TRANSforming Professional Wrestling
Like most performing arts, there have always been queer people in professional wrestling. Visibly queer people, that’s a different story.
Professional wrestling — to generations of Americans — calls back memories of greats like Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, Andre “The Giant“ and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Only one of those people is still alive (Hogan), and that might make you think — who still watches wrestling?
The better question is, who doesn’t watch wrestling?
In the present, millions of fans across the globe enjoy the staged combat, and pageantry that have long been hallmarks of the wrestling (or ‘sports entertainment’) industry. From arena shows to merchandise, pay-per-view buys, international appearances and ad sales on national television, there is more money and interest in professional wrestling, globally, today than ever before.
For example, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) launched their on-demand video streaming service back in 2014, priced reasonably at $9.99 a month, you got all of WWE’s pay-per-view content (sometimes as many as 24 extra live shows a year), multiple exclusive series, and the WWE Network’s back catalog. The archives alone put much of televised wrestling history, WWE and otherwise, at fans fingertips. If you know a wrestling fan, there is a good chance they have the WWE Network. Millions subscribed, and in 2021 the company sold its streaming rights to NBC for a billion (with with b) dollars! That is a level of success that the earliest pioneers of the sport could never have predicted.
The earliest wrestlers were carnies. In America, what we would come to know as professional wrestling came to prominence shortly after the Civil War. Early examples of wrestling exhibitions found strongmen battling it out in so-called “catch wrestling” — a legitimate grappling style — on the carnival circuit. Over time, as money began to change hands between them, wrestlers started pulling their punches, and promoters started fixing outcomes to increase interest, and ticket-sales. Professional wrestling was born.
In the 1920s the American populace began to catch on to the staged nature of the fights and wrestling fell out of favor for a time. The wrestling industry would, of course, recover and independent wrestling “territories” began to pop-up all over the US in cities big and small. These fiercely-protected territories would be controlled by a wrestling promoter or booker, they would book the wrestlers, who were always independent contractors, to perform for a set amount of time ranging from a single night to — in some cases — years in that specific region.
In the 1980s, Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) changed the wrestling business model by first buying up those independent wrestling company’s television slots in those smaller wrestling territories — and even-more damaging — poaching their top talents with big money offers to work in the WWF. McMahon’s plan worked, launching the WWF into the stratosphere, while the territory system effectively died.
Vince McMahon would go on to create the first major wrestling pay-per-view event with Wrestlemania in the 80s, an annual event that still rivals the Superbowl in scope, and atmosphere. Monday Night Raw began in 1993 and is still a ratings generator almost 30 years later. Even after a name change to World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002, after the World Wildlife Fund won the rights to “WWF,” there’s been no long-lasting slow in the company’s growth.
In fact, with the exception of a roughly 83 week period in the 1990s, where Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) managed to beat WWE in the ratings, Vince McMahon and his team have been the top-performing wrestling company on the planet by a long-shot since its inception.
The remnants of the territory system have morphed into what is known as independent professional wrestling. That “indy” scene has, over the last several years, seen a resurgence in popularity worldwide. Think of the independents as the minor leagues, the step between training and, with any luck, a career with a major player like WWE. As a result, you’ll find more variety — in performers and presentation — on the independent scene. Some independent shows are better than others, but in a place like Northern California you are likely to see multiple future superstars in action. Especially members of the LGBTQIA community.
Today it is easier than ever to be openly-queer in professional wrestling, but this wasn’t always the case. It’s important to know a few gay trailblazers who have helped transform the business of professional wrestling.
Pat Patterson for example. In the late 60s and early 70s, Patterson made a name for himself performing at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. Openly gay to his friends and colleagues, Patterson would go on to be the WWF’s first Intercontinental Champion. After leaving the ring, Patterson worked behind the scenes at WWE until his death in December 2020. Patterson was out of the closet behind the scenes, but not on stage.
In 2013, then-WWE Superstar Fred Rosser, who performed as “Darren Young,” came out in a spur-of-the-moment airport interview with TMZ. Cornered by a cameraman who asked him if a gay performer would be well-received in professional wrestling. Rosser replied, “Absolutely, look at me. I’m a WWE Superstar and to be honest with you, I’ll tell you right now, I am gay and I am happy.”
Shortly after that clip went viral TMZ caught up with John Cena, the WWE’s “top guy” for the past two decades and relayed the news of Rosser’s coming out. Cena replied, “Oh wonderful! Good for him!” The reporter asks, “Does that change anything?” Cena, without hesitation said, “Not at all!”
Coming out that day made Fred Rosser the first openly-gay active roster member of the WWE in it’s history. It was a larger moment than it was intended to be, one that gave queer wrestling fans (like me) some hope that change was imminent. Fred Rosser left the WWE in 2017 and further worked his sexuality into his presentation on the independent circuit. Up until this point queer representation in professional wrestling had primarily been, in both execution and intent, a farce. Rosser coming out opened a lot of eyes.
At the beginning of 2019, professional wrestling became more visibly diverse when Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan founded All Elite Wrestling (AEW). Sonny Kiss (non-binary) and Nyla Rose (transgender) were a part of early roster announcements alongside legends like Chris Jericho and fan-favorites like Cody Rhodes and The Young Bucks. A little over a year into the company’s existence Nyla Rose became the first transgender wrestler to win a title in a major American promotion when she won the AEW Women’s Championship.
True — queer people are more visible than ever in today’s professional wrestling product. But, the ‘sport’ of professional wrestling has long-been dominated by depictions of, often toxic masculinity. Leaving many people who don’t fit a certain (often CIS white heterosexual) mold, less-likely to appear.
During this two-part series, you’ll meet three queer wrestling performers who are making their way on Northern California’s independent scene and beyond. Outspoken Berkeley-based pansexual wrestling performer A.J. Kirsch, transgender West Sacramento native Salem Noel Ellison, who was raised in a wrestling household, and J. Rae who came out and moved to California to chase her dream of being a professional wrestler — and her larger dream of being herself.
I came out as gay in my teens, around the time I fell in love with professional wrestling. I joke that my sexual awakening was triggered by an up-close look at WCW’s Alex Wright (pictured) in my formative years. Shortly after — I saw a young Rey Mysterio Jr with his mask off and fell in love.
I grew up in Orlando, FL during an era when professional wrestling was at the height of its popularity, and WCW was filming regularly in town. Ted Turner and Vince McMahon (old rich white guys) were fighting it out trying to deliver the best professional wrestling product to the masses, and the result was some unforgettable television.
After mandating that her decidedly gay son needed a sport, a hobby, or both — Mom enrolled me in a backyard wrestling school where guys named “Junior” and “Rouge” taught me the ropes, literally and figuratively, of professional wrestling. I was a scrawny, scrappy 16 year old — not very intimidating in the traditional sense — but I was good at “taking bumps.” Meaning, the wrestlers could knock me around and I’d make it look good and not get hurt. Something my mother hated, but I lived for at the time.
A few months after I got into wrestling, an older person I regularly worked with at wrestling shows, also an employee at my high school, used his position to work his way into my home, gain my trust and ultimately try to get me to sleep with him. I dropped out of high school shortly after, and detached from the wrestling industry completely, only returning (to wrestling — not high school) in my 30s.
Upon returning, I was afraid I’d find more of the scum that pushed me out to begin with. Instead, I found quality people who weren’t out to manipulate me, but to encourage me and help me grow in the ring, and outside of it. Here in Northern California’s independent wrestling scene I have experienced plenty of discrimination, innocent and malicious, I’ve also experienced a level of camaraderie that I haven’t found anywhere else.
A few summers ago, I found myself driving down an industrial road in the Sacramento suburbs. The address seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I arrived at the nondescript gym around sundown and found a parking spot down the block, noting as I pulled-in that the wrestlers were getting dressed out on the street with almost no privacy. That’s how you know you’re at an independent show. This is not the WWE.
It’s worth noting that a ticket to an independent wrestling show will only run you $10 or $20 and during non-COVID times there are 2 or 3 decent shows each weekend within a 2 hour drive of Sacramento, in the Bay area there are even more options.
I paid my entry-fee, and took my seat. That night in Sacramento, I was one of maybe 100 people scattered among the exercise equipment in this small-ish and ferociously hot gym. On the opposite wall, no less than 12 feet in front of me stood the wrestling ring where the ring announcer was hyping up the crowd between matches. He had them eating out of his hands. It takes a lot for an announcer to impress me, due to twenty years on the radio, but A.J. Kirsch grabbed my attention immediately. I snuck up to ringside during a match later in the evening and said hello.
Kirsch, is an actor, wrestler, wedding officiant and fitness enthusiast living in Berkeley. “I didn’t think I’d be wrestling again anytime soon,” he says — after all the pandemic shut down the independent scene — “but I did just have an appearance on AEW Dark early in January. Hopefully the first of many.” Kirsch has also appeared on WWE television, and in 2016 Dwayne “The Rock’’ Johnson declared him the “Rock The Promo” champion.
“We know it’s “fake,” Kirsch says with emphasis on the absurdity of anyone believing otherwise. The wrestling business stopped pretending to be real 30+ years ago, “it’s performance art,” he says, “just like theater or a movie or a television show. It’s the drama of combat. It’s the theatrics of characters. It’s the music and pyro and lighting and betrayal and conflict and trust and love and everything.”
Kirsch fell in love with professional wrestling when he was channel-surfing on a Monday night in 1996. He recalls this specific moment because, “something about it just completely captivated me. I was aware of pro wrestling prior to 1996, but it had never really grabbed me the way it did that night. I still have a hard time putting into words exactly what it was that did for me.”
Kirsch came out of the closet twice, most recently in 2019, “I did this whole long thing about being pansexual.” Back in 2014, Kirsch came out as bisexual in an argument with an online troll, “I almost did it out of spite, it was very short and it was very blunt. I’m pretty sure my response was something like “I like girls AND guys! Which means you, and anyone else who doesn’t approve, can suck it.”
Kirsch appears regularly as “Broseph Joe Brody” for Oakland-based wrestling promotion Hoodslam and says he is fortunate that he came out in the environment he did, “they (are) very open, accepting, welcoming and forward-thinking,” Kirsch continues, “Hoodslam has been at the forefront of LGBTQ, acceptance in pro wrestling. I literally can’t remember any other promotion in Northern California making it that okay to be yourself.”
Hoodslam is a trendsetter in this arena, with several members of the BIPOC and LGBTQIA communities regularly represented and celebrated. Hoodslam is not, however, the only place to find LGBTQIA performers in Northern California. Promotions throughout the region feature many of the same performers — go to enough shows, and you’ll start seeing familiar and friendly faces.
In February, former WWE Superstar Gabbi Tuft revealed her transition on Instagram saying, “I am no longer afraid and I am no longer fearful. I can now say with confidence, that I love myself for WHO I am.” Tuft performed in the WWE as “Tyler Reks” for four years ending in 2012, “she made a name for herself in an industry that has a cringe-worthy reputation of belittling and parodying anything that’s not CIS hetero white men,” says Kirsch.
Tuft is now retired but has left the door open for future wrestling related appearances. Kirsch says that above all he thinks Tuft’s coming out is really brave, “if you look at how pro wrestling has treated anything other than CIS hetero white men, it’s not pretty and it’s not welcoming or accepting or nice.”
The press release from Gabbi Tuft’s team reads (in part):
“From Gabe to “Gabbi”. With a flair for flying kicks, quick takedown tricks and flowing dreadlocks, Gabe Tuft was once the WWE Superstar “Tyler Reks”, a tough pro wrestler who made opponents quiver…”
“Gabbi Tuft should fire her publicist,” J. Rae tells me as she sips her coffee.
We’re sitting on the bleachers next to a lonely baseball diamond in Berkeley on a cool afternoon. Rae’s gaze is at the horizon where some children are playing. Rae, who is 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, is in red. A turtle-neck with a coordinated beret that calls attention to striking green eyes peeking out over her mask.
The look on my face no-doubt said, “What do you mean?” She continued, “that press release that came out was horrible. Just the framing of her body and her experiences. Not every trans woman starts out as, like, an effeminate man who is sensitive. Some trans women start out living the role that they were molded (into),” a point Rae punctuated with, “I know plenty of trans men that were more-or-less raised to be princesses.”
Rae grew up in Michigan.
“My father wanted me to be a baseball player, and I wanted to be a lady wrestler,” she laughs, “the fortunes have aligned such that I was able to meet in the middle of our two dreams.”
Rae has known she is transgender her whole life, “And it wasn’t until I was in college that I just like had this realization that like, I can’t keep carrying this.” Rae came out and began to transition, “I left my family behind. I don’t speak to my father anymore. I am running as far as I can from the person that I was built to be.”
For Rae, coming out was not an act of re-birth, or ecstasy, or beauty, or vulnerability, “for a lot of us, it is in a way a kind of harm reduction,” she says — adding, “I didn’t transition to be happy. I transitioned to stop being afraid of myself, and to stop being afraid of other people.”
Rae loves the 1992 sports comedy A League Of Their Own. The star-studded film, directed by the late Penny Marshall, chronicles the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in the 1940s. Soon after arriving in California that film would inspire Rae’s wrestling character, “Bambina used to live in the forties,“ Rae says, “…she baked pies, she played baseball. There was a girl that she liked, but she stumbled upon a cursed baseball glove and some malevolent force transported her to this time and she’s struggling a lot.” It’s worth noting that Bambina wrestles in a Rockford Peaches uniform.
“I think wrestling is like the opera of our generation. I think that it combines theatrical acting, writing, acrobatics, gymnastics, athleticism, costumes, make-up, architecture, film, music…” Rae adds, “all the arts come together for this thing, which is I think beautiful.”
“I’ve been wrestling since I was about nine years old,” that’s when Salem Noel Ellison of West Sacramento says she became hooked on the idea of being a professional wrestler.
Ellison, who’s father and professional wrestler “Big Ugly” J.D. Bishop founded Sacramento-based Supreme Pro Wrestling, remembers being raised with a deep love and respect for the business, “your Dad is this larger than life character that you can go and cheer for, it was cool!”
Ellison is transgender (she/her), now in her 20s, wrestles as a character called “La Bruja” who is also trans. That process, for her character as in real life, happened in steps. First, she came out to her friends, family, and what wrestlers collectively call “the locker room,” meaning the people who work with you in the industry. The next step was starting to working her trans identity into her character, that big step happened one warm night in July 2019.
100 or so fans were in attendance at Soccer World in Elk Grove for that months Supreme Pro Wrestling show. Ellison stood backstage behind the curtain, waiting to walk to the ring. Dressed differently that night than the SPW crowd was used to seeing her, with intentional queer flashes throughout. Fuzzy boots. A skirt. Some makeup. On the inside, Ellison wondered what the reaction would be when she stepped into the arena.
“You’re up next!” someone yelled from her right.
She could feel her heartbeat in her ears as she stood focused on what she had to do. The microphone in the venue sprang to life, “The following contest is set for one-fall!” Her music began to play. Anticipation was in the air, it was go time.
Ellison took a deep breath, and stepped through the curtain.
To be continued…
In the next issue — A.J Kirsch on the importance of queer representation in professional wrestling, Salem’s first match in her new gender identity, and J. Rae shares a heartbreaking moment with her father that ripples through her life decades later.
Note: A version of this story originally appeared in Outword Magazine in two parts.
In today’s professional wrestling industry there are gender non-binary, trans, gay and lesbian performers in every role behind the scenes, and in the ring. The same is true locally on Northern California’s independent wrestling scene.
Why aren’t more LGBTQIA people involved in forward-facing roles in professional wrestling? Why is queer representation so important, and how can decision-makers and fans positively impact the conversation, and the future?
“RING THE BELL!”
It’s July 2019. 8 months before the pandemic.
Salem Noel Ellison’s eyes adjust to the light as she steps through the curtain at the packed Supreme Pro Wrestling show in Elk Grove. She is ready for a fight, but hoping for acceptance.
Memories of growing up among the giants backstage adds even-greater emotional weight to this already heavy moment. Ellison was practically raised in this crowd. showing her true-self to these fans for the first time is a major step in a years-long journey of self-love and acceptance. Her backstage family has already accepted her, but she knows that the crowd’s reaction on this night will have an impact on everything she did from here on out.
In a flash the audience cheered in support! Ellison recalls, “There were so many people there who were so happy to see me finally blossom and get to explore myself and be who I really was.” After high-fiving the front row on her way to the ring, grinning from ear-to-ear, Salem’s opponent’s music began to play. For Ellison, the hard part was over. Now all she had to do was wrestle.
Her opponent slid into the ring, and after conferring with both competitors, the referee yelled, “ring the bell!”
A smirk creeps across Ellison’s face as she sizes up her smaller opponent. She’s got this.
“I was raised by a military family, so I was always told all my life how great this country was.” J. Rae says, recalling a time when she was young, and her father, “played “One” by Metallica.”
“Now that the war is through with me
I’m waking up, I cannot see
That there’s not much left of me
Nothing is real but pain now
Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, wake me…”
“One” … is based on Johnny Got His Gun,” says Rae. In the film a boy goes to war and loses his limbs, his eyes, his mouth and his ears. “And it’s about his struggles to communicate with a world that like he’s lost all sensory ability to interact with. It’s a song and a movie about the horrors of war.”
Darkness imprisoning me
All that I see
I cannot live
I cannot die
Trapped in myself
Body my holding cell
As the song ends, Rae’s father says, “that’s what I want for you.” She continues, “You know? Like, he wasn’t saying it, but he wanted me to either succeed as a man or die trying.”
Right now queer wrestling, despite the labor of those who have made it possible, still remains a gimmick in most places. A special, but by-no-means frequent attraction that helps to pacify a vocal LGBTQIA fanbase. “Queer representation is crucial,” says A.J. Kirsch, “everybody needs to have some type of representation in media and entertainment.”
Ellison calls it “The Disney Effect,” saying, “I see an article that says Disney is releasing its first queer character, get ready for it. And then I watched the film and it’s a character who may have been queer possibly?” The same goes for wrestling she says, “It does feel sometimes like they are pandering…rather than essentially doing the bare minimum (to) invest in queer performers. Like they should.”
Kirsch thinks that moving past that token-ism could open up professional wrestling to a whole-new audience, “if you’re playing to the same audience with the same characters in the same look and the same delivery, then the art itself is not going to expand. And I understand the danger in switching things up, if you have something that works and has proven to be profitable time and time again, you risk losing.” “But,” continues Kirsch, “I think that’s when the art is ultimately going to decide when it’s time to breathe in a breath of fresh air, and send it out…” to a new audience who might see something new and say, “this reaches me in a way that (it) really hasn’t before.”
“At the end of the day it’s not about the representation” says J. Rae, self-determination is the goal. Are queer people choosing to represent themself as queer, or is a cisgender person making that determination?”
“…we’re able to make more of those decisions on the indies right now.”
EUPHORIA THROUGH ACCEPTANCE
Salem Noel Ellison’s opponent wiggles away from her and out onto the floor. This gives Ellison valuable time to collect herself. She wipes the sweat from her brow, and scans the faces in the crowd. She knows a few of them.
The referee representing Supreme Pro Wrestling on this night is me. Clad in the classic black slacks and shoes, and a black and white striped shirt. Salem was doing a fantastic job under pressure, and had her opponent in a rough spot. Which is why he is hiding outside the ring at the moment.
BOOM! The ring shook beneath my feet.
I look down, and Salem has her opponent — who an instant before had burst into the ring and run straight into her finishing maneuver — pinned to the mat. I slid across the ring, something not all referees can do but I have always done with ease, and counted, smacking my right hand on the mat yelling, “1, 2…” and just then, someone grabbed my foot and pulled…hard.
I dropped 4 feet from the ring to the hard floor…lights out. Outside interference from a smarmy manager, par for the course. While I was being helped to the back, Salem’s opponent cheated to gain the upper hand and another referee slid-in to make the count, costing Ellison the victory.
Of course. That was the plan all along…this is a show remember?
I watched the end of the match on a TV monitor backstage. As the bell rang, the crowd booed at Salem’s loss. I am openly gay, and watching Salem bask in that moment, I couldn’t help but smile. Outcome be-damned, the crowd was behind her. The real her.
In a very important way — she had won!
Ellison came through the curtain elated, “it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt…I’ve continued to have little moments like that throughout my career, bits of euphoria.”
At a wrestling show, the lines are often blurred between reality and fantasy. Smart fans, or “smart marks” understand (to a degree) how wrestling works, and play along during the show. Cheering the good guys, or Babyfaces — and booing the bad guys, or Heels. Once, during a Bambina match in Barstow, CA one fan took that grey area too far.
“I had this guy who spent my whole match calling me a faggot from the crowd, like trying to get my attention,” Rae says after the show she approached the fan, “I was going to say something,” the fan turned around, and before she could speak shouted, “you did great! Will you sign my shirt?”
WHERE’S THE DIVERSITY?
A majority of the people you will meet backstage at a wrestling show are cisgender, white men. “I genuinely just feel like the wrestling world is so diverse,” says Ellison, “but then I go to shows that don’t feel diverse.”
Ellison says, “In Northern Cali specifically, it depends on where you go, because there are some companies who have a Pride show in June and then don’t book queer people for the rest of the year.”
“And there are some places that book queer people all the time, because whether you’re queer or not, they’re booking people who they feel are talented enough to be on the show. And that’s the thing, right?”
Wrestling, like America, has a diversity problem.
On every level, the wrestling industry is largely controlled by cisgender, white men. Making the appearance of performers like Nyla Rose, Sonny Kiss, Fred Rosser, Bambina, and La Bruja all the more important. Representation truly does save lives.
The wrestling business is reckoning with its issues, and through real, self-determined representation from actual queer performers, professional wrestling has a chance to welcome a new generation of LGBTQIA fans. And through that effort, better-serve the queer fans and performers who have been here all along.
Christopher Beale is a multimedia journalist living in San Francisco. He hosts the podcast Unpacked and the queer radio show “On Bay Time” Monday afternoons on BFF.fm.