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Trans pro wrestlers stand defiant as trans healthcare rights again come under threat

‘Our communities have been surviving, fighting and doing the work… we’re always going to be here.’

Dark Sheik
Hoodslam founder Dark Sheik
Jahlen Barnes/Out In The Ring

It’s been a little over a week since the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Though many that follow the courts closely, including several conservative voices, view the case brought by the plaintiffs in California v. Texas as “ridiculous,” there still exists a real chance that the landmark legislation could be eliminated.

“In order to bring a lawsuit, you have to have standing. In order to have standing, you have to show that like you’ve been harmed in some way,” Transgender Law Center senior staff attorney Shawn Meerkamper told Outsports. “The folks who are challenging the ACA this time around really don’t have a great argument for why they should be able to get into court. They haven’t been able to show in what ways the ACA is harming them.”

The ACA’s repeal would affect millions of Americans, most notably marginalized populations whose healthcare rights are protected to an extent under its provisions. The trans community is paramount among those groups. The ACA’s non-discrimination provision, the expansion of Medicaid and protections for those with pre-existing conditions helped better secure rights for trans people seeking general as well as gender-affirming care.

These provisions are vital to the trans community as a whole, but prove especially key to those in athletic fields like pro wrestling. Working in wrestling takes a physical toll on the body, with some wrestlers working multiple days in a row. It’s physically grueling work, like any other athletic passion, and access to healthcare without prejudice is important.

It’s unsurprising that the continual attempts to scrub the ACA leave plenty of trans pro wrestlers in varying states of unease and frustration. “It fills me with a lot of anxiety,” pro wrestler Still Life with Apricots and Pears told Outsports.

“It definitely doesn’t feel good to see people attacking stuff,” added Hoodslam founder Dark Sheik. “Anytime I hear services that can make someone’s life easier are being taken away for mostly cruelty, it obviously doesn’t feel good. Especially when it’s something that would affect me very personally and directly.”

Dark Sheik
Dark Sheik
Twitter

For pro wrestler The Great Bambina, a trainee of Dark Sheik’s, the cruelty motivating challenges to the ACA and countless other trans discriminatory policies is naked to the world. “Cruelty is the aim of repealing the ACA, denying us bathroom access, denying us adoption rights. It is not about preserving religious rights or the sanctity of society. It is about cruelty,” Bambina said on the Outsports podcast LGBT In The Ring.

“They’re never going to go away. Before I was a trans woman, I was Iranian… I’m used to this idea that there is always going to be people that hate me,” Dark Sheik said.

Still Life with Apricots and Pears further linked their anxiety over a potential ACA repeal to the disadvantages independent contractors face in an environment where health insurance is tied to employment. “A lot of the work I do inside and outside the ring is freelance. I don’t get insurance through my employer, so the ACA is vital,” they said.

Nearly all pro wrestlers, even those in major promotions like WWE and AEW, are classified as independent contractors. While that categorization is increasingly being called out in regards to the WWEs of the world, independent wrestlers embody the term. They regularly wrestle for multiple promotions without the guarantee of health coverage through the freelance nature of their employment. This falls in line with what Meerkamper identifies as a trend for LGBTQ workers.

“Trans and queer folks are more commonly in non-traditional forms of employment than the broader population… the Medicaid expansion under the ACA has been really critical for a lot of trans and queer people getting coverage for the first time,” Meerkamper said.

The protections allotted to those with pre-existing conditions have proven critical as well. According to Meerkamper, simply being trans was considered a pre-existing condition prior to the ACA’s implementation. This classification kept many trans people from accessing gender-affirming care.

Still Life with Apricots and Pears
Pro wrestler Still Life with Apricots and Pears
JayLee Photography/@JayLeeAC

While the ACA eliminates that classification, it doesn’t fully address the unique experience of every trans or gender nonconforming person. “Even though the ACA has protections for trans people, it doesn’t lend itself to every trans person’s unique journey. For me, facial feminization surgery is really important. But the ACA doesn’t cover it,” Still Life with Apricots and Pears said. It also frustratingly hasn’t pushed public discussion of what defines gender-affirming care. “Heteronormative ideas of trans people tend to focus on a person’s genitals, and those and gender are not the same thing,” they added.

It’s for these reasons why the most recent challenge and likely future challenges carry the threat that they do. Setting aside the consternation as to how a case so flawed could reach SCOTUS in the first place, the ACA’s protections haven’t been enough. More work needs to be done on top of the existing structure.

That’s the main reason why Dark Sheik felt empowered when President-Elect Joe Biden specifically mentioned trans populations in his first address after being declared the winner on Nov. 7. “It was a big deal. Hopefully that gives a direct message to whoever needs to hear that this marginalized group could use representation,” Dark Sheik said. “I just want to be represented as a human being.”

A number of civil rights groups are already pushing the incoming Biden administration to rescind restrictions on trans populations enacted during Trump’s presidency and push for further inclusion. The Human Rights Campaign submitted its Blueprint For Positive Change 2020 to Biden’s team last week, highlighted by a call to implement the Bostock v. Clayton County ruling from earlier this year that classified anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment as discrimination based on sex, thus making it illegal.

Meerkamper says the Transgender Law Center plans to push for further adaptation of the Bostock ruling beyond labor to other sectors. “It will be a big piece of the Biden administration’s work to put that into place across all of its regulatory frameworks to make sure that the federal government is implementing that decision when it comes to what sex discrimination covers, no matter the context,” Meerkamper said.

Any forthcoming work to extend the Bostock ruling doesn’t affect the current threat against the ACA, however, and any chance, no matter how small, that trans healthcare protections go away threatens harm. Bambina, Dark Sheik and Still Life with Apricots and Pears luckily live in metropolitan areas with their own healthcare protections, but that doesn’t keep them from feeling concern for other trans populations in underprivileged circumstances.

“I’m lucky to live in a progressive area with resources specific to trans and queer people, but I realize that as a privilege. The ACA’s protections are that much more valuable to those in more discriminatory locations,” Still Life with Apricots and Pears said.

“We’re not fighting for me… we’re not fighting for California,” Bambina said. “The people most at risk on a macro level are people that live in red states or more rural communities that don’t have the infrastructure of cities to provide for them… by protecting my rights, [straight people] are shoring up [their] own rights. One is not depriving you of the other.”

And, however the U.S. Supreme Court swings, the decision won’t sway these wrestlers from the artform for which they’ve grown so passionate. “So many of us have wrestled, and perhaps still do, without health insurance… the issue is not that I’m a trans person; I think I’ll be able to get help. As a pro wrestler, we’re looked at as very disposable and guilty of whatever befalls us,” Dark Sheik said. “I’m not going to stop doing what I love because of the risk of anything.”

“I don’t want to imagine not being able to wrestle,” Still Life with Apricots and Pears said after a moment of recollection.

To Meerkamper, this attitude is reflective of the spirit of survival and strength exhibited by the trans community for generations. “I love the defiance and resilience that our communities show. In tough times, it is always reassuring to hear from trans elders. They remind us that we’ve been surviving all this time, way before the law knew anything about trans people,” Meerkamper said. “Our communities have been surviving, fighting and doing the work… we’re always going to be here.”

The Great Bambina sums it up best. “I don’t really consider wrestling my career. I consider wrestling my lifestyle,” Bambina said. “Wrestling is my community. It’s how I interact with people… all my major life changes have been based on wrestling… this is something I’m doing to explore myself,” she added. “I will do wrestling until I die.”

Listen to the LGBT In The Ring podcast by clicking here, and it’s also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and on every platform where you find Outsports!