Months after Stephanie McMahon told reporters “when it makes sense … absolutely we will integrate LGBT storylines into our programming,” portrayals of openly LGBTQ wrestlers are still noticeably absent from the WWE. Though McMahon suggests wrestling has “always” accepted LGBTQ performers, the industry and most forms of media have often used sexuality and gender identity as shorthand for unsavory characters. If audiences had nasty opinions about the LGBTQ community, those opinions were only bolstered, overtly or implicitly, by the storylines that have played out in the ring for the last several decades. Questionable portrayals of gender and sexuality seem to have always “made sense” for the business. So when will it finally make sense for WWE to acknowledge this history, and actively work towards moving on?
WWE’s few forays into sexually ambiguous or androgynous characters have made wrestling’s negative perception of the LGBTQ community more starkly obvious. As a heel in the late ‘90s, Goldust taunted and distracted his opponents by flirting with them in the middle of matches, and his androgynous style of dress was often played up to disgust babyfaces and the crowd—particularly in matches like his backlot brawl with Roddy Piper at WrestleMania XII, when Piper stripped Goldust down to a corset to humiliate him, to the audience’s delight.
Not much changed through the years: sexualized behavior or excessive platonic affection from male heel characters was inherently bad, until it was made explicitly clear through on-screen girlfriends that they were definitely 100% straight. WWE went so far as to elicit the help of GLAAD with a same-sex wedding story, either oblivious to or disinterested in how disingenuous it was to ask an LGBTQ advocacy organization to help you secure media coverage for a storyline featuring two creepy, villainous gay characters fighting with heroic straight men as the audience sometimes chanted “homo” with great enthusiasm in the background.
The Billy and Chuck storyline wasn’t subtle about associating the characters’ sexuality with their villainy either: after Eric Bischoff exposed the ruse and ruined the wedding, the pair became faces again, and Billy Gunn and Chuck Palumbo were happily heterosexual for the rest of their runs.
The iconic feud between Trish Stratus and Mickie James featured incredible in-ring work and was bolstered by an emotionally fraught storyline, but James’s eventual heel turn from enthusiastic fan to dangerous stalker hinged on the perception of her character as a predatory lesbian. Mickie was portrayed as an obsessive, scorned woman whose overtures were highlighted not as thoughtful components of subtle storytelling, but as titillation for male fans who finally got to see sexually-charged gimmicks like evening gown brawls in pools and bra and panties matches follow through to their natural conclusion every time Mickie came on to Trish on screen.
Since then, WWE has shied away from portrayals of LGBTQ characters, though the thread of sexism and homophobia runs strong in the product even as recently as the early 2010s—pick a random episode of Raw or Smackdown and you may still find yourself faced with transphobic jokes about Vickie Guerrero from a very babyface John Cena. This history is often written off as being “of the times,” and certainly the problematic elements of the product have dropped off to a degree as WWE becomes more aware of the sensibilities of its expanding audience.
But the underlying bad attitudes towards the LGBTQ community have made it almost impossible for WWE to move forward with characters or storylines in any meaningful way, as willing as Stephanie may be for the company to think about positive storylines, someday. The undercurrent of queerness as villainy remains a subtle underpinning of one of WWE’s most prominent storylines of late, the tragic “Festival of Friendship” that saw Kevin Owens turn on his former best friend Chris Jericho once and for all.
Yes, it was literally a festival of friendship. The odds Chris Jericho was about to literally profess his love to Kevin Owens were incredibly slim. But for months, Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho built a storyline whose heart-breaking climax centered on the audience buying 100% into their bond and the goofy charm of their constant hugging. Having Chris Jericho shower Owens in gifts and get rejected the day before Valentine’s day is an interesting choice.
In any other generation of wrestling, this would be grounds for a hearty audience laugh at Jericho’s bizarre investment in their relationship, and a face turn as Owens rightfully turned him down. Instead, Jericho suffers the ultimate Valentine’s nightmare for any hopeless romantic when Owens reciprocates with gifts of his own: a powerbomb into the apron, and a face full of broken glass from an HD TV. The moment the audience realizes what’s happening, you can hear their hearts break.
Intentionally or by coincidence, the WWE writers and JeriKO hit romantic comedy beats in a way that for once doesn’t make either character out to be a harmful parody or the tragic victim of someone else’s misplaced same-gender attraction. The festival is a joke, but doesn’t punch down. What would have been played for laughs is a legitimately tragic event. Chris Jericho isn’t quite a face, but by rejecting Jericho so violently, Kevin Owens cemented himself as a vicious, heartless heel.
But if WWE has come around to a place where being gay is value neutral instead of evil by default, it’s only because even the suggestion of “less than 100% heterosexual” is also inherently invisible. Casual affection like hugging or hand-holding outside of a championship victory is still mostly heel behavior, seemingly because the writers understand developing that emotional connection with heels like JeriKO or Peyton Royce and Billie Kay is a way to put over the sting of an inevitable betrayal while enabling the victim the opportunity to remain a heel in the long run.
The storytelling used to get Owens and Jericho over as a tag team is precisely the kind of writing that can be used to get LGBTQ characters over. A trans- or nonbinary wrestler doesn’t have to be morally corrupt by default, and a character who expresses romantic feelings for someone of the same gender doesn’t immediately have to be vilified as a creep. As a community, we’re capable of being heroes or villains for much the same reasons as everyone else—and while WWE seems to have come around to that idea, they still don’t seem to think it “makes sense” to introduce those storylines Stephanie suggested they’d think about last August.
But the bar that’s been set for WWE is very low. The charm and heartbreak of the Festival of Friendship, ironically enough, has shown that some of its writers and performers certainly have the chops to handle that kind of emotional work with thoughtfulness. WWE has a perfect venue to test out what storylines work and don’t in NXT before playing them out on the main roster, and if its wrestlers’ twitter feeds are any indication, it certainly has very LGBTQ positive performers who would either be willing to participate or make every effort to get the stories over. All the pieces are there, and if Ring of Honor can make Dalton Castle and the Boys top babyfaces, it’s time for WWE to give things another shot.
As our surprise ally John Cena would say, the time is now. (Trumpet noise.)
C.K. Stewart is a freelance writer with a lot of opinions about comics, wrestling and wrestling comics. He can also be found at Newsarama or livetweeting terrible pay-per-views on Twitter @ckayfabe.