It’s a warm Friday night and the line at the ILWU Memorial Hall in Wilmington, California, wraps around the block. The crowd is diverse — men and women, young and old, all different walks of life — and once inside the venue, the buzz is palpable.
Vendors sling cheap beer and tacos as quickly as possible, merchandise sales fly fast at makeshift stands and spectators settle into their folding chairs for a night of independent professional wrestling.
But this night is noteworthy for a reason that goes far beyond the action in the ring. Because on this night, in front of a sold-out crowd some 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, everybody is here to see a champion who just happens to be gay.
Jake Atlas won the PCW ULTRALight title in January 2019, a milestone in the meteoric rise of one of the most talented and buzzworthy performers in the sport. PCW (Pacific Coast Wrestling) is one of the most popular companies on the exploding indie wrestling scene. For Atlas, an openly gay man, the impact and importance of his title reign is something he cherishes.
“I have so much pride in a variety of aspects in being the PCW ULTRALight champion,” he says. “I worked so hard for two years to have management believe that I can be a part of their roster, that I can be someone they can rely on to deliver in front of capacity crowds.
“I was the first one in the building and the last one to leave for two years. I did everything from setting up the locker room, holding the cables for the cameramen, running entrance gear for the talent and leading a group of young wrestlers to set up the entire arena on show days.
“To have management believe in my story and background, allowing me to showcase my pride with the lifestyle I live, has been an incredible sense of relief. I am one of the leading faces of PCW Ultra, along with some of the greatest talent in the world. I am also gay. I am proud of that.”
Mike Scharnagl, owner of PCW, never gave it a second thought. “There was never any issue with having an openly LGBTQ wrestler with one of our belts,” he says. “The great thing about wrestling is that the audience is a great cross-section of Los Angeles … when they all get in the building, they are all just fans, blowing off steam from a hard week of work.”
Atlas represents the new breed of LGBTQ talent in the professional wrestling world, a community that has flourished in recent years thanks to promotions like PCW and performers like himself.
It hasn’t always been this way.
In 2013, Darren Young became the first openly gay wrestler in WWE. Young, who had contemplated how to handle his sexuality for years, spontaneously came out to a TMZ cameraman when asked about whether or not the wrestling world was ready for a gay performer.
His fear and uncertainty came from decades as a wrestling fan.
“In the ‘70’s, ‘80’s or even ‘90’s, it was not a safe space for gays,” he says.
After coming out, Young was thrown into a fire that nobody saw coming. Despite an almost exclusively warm welcome from the backstage contingent and a seemingly positive reaction from his boss, those in places of power and influence below the surface were less enthused. The flame burned out quickly.
He draws a straight line between his coming out and his eventual demise with the company. “I sacrificed my WWE career and living my childhood dream to live my life truthfully,” he said.
Young was released from WWE in 2017.
Despite its troubled history, the professional wrestling landscape is diversifying and expanding as quickly as its talent base.
The recently founded and much buzzed about All Elite Wrestling, featuring the likes of the legendary Chris Jericho, signed Sonny Kiss, an openly gay wrestler, and Nyla Rose, the first-ever transgender competitor signed to a major promotion. A Matter of Pride, a promotion that features exclusively LGBTQ wrestlers and allies, is flourishing in New York. Just years ago, the mere thought of developments like this would have been unfathomable.
Anthony Bowens, an openly gay wrestler who has most recently competed for IMPACT Wrestling and WrestlePro, says attitudes have shifted in the six years he has been wrestling professionally.
“I have seen things change and it’s for the better,” he says. “I can’t speak for everyone, but the locker rooms I’ve been a part of have been incredibly supportive and, because of that, all the original worries of acceptance that I had before coming out are not even a thought anymore.”
Mike Parrow, a gay wrestler who prides himself on busting stereotypes with his 6-foot-4 and nearly 300-pound frame, struggled to see himself using his sexuality as a source of power when he started his career. “It was part of the reason I stayed in the closet,” he says. “I thought I would lose all of my bookings.”
Now, Parrow is a torch-bearer for the sport, bringing his message of positivity to shows all around the world.
As attitudes evolve, it is important for LGBTQ talent to not only be accepted, but to be legitimized. In these independent promotions, diversity is paramount, but quality is king.
“A common misconception is that we are expected to be awarded titles, championships and recognition because we are gay,” Atlas says. “I can definitely and confidently say that that is not the general message. The message is that we don’t want our potential to be hidden and/or disregarded because of our sexuality.”
For the new crop of LGBTQ talent, it’s all about what comes next. Wrestlers like Atlas and Bowens will be quick to tell you that WWE is still the goal. To the company’s credit, they have shown signs of growth recently.
Sonya Deville, who came out as a lesbian before her WWE debut, is one of their fastest-rising female stars. At last year’s WrestleMania, Finn Balor, one of the most popular names in the entire company and a straight man, made his entrance decked out in rainbow gear surrounded by the LGBTQ community of New Orleans. Balor had his custom rainbow shirt sold on WWE.com, with a portion of proceeds benefiting GLAAD.
Atlas, who spent time training at the WWE Performance Center late last year, has big dreams for the grand stage.
“The biggest challenge we face is being able to be presented openly and without fear to the mainstream audience,” he says. “I hope to be at the forefront of this progress as I begin to build some more steam in my professional career to get more eyes and attention on our talents.”
But on this night in Wilmington, the only audience that matters is the one in front of him. Not only does the raucous crowd accept him, they embrace him. As chants of “Whose house? Jake’s house!” rain down, he uses finishing move the LGB-DDT to retain his title. It’s just another step toward a revolution.
“I want us to get to a point where becoming a gay champion isn’t a headline, it becomes the norm,” he says. “So any other LGBTQ kid that comes after us can see that nothing is holding them back from following their dreams.”
Daniel Trainor is a writer living in Los Angeles. He can be followed on Twitter.