don't want anyone to ever think that.

    From a public perspective, that's the big thing I focus on: making sure that I'm only discussing me and that people want to know more about the bisexual experience. It's up to you to see that there are other people out there, but I'm the one who's helping to bring the conversation in, saying, "Hey, there's a lot of us out there, so listen up."

    Credit: Studio Anywhere Photography

    Bowens: It doesn't affect how I perform in the sense of I just like to go. I've always been a guy who goes out and leads by example. I played baseball before wrestling. I was never the team captain, but I was always a team leader. I came to the field. I came to the arena. I show up, and I exist as successfully as I can.

    And that role means a lot to me because there was a time when I didn't think I could do this because I was gay. And there would be times when I would just cry about it because I would be scared about my future. Performing every single week at a high level and being featured and just being fortunate enough to do the job that I love, I get to provide hope for those who are in my shoes.

    Martinez: I never thought to be a role model, to be honest. I've always just wanted to be me and just wrestle and do whatever I want to do. And it was a lot of surviving and a lot of setbacks, trials and tribulations to get to where I am now. So being in this role and being on TV and people looking up to me knowing my story and what I can show, it means a lot.

    It means that I have a voice for those who feel like they're voiceless. I had the opportunity to show that, "Hey, no matter what you are going through in life, you're going to have those struggles, you're going to have those trials. Just know there's always a light at the end of the tunnel. There is someone who's behind you who's going to help you, who can mold you and get you to where you need to be."

    And for me, it's a really, really big deal. And if I can use my platform to help just one person and many people, then that right there is my mission. It's a humbling experience, to be honest, but it doesn't really affect the way I perform. I've always been a wrestler and an athlete first before anything. The only thing that changes is how I carry myself a bit more out in public.

Personal Influences

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    Sonny Kiss (Credit: AEW)

    Nobody gets through life alone. We all have family, co-workers and friends we can lean on. However, the journey for anyone in the LGBTQ+ community can be much more difficult if the people in their life choose not to accept them for who they really are.

    However, a lot of people do have great support systems, especially after they come out to those in their life.

    We asked the wrestlers to speak about the people they looked up to and how they helped shape them into the human beings they are today.

    Rose: I don't really have a lot of outside role models as far as like celebrities. Of course, there are people I looked up to in this business, Trish Stratus being one of them. She came into this as a fitness model and knocked it out of the park and gave it her all. She has risen to legendary status and changed the way people thought about her.

    But outside of her, I honestly would say, as cliched as it sounds, my mom. Knowing where she came from and how she grew up and all the obstacles she overcame to make her life and a life for her child better than it was is a huge motivator for me.

    Kiss: Definitely my mom. She is super supportive of everything. She definitely is very open with me. We have such a great relationship. Since I was a kid, I've always been able to tell her everything and speak with her about anything. She's my role model, for sure.

    Edwards: It's interesting because I didn't really have a lot of role models as a kid because I didn't really realize that I was different in any way. I just kind of liked all bodies for what they were and didn't really say anything out loud. But I feel like I have more people I look up to now that I have a better understanding of who it is I am as a person.

    So, for instance, my co-workers are the best. Nyla and Sonny are probably the two most inspirational figures of my life because they define living your most authentic self. And if they're inspirations to me and I'm 35 years old, I can only imagine the inspiration that they are to other people.

    Bowens: I have an incredible family. I think they provided me with an incredible childhood and taught me to be a good person. It would be them and also would be my best friends. They were the first people I told and they were so supportive and helped me because there was an adjustment period coming out.

    They helped me become a lot more comfortable with myself and the scenario, so I owe a great deal of gratitude to them and also to my parents, because they're so supportive, they're so loving. And you know, I'm privileged to have a good group of people around me supporting me and loving me. So I'm extremely grateful for that.

    Martinez: Well, if we look into the wrestling aspects of role models, the biggest role model I've had was Jazz. She has been an instrumental part of why I do what I do. She's that person who changed the game for me. She was such a wrestler in the wrong period of time, but she stayed true to who she was and she knew what she wanted.

    And of course, my first and foremost was always my mom. She helped shape me to be who I am and she still supports me. With her love and anything that I've gone through and the changes I've gone through, she is the strongest person I know with the biggest heart. So she will always be my first.

Discrimination and Mental Health

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    Aubrey Edwards (Credit: AEW)

    For the LGBTQ+ community, life can be a constant struggle, especially when it comes to public figures on social media.

    The last thing we asked these wrestlers to speak about was their experience with discrimination and, more importantly, how they protect themselves and their mental health from those attacks.

    Rose: I hate to say it, but honestly, my experience with that is on a daily basis. But even in knowing how hateful people can be so consistently, I do realize they are the loudest because they're dying off. There's so much more love and appreciation out there than hatred. But that's not to say hatred doesn't exist. It absolutely does. And it can hurt.

    I'm discovering new things I never even dreamed that I wanted to do that are being presented to me all because of this life I'm living. So, for people to be hateful and try to knock me down, that's not going to faze me. I'm sorry. I like being able to make a living and have the passion to chase something I've wanted my whole life.

    Kiss: Honestly, I'm a firm believer in if you know who you are, it's hard for people to really get to you. But now I remember who I'm doing this for and I feel like once I keep that in mind, I feel I'm untouchable in that sense. I do not like to overcomplicate life and overthink about what other people's opinions are and what their feelings are of me, because it's inevitable.

    I just kind of ignore it and remember the people who do love me and think about the energy around me. So, yeah, remembering that you are who you are. And we're not for everybody. Whether you're straight or gay or trans, you're not going to be for everybody. Your personality is just not going to vibe with everyone, and we need to learn to accept that.

    Edwards: Bisexual erasure is very interesting. People look at me and assume, “Oh, you're straight. You're in a relationship with a man. That's fine, whatever." And they don't think much of it. But I'm still a person. So the biphobia sort of comes from two sides. The erasure comes from the idea of “Oh, you're not really queer. You're not really gay. You can't really participate in all these Pride activities because you're married to a man.”

    The other side of the coin is, I think because I'm a woman, a lot of people think that's cooler because society thinks it's interesting to have women who are into women. Whereas I think if it was the other way around and my husband was the one who was out, he wouldn't get a positive response because it's not as sexy or it's not as normal.

    People will see a picture of me with a rainbow background and suddenly I get a lot of comments about, “Oh, well, that's because you're a lesbian and no man wants you.” And that kind of stuff really sticks with you. You need to be in a good mindset to know that you're not working on changing some of those people's minds because some of those people's minds are set.

    I try my best to respond to the positive comments. I block the negative comments so that people aren't interacting with them. And I want my timeline to be a very positive place for people to go.

    Bowens: When I first came out and I started a YouTube channel with my boyfriend, Michael, that was probably where the bulk of the hate came from, like the comments were just absolutely brutal things that you should never, say to another human being, such as "I hope you die." And we got it so much that it almost I almost started to laugh. I became numb to it.

    And by this point, it prepared me for being a wrestler on television because you're always going to get a crazy subnet of people online who are going to hate you and say all these horrible things to you. Now, they just kind of bounce right off me because I don't like to give those people power over my life. And I like to turn all kinds of negatives into positives.

    Martinez: When it comes to this business, and I've been in this business going on 22 years this year, the discrimination didn't happen in the last five years or so. It actually happened early in my career. And it's not just from the fans. I think the fans never realized who I was or me being a lesbian, it was more or less from your peers and your promotions and the companies. It was them kind of saying, "Hey, you can't be openly out as a lesbian. You have to hide yourself because the girls won't want to change with you."

    So, my form of making sure I didn't let it affect me too much was to make sure that my private life stayed private and to keep myself at a safe distance and stay off social media. My mental health was declining on a personal level, but I didn't let anyone see it. And I didn't have social media for a long time because I didn't let cyberbullying affect me. You stay around people who love you. You have a support system. You ask for help when you need it.

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