Growing up a closeted gay kid in rural Massachusetts, I always found a sanctuary sitting in front of the TV watching the WWE (of course, it was the WWF at the time). Watching Hulk Hogan and Earthquake, Dusty Rhodes and Ted DiBiase, I never felt being gay was an issue, not as a fan, not in the storylines. Those matches, and those wonderfully melodramatic storylines, were my soap operas, a regular escape from reality into a world where who I was just didn’t matter.
Years later we’d all find out that one of the men behind the scenes was gay. Pat Patterson, who this week has passed away, was a popular wrestler, mostly before my time. During my main fandom he showed up mostly as an occasional referee or commentator. He was a legend in the wrestling world, ultimately wearing just about every hat someone could wear both in front of and behind the camera.
While people in the wrestling world knew he was gay as early as the 1970s, most of us didn’t get that confirmation until he shared it in an emotional conversation with some of his fellow wrestling legends.
“For once in my life I’m going to be me now,” he said surrounded by household names like Gene Okerlund, Jim Duggan and Jimmy Hart. “I survived all of this being gay. I lived with that for 50 some years. ... I survived in this business, I did, and I’m so proud of me. It’s tough, guys, it was tough.”
The response from all of the men to his revelation was nothing but support.
“We love you, Pat,” Hart said through his tears. “We’ve always loved you.”
Truth is, they’ve always known. Behind the scenes, with the legends, with WWE impresario Vince McMahon, Patterson was open and honest about who he was. And like Hart said, they always loved him anyway. He was given power in the organization, he was given a voice at the table. He helped guide the organization to worldwide stardom.
That’s a powerful legacy for anyone, but to be out to decision-makers in the 1970s and then through the AIDS crisis as people were being fired elsewhere for being gay, speaks not just of Patterson’s strength but his wisdom and character.
It also tells us something about the people in and around professional wrestling. In a “macho” sport that caters to “middle America,” storylines making gay people the butt of jokes and beatdowns would be far too easy. In the 1980s and ‘90s, it would likely would have been successful.
Sure there was the occasional nonsense from the WWE. And no doubt, Patterson had to endure some of it, even behind the scenes. It would be naive to think the WWE was wrapped in a rainbow in 1989.
Yet more often than not, you had stars like Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage walking around in boas. Rowdy Roddy Piper wore a kilt. They wore bright shiny colors and wrestled each other in nothing but a “speedo.”
Patterson being out, sharing himself with others in the organization, and helping chart a course for the WWE’s future, had an impact on all of this.
“We love you, Pat. We’ve always loved you.” That says a lot. Love and respect cut through lines of gender, race and sexual orientation. Patterson earned people’s love and respect, and that in turn helped guide professional wrestling away from blatant gay-bashing and more toward inclusion.
There’s so much conversation about people in sports coming out publicly and the power that has. And it does, it has so much power, such an ability to inspire others to be their true selves.
For this gay kid looking for an occasional escape from reality in middle school and high school, pro wrestling’s avoidance of gay slurs and blatant homophobia, all while wearing pink fringe, quietly welcomed me into the ring.
For whatever role Patterson’s relationships with those men had on that, I’m grateful. You did good, Pat.