In many ways professional wrestling in an outlier in sports. There are those who will question whether it even classifies as a sport, but the athleticism it takes for those who step inside the ring to cope with the physical demands of a wrestling match cannot be denied.
It is also not uncommon to see LGBTQIA+ athletes at the very top of the sport. In WWE, the highest profile company in the world, Doudrop (a Scottish wrestler formerly known as Viper and Piper Niven), Tegan Nox, Toni Storm and Sonya Deville have all publicly commented on their sexuality, while just last month referee Shawn Bennett came out as gay.
WWE’s biggest competition comes from All Elite Wrestling, who similarly represent the LGBTQIA+ community. One half of tag team The Acclaimed, Anthony Bowens, is openly gay, Sonny Kiss is genderfluid and uses both male and female pronouns, while the company’s second ever women’s champion, Nyla Rose, is trans. The company has also promoted pride branded t-shirts – with proceeds going to LGBTQIA+ causes in the US – on national television.
That trend continues in independent promotions, where there is a multitude of LGBTQIA+ talent to the point wrestler Effy promoted a show with Game Changer Wrestling called Big Gay Brunch, which served as a showcase for some of the best LGBTQIA+ wrestlers outside of the major companies.
While all of those have been focused on America, the UK scene is also making waves. Yesterday morning, tickets went on sale for Pride Pro Wrestling’s debut show. Originally launching last year, the first show had been scheduled for earlier in 2021 before the pandemic forced its postponement, and a new date has been set for Saturday, July 2 2022.
“It’s obviously been delayed and we’ve been waiting so long, so it’s great for it to finally happen,” roster member and Pride Pro Wrestling ambassador Reese Ryan said.
“It has been such an amazing response as well, because to be honest when the promotion was announced, we didn’t have a venue because we didn’t know how popular it would be.
“When we saw the response, that’s when we judged it and got this decent venue in the middle of London. We didn’t know, we thought it might just end up being this thing on the side, we didn’t think that many people would be that interested, but obviously they are, so it’s good.
“It’s not just exciting that this is happening, it’s also a very good company. It has been put together really well, they have very strict procedures and picked talents scrupulously. They really gave a damn about everything, and it’s something I would never have predicted.
“At some wrestling shows it’s like the inmates are running the asylum, but the gentleman running this has such a good approach to wrestling and such a good eye for it. He approached me and said he was doing this, and he thought I would be perfect as a brand ambassador. I was happy to help in any way I can.
“It has been a long time coming. I’m surprised it took so long, but it also needed the right time for it to happen. Even if this happened five years ago, I don’t think it would have got the reaction that it has now because people are ready for it, which shows how much things have changed even in that time.
“There are enough people who want it now that they could silence any naysayers. We’ve had naysayers, we have, we’ve had people say ‘how could you possibly go and not book this straight guy’, but it’s not about that. It’s about having one night where everyone can come together. That’s one of the selling points – every single person on the staff, on the merch stand, on the actual booking team, the wrestlers, everybody, is part of that community, which is so unique.
“I think it’s imperative that it happens now, and not just that it happens but that it continues and that more well-oiled companies will follow in Pride Pro’s footsteps and set up so that we have more representation.”
Pride Pro Wrestling are aiming for everyone involved with the show to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, from the wrestlers to commentators and photographers.
If social media reaction is anything to go by, much of the crowd, too, will identify the same way, and Ryan believes that gives the company a responsibility to represent them well.
Like any other form of entertainment, there have been portrayals of queer wrestlers in the past, but usually as something to be made fun of – or playing the bad guy (heels) instead of a good guy (faces).
“People are putting their faith in Pride Pro to represent them, and it needs to be done the right way,” Ryan insisted.
“I wouldn’t have jumped on board as quickly, I would have been more sceptical, if it wasn’t people I know that are running it just because I would be worried about it being handled badly, which could really affect a lot of people. A lot of people are personally invested in this promotion and its mission statement, so not doing that justice would be a crime in and of itself.
“Because we’re a storyline-led thing, we affect people’s psyche a lot more than other sports. We’re telling stories, and we have protagonists and antagonists, and a lot of the time in the past LGBT+ people have been the antagonist and not the protagonist.
“What we’re doing is claiming that narrative back and switching it to how it should be. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be faces and heels on this show – I can tell you I will be a full-blown heel – but at no point is my character ever going to be a heel through saying anything insensitive.
“I’m just going to be a heel because I’m a dick on my own! My point is that we’re taking the general LGBT+ idea and everything that it encompasses, putting it at the forefront of the show and saying these are the people you want to come and see, which hasn’t happened.
“I use (former WWE character) Goldust as an example. Growing up, I loved Goldust, but looking back I can see how detrimental that character was for the impression that people have of LGBT+ performers.
“Dustin (Runnels) isn’t gay, he’s straight, and he was portraying an androgynous gay character – or it was very much hinted that he was gay – and it was very heel. He would have homophobic slurs thrown at him, and it was promoted for that to be the case. That shows how much it has changed, because Goldust was around when I was growing up, so it really wasn’t that long ago, but that wouldn’t be something that would fly now thank god.”
Ryan has seen that change first hand since he started training to be a wrestler at 14 years old. In the early years in general it was tough going because his school had an old-school mentality, but he has also seen current AEW performer Kip Sabian stop in the middle of a main event match for British Wrestling Revolution and insist a member of the crowd was ejected for shouting a homophobic slur.
Perhaps as a result of his introduction to the world of pro wrestling, then, he has quite strong opinions on how LGBTQIA+ characters should be presented in shows at any level.
“I was worried that the owner would use the p-word or something and tell me to get out, because it was still very old-school then,” he recalled.
“It was quite rough. We used to do two-hour warm-ups where we used to go out into a field and chuck tyres, do tug-of-wars, carry each other from one side of the swamp to the other. It wasn’t like it is now, so I was worried that I would be extradited by that group. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and they were cool with it, but sometimes I did feel a little bit demeaned.
“For example, there was a time where there were only three women on the roster and they weren’t at a level where they could comfortably put a match on in front of a crowd. They needed one more person, so they decided to put me in a mask and put me out there in drag. I know for a fact that they chose to that because I was the gay one. I’m not mad about that, it was just very much the thought of the time, and that’s why I say Pride Pro wouldn’t have worked five years ago.
“When I go out and do my entrance now, I’m not parading around holding the pride flag. I’m just doing me, I’m wearing my beautiful gold coat and I’m being flamboyant but not what people would consider feminine.
“Despite that, I like it to be known that I am a LGBT+ performer, and by extension my character is LGBT+. I would like my character to be in more LGBT+ storylines, I just want it to be referenced just like anything else.
“Then people see that through the character’s eyes and can relate to it. It doesn’t even need to be a story that particularly encapsulates LGBT+, but just knowing that an LGBT+ performer is going through those troubles just like you are in every day life makes it more normal.
“I feel like at the minute we are still in a world where a lot of promoters will think they need a token gay wrestler. It will always be the same characters where being LGBT+ is at the forefront of their act.
“That’s fine, I actually think it’s positive as long as they’re not making a mockery of themselves. It doesn’t happen any more but I don’t agree with these LGBT+ spots in matches where you shoot someone into the ropes, bend over and they will freak out. I really hate that stuff, because I feel like it really makes a mockery of us and pushes us back a bit. Why are we hyper-sexualising ourselves? That’s my own opinion, I think it’s a little outdated. It’s the kind of thing you would have seen Goldust doing when he was a heel, and that was 25 years ago.
“There needs to be more representation in positive lights, and maybe a bit more subtlety. Wrestling can do subtle, it can just be a promo, it doesn’t need to be the full encapsulation of the story. I want to see more representation, but more normalised I suppose.”
It has been a tough year and-a-half for British wrestling both because of the pandemic and for one key other reason.
Last summer, the Speaking Out movement brought unprecedented attention to the levels of sexual abuse that had been going on in the industry, bringing many careers to an end as perpetrators were named and blacklisted.
As a result, a project like Pride Pro Wrestling starting up is something that will reignite the passion and love that some people have for wrestling in the UK because it is actively trying to create a safe space for all to enjoy the product.
Tentative plans have Pride Pro as being an annual event, but fan demands could lead to shows running more often. That is something Ryan would love to see, and he is already looking forward to what will undoubtedly be a celebratory atmosphere in London next July.
“It’s going to be such an amazing vibe, knowing that everybody has gone through what you have gone through in some degree,” Ryan reasoned.
“Personally, I get quite nervous in the backstage area before wrestling still to this day. I have this thing where I get a bit anxious, I don’t know why, maybe it’s a psychological thing where I don’t feel worthy of it, but I’m very excited to be in that locker room because I don’t think I’ll feel like that there.
“I have those struggles, but I feel so comfortable whenever I go out on to the stage – that takes everything away. The audience watching me doesn’t have a clue that I was a nervous wreck because when I step out, that’s the way it always should have been.
“It’s just lovely, because I’m not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. My character would say differently, but I’m really not. I love what I do, and it’s always going to be a part of my life. Seeing that it’s a part of other people’s lives is amazing.
“Being told that you’ve helped other people come out, come to terms with their own situations and feel comfortable in themselves, it’s something that I never set out to do. That’s why I want to make it clear that Reese Ryan is a LGBT+ wrestler and that the character itself is LGBT+.
“When I first started the character, it was quite bizarre. Originally, he was straight. Obviously as a performer I am gay, so it took me a while to get round to being comfortable enough to have Reese Ryan as gay as well. The funny thing is it doesn’t change how he acts at all, it’s just that in my head and for the audience, they know that they’re watching Reese and he’s gay, and that’s okay. It was important for me for that to happen. It’s very humbling that it affects people, but I think of it as a massive responsibility.
“Every way that I portray myself on social media, I’m always thinking about who is watching. We all need to do that more, particularly these LGBT+ companies that are starting up and LGBT+ performers, we are representing people and we need to take hold of that responsibility. I don’t want this to be soured by any one individual screwing it up, because it’s very important.
“The passion in the independent wrestling scene, from everybody, not just LGBT+ people, has been amazing to see since we came back from lockdown. It has been phenomenal to see, because everybody is pushing in the same direction. Everybody has that fire lit, and it’s beautiful to see my friends succeeding.
“Wrestling means something different to everybody. There are some people who want this to be their full time income, there are people who always want this to be part of their life even though their income comes from somewhere else, and all the performers are super talented.
“I keep using the word respect because it is so important in wrestling. We are literally putting our lives in each other’s hands. Often you shake hands and meet for the first time 20 hands before you go out to the ring, so you’ve got to be on the same page. We need good training and good respect levels, and the feeling that we are all brewing, pushing and defending each other, and fighting for something that we believe in – which I think is beautiful.”