Darren Young came out earlier today as WWE’s first openly gay superstar. That is, he’s the first to reveal himself while still under contract with the company. Several previous wrestlers have announced themselves as gay – the late Chris Kanyon and Orlando Jordan immediately come to mind – but most had distanced themselves from WWE when they finally disclosed their sexual orientation.
WWE immediately announced its support for Darren Young. Both Triple H and Stephanie McMahon took to Twitter and praised Young’s courage, and the company sent out a press release using the word “proud” and saying that it would “continue to support him as a WWE Superstar.” Company frontman John Cena even did an interview with TMZ offering his own congratulations.
Unfortunately, Young has to deal with a public that’s not quite ready for his openness. The public-opinion tide is certainly turning in favor of gay-rights equality, but we haven’t reached that point where all of society is ready to accept it with open arms. And just because the general public thinks one way, it doesn’t mean the pro wrestling world follows that same path.
Allow me to step in here and praise Young for his courage to come out, and more importantly, his ability to do so in such a casual fashion. Sexual orientation is only a big deal because we make it a big deal. By basically saying, “yeah, I’m gay, so what?,” he’s taken the voice away from his critics and put the focus back on his wrestling career instead of who he sleeps with. This wasn’t a bandwagon platform for WWE to link up with. It wasn’t a way for Young to steal the spotlight away from his peers. Instead, it was just a thing, no bigger than what he chose to eat for breakfast. Something like, “Yeah, I think pro wrestlers can be vegetarians, what of it?”
But he still has to deal with the WWE Universe. He still has to deal with very vocal critics who pay money to attend shows, with their kids, and just might disagree with the lifestyle he’s portraying. He has to put up with a business that oftentimes finds itself behind the curve on social issues.
Let’s look back at Orlando Jordan’s brief run with TNA. When he failed to get over with the audience on his own merits, the company repackaged him as an open bisexual, and eventually used it to give him heat with the audience. Now, Orlando Jordan was a proponent of the storyline (and was rumored to have offered it to WWE before being released), so I can’t judge the intention of this angle. What I will say is that it came across incredibly poorly on TV. Seeing Orlando Jordan derided by Mike Tenay on a weekly basis for acting so weird left a sour taste in my mouth. He couldn’t just BE gay, or bisexual, or whatever. He had to be creepy.
You think the WWE is different? Daniel Bryan, during his World Heavyweight Championship heel-run, advertised the fact that he was a vegan, just to elicit more boos from the WWE Universe. It became part of his character. He got heat not for being egocentric, but simply because he was different.
Look, professional wrestling has historically been an old boys club. It’s okay to objectify women when those in charge don’t really care. Jerry Lawler makes lewd comments about Eva Mendes every week, Bully Ray uses gay slurs to get heat, and those things are accepted as the norm. At the most, they’re brushed off as mistakes in judgement. It goes beyond the locker room, though. Check out the dirt-sheet message boards, and YouTube comments. Juvenile commenters constantly use the “gay” epithet to express their dislike of something. It’s bred into a culture of people who speak from a keyboard using a voice with zero accountability.
And that’s what Young is stepping into. He’s become a social rights torch-bearer for a business that’s still trying to find stability in a post-attitude society. If the 90s were about pushing the envelope and saying whatever you wanted, the 2010’s are about learning acceptance of all types of people. TV-PG isn’t just about censoring curse words, or not showing blood. The rating signifies WWE’s attempt at reaching a broader audience. It’s the company becoming mainstream, and accepting all the responsibilities that go along with that.
So WWE needs to do the obvious. Things like refraining from calling Divas sluts for sleeping around, while promoting Ziggler as the cool guy for picking up multiple chicks. Things like ceasing use of “bitch,” a gender-fueled term, to create animosity between wrestlers. Things like dropping the schoolyard bully antics as a storyline crutch.
Most importantly, WWE needs to treat Darren Young no different as a result of this announcement. The company should never leverage this for more publicity. It needs to let Darren Young, like everybody else on the roster, live or die by what they bring to the product. Because to promote him as anything other than what he is – a professional wrestler – would ultimately cripple everything he now stands for.