Out in the Ring (2022)
Directed by Ry Levey
Featuring Jordan Blade, Cassandro, Pollo Del Mar, Kaitlin Diemond, Billy Dixon, Effy, Susan ‘Tex’ Green, Dani Jordyn, Ashton Starr, Wade Keller, A.C. Mack, Scott McEwan, Charlie Morgan, Mike Parrow, & Dark Sheik.
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains spoilers. Beware!
Pride Month for 2SLGBTQ+ people is only one month out of a whole year of living; as a queer man, my life goes on for the other eleven months, too. Similarly, there’s not one type of queer or trans person, the community consists of many complex identities that come along with their own social realities. Ry Levey’s new documentary Out in the Ring is first and foremost about non-heteronormative people in the professional wrestling industry. It’s also a documentary that helps showcase a broad range of 2SLGBTQ+ people, using wrestling as a lens to illustrate how diverse and incredible the community is across a number of different identities.
When I was a young closeted queer watching wrestling, I wish there was a documentary like Out in the Ring. More than that, I wish, especially for the talent involved in this documentary, the pro wrestling world had been a friendly, welcoming place to 2SLGBTQ+ people from the start. Levey’s film brings a lot of hope and inspiration, though doesn’t shy away from the heartache queer and trans people have faced within the industry, as well as within themselves, on their path towards accepting their identities. Mike Parrow, Dark Sheik, A.C. Mack, Charlie Morgan, Susan ‘Tex’ Green, and others bravely discuss their personal struggles in a heteronormative business that, until very recently, has historically been hostile towards 2SLGBTQ+ wrestlers. Pat Patterson’s legacy is thankfully done justice here, too. Levey tries to put an end to the damaging, false rumours about Patterson that have endured out of lingering homophobia. Out in the Ring is most important for wrestlers and fans, young and old, who may still be wrestling with their own gender or sexual identity. The film’s ultimate message is that we, as 2SLGBTQ+ individuals and as a community together, will endure; we always have.
Levey provides a nice overview of representation in the pro wrestling industry. The beginning of the film features a clip of Pollo Del Mar at Effy’s Big Gay Brunch talking about growing up watching “heterosexual performers playing stereotypes of what they thought it meant to be queer.” Pollo sums up the experience of many young queer and trans folks who loved wrestling growing up, having to latch onto whatever we could find even if it was a negative representation: “When you are thirsty, and when you are hungry, you will eat whatever the fuck they serve.” Levey offers a historical recap of 2SLGBTQ+ representation in wrestling, intentional or otherwise. Scott ‘Sgt. Dickson’ McEwan talks about the look of the Road Warriors being unintentionally drawn from Tom of Finland and gay leather subculture. The documentary further mentions a connection between ball culture, drag, and wrestling, which has long been noted by many in the queer community; wrestling at its core is camp, honey!
Then there’s all the intentionally homophobia that’s been tangled up in wrestling over the years, from Gorgeous George—who took inspiration from Mexico’s exóticos, a much more nuanced queer subculture in wrestling than the many homophobic gimmicks in America—and Adrian Adonis, all the way up to Goldust, as well as the train wreck of Billy and Chuck. The section on Goldust is excellent because it’s a nuanced discussion about why the character was a smart play on the homophobia of audiences and the male fear of homoeroticism. This also goes back to how McEwan notes that wrestling “is sexy, and sexual” and there’s a strong cognitive dissonance in wrestling fans, particularly the men, not wanting to admit the inherent homoeroticism of pro wrestling.
Perhaps the most important parts of Out in the Ring are the spotlights on older queer wrestlers who were open about their sexual identities in an age when the wrestling business was far from friendly to anybody not heterosexual, not to mention the law. Susan ‘Tex’ Green wasn’t initially out of the closet but her experience with the infamous Fabulous Moolah left her outed, so her story is especially tough. She and another wrestler, Sandy Parker, suffered because of Moolah in different ways; Sandy’s African-Canadian identity combined with her lesbianism made things difficult with Moolah, showing how the intersectional nature of identity for many turns what’s already a struggle into a personal war. Jim Barnett being an openly gay man in what Jim Ross called “an alpha male, good old boy, caucasian business” is discussed by several people, including those like Susan who were in the business at the time and saw inspiration in somebody like Barnett. The documentary’s strong focus on the queer wrestlers of the past is significant because it shows the struggle of the past to pave way for the future. This idea is captured perfectly by wrestler Billy Dixon, who remarks on the importance of this generation recognising the struggle of those who were out of the closet and living openly in times when being queer was illegal in many places. We must never, ever forget the struggles of our queer and trans elders; they’re the reason we have the freedom we do today.
Out in the Ring never pretends that the road towards acceptance and equality in the pro wrestling industry is easy, and there is a dark side to many wrestlers’ struggles just to accept their own identity, let alone be accepted by anyone else. Chyna’s bisexuality is briefly discussed, though more importantly the heteronormative expectations on women’s beauty is brought up, something that no doubt played into the psychological struggle Chyna went through in and after the wrestling business. Her tragic death is but one in the 2SLGBTQ+ wrestling community over the years. A lesser-known wrestler today, Chris Colt, gets a spotlight in one of the documentary’s sections; he was, alongside people like Terry Funk and more, a precursor to later hardcore wrestlers. His open homosexuality in the wrestling business during the late 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s was especially brave considering the violence of wrestling fans in certain territories. His story is another tragic one.
And then there’s the story of Chris Kanyon, who eventually came out inside a wrestling ring but later took his own life, which helps bridge into a discussion with current queer wrestlers who’ve battled mental health issues as they’ve fought to claim their identities. A.C. Mack openly talks about having considered suicide before, as does Mike Parrow, whose struggle included conversion therapy and a near suicide attempt before finding love and coming out. Parrow’s remark about coming out makes clear something homophobes don’t understand when they ask about a Straight Pride Parade (or any number of other ignorant questions they love to ask): coming out is for ourselves, not the rest of the world.
The ever fabulous Dark Sheik is also featured talking about her path as a trans woman and the realities of its difficulties. But in every difficult story, from Mack’s to Parrow’s to Sheik’s, there are always rays of sunshine, as they each help to illustrate the joy of self acceptance when it finally arrives. There’s great Hoodslam footage from when Sheik officially told everybody in the audience about beginning HRT, something that never could’ve happened even a decade ago. Now Sheik, alongside the likes of Nyla Rose (and others), is helping lead the way for other trans people in pro wrestling.
Another important section of Levey’s documentary is near the end when Effy and others comment on the way 2SLGBTQ+ identities have been treated by the corporate culture of bigger companies, mainly WWE. Out in the Ring lays bare how corporate culture today uses queer people to make profit. Specifically we see a highlight of how WWE used Darren Young’s coming out moment to try and make it more about public image than trying to incorporate Young’s gay identity into his character in a positive, constructive way. Although it’s not mentioned, Sonny Kiss’s treatment in AEW has not been entirely positive as of late, despite Sonny getting a shot at Cody Rhodes’s TNT Championship and other opportunities. Kiss hasn’t been featured on AEW TV since the end of 2020. She’s been on on AEW Dark and Elevation, but not on Dynamite or Rampage. And yet AEW has trotted out a bunch of Sonny media for Pride Month, treating Kiss’s queerness as a commodity rather than giving her the time on TV she deserves.
Effy’s helped create a wonderful space for queer people in independent wrestling. He’s not the only one; Dark Sheik and Hoodslam have been a force for quite some time, among others. But Effy has helped create community while also using his privilege as a white cis queer man to forcefully challenge the narrative about not only queer wrestlers, but also about indie wrestlers. He’s carved out a niche to showcase queer and trans talents, simultaneously carving out a lucrative career on the indies to a level that wasn’t quite possible even a decade or so ago. There’s a spectacular bit of footage of Effy cutting a promo, talking about queers only being on the card “when it‘s convenient.” In an interview he elaborates further, noting that corporate culture doesn’t own wrestling, and, as others mention, queer shows help to prove that. Effy’s success helps prove that mainstream popularity is possible without WWE or AEW (etc), and that’s not just good news for the indies, it’s good news for those wrestlers in the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
The biggest reason why I love Out in the Ring is because it helps wrestle the legacy of Pat Patterson out of homophobic hands. The ring boy scandal in the WWF is mentioned, but the documentary makes clear Patterson was smeared because he was an openly gay man in a hetero-masculine industry. The documentary puts to rest the homophobic rumours about Patterson which were entirely fabricated by Superstar Billy Graham in an effort to hurt Vince McMahon and WWF; this was confirmed by Graham himself in a book he wrote. For so many years, and even today, Patterson’s legacy has been tarnished by totally false allegations—not even from a victim, but from Graham, claiming he witnessed Patterson commit sexual abuse—so it’s incredibly important to see his legacy redeemed by a presentation of the evidence (including Murray Hodgson’s history of accusations against gay men + being a known conman), as well as hearing today’s queer wrestlers talk lovingly about him. While a lot of straight folks who need a documentary like this one won’t actually watch it, at least other people in the 2SLGBTQ+ community, especially the younger ones, will have a chance to understand the truth about Patterson.
Out in the Ring doesn’t only help the legacy of Patterson, it helps the legacy and future of queer and trans people in the professional wrestling industry. People like Susan ‘Tex’ Green, Sandy Parker, and Chris Colt aren’t known to many, and their personal histories are important in the larger context of 2SLGBTQ+ history, inside and outside of wrestling. And as the documentary continually reminds us: representation is vital. McEwan talks about how when gay stereotypes were used for “cheap heat,” the promoters and wrestlers doing these things didn’t understand the repercussions of those stereotypes on real people. We’re still struggling to shed the negative stereotypes media of all forms, from wrestling to films and TV sitcoms, have created for queer and trans people.
Levey’s documentary covers a wide array of topics, just as it covers a colourful palette of identities, going so far as to put pronouns on the screen for each interviewee, showing on the most basic level how representation matters (and how effortless it is to represent people correctly). Hopefully Out in the Ring gives strength to those in the 2SLGBTQ+ community, whether they’re wrestlers or passionate fans in the audience, and here’s to hoping (fingers crossed) the heteros will learn something valuable, too.