Wrestlers are used to keeping open secrets. There’s a whole word for it – kayfabe – which means preserving the illusion that the conflict and violence portrayed between the ropes is ‘real’, or at least unscripted. Maybe that’s why homosexuality and queerness has found a home – both in and out of the ring – in wrestling for almost the art form’s entire history.
Ryan Bruce Levay’s documentary Out in the Ring is mostly a historical piece, running though the roots of queerness in pro wrestling from the 1940’s to today. If there was a pivotal historical character or event in the industry that impacted homosexual portrayals and, spoiler, acceptance and celebration in wrestling, you should expect to see it covered here. From the earliest queer characters like Gorgeous George in the 1950’s and Adrian Street and Pat Patterson in the 1970’s, the latter balancing of his private life with his longtime partner Louie that was never acknowledged publicly until late in his career, Out In the Ring covers a huge amount of ground. Touching on the gender-bending Exoticos in lucha libre, to modern stars like Parrow, Out in the Ring somehow manages to hit every possible queer-related topic in wrestling in it’s 100-minute runtime.
While there are certainly triumphs for queer representation, sadly, as in a lot of media and certainly sports, portrayals of queerness in wrestling have mostly fallen to tokenism at best and out-and-out hatefulness at worst. There are also stories of abuse, like the WWE (then WWF’s) ‘ring boy’ scandal, in which several young men – children in some cases – accused the promotion’s ring announcer, Mel Phillips, of abuse while they were working for the company and setting up rings. There are portrayals that are downright insulting, like infamous WWE angles like a faux-gay team of Billy and Chuck (portrayed by straight men), whose televised wedding angle is such a low point for gay representation that GLADD got involved. There are tragedies like that of beloved star Chris Kanyon, who was ostracised from the industry when he came out as gay, and which ultimately led to him taking his own life.
And sometimes queerness in wrestling is something in between. Goldust, an androgynous character portrayed by Dustin Rhodes, was one of WWF’s most popular and enduring characters, despite often being placed into insulting and downright disturbing storylines. Today, Dustin wrestles under his own name and is an important wrestler and trainer in All Elite Wrestling (AEW), but shades of his former character still remain, showing that even problematic portrayals can be turned around.
Speaking of AEW, Out in the Ring highlights queer talents like Sonny Kiss and Nyla Rose, who have found success in that company. That and the many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans performers in the independent wrestling scene gives the documentary a hopeful feeling, highlighting stars like Effy that have forged their own path with queer-forward events like the annual independent wrestling show, Effy’s Big Gay Brunch.
Out in the Ring is one of the best and most well-researched wrestling documentaries I’ve seen, and I say that as someone that’s seen nearly every doc produced on the industry. I’m particularly impressed that while it’s easy (though necessary) to cover the many negative and harmful effects of wrestling culture on queer performers, it doesn’t dwell on them. Instead, it portrays queer representation as a journey that all of us as wrestling fans are on together, and that, to borrow a term, it does get better. Out in the Ring never minimizes the struggles of the performers of the past, or the work that queer wrestlers like Sonny Kiss, Nyla Rose, Effy and so many others are currently doing, but it does acknowledge that there’s still more to be done. For that alone, it’s become one of my favourite documentaries on the industry.
Out in the Ring is part of the Fantasia Film Festival lineup. You can get more details here.