“I want to break barriers. I want to make history. I want to pave the way for a lot of people who believe in me and are supporting me. For me, that championship will symbolize to them that whatever they’re aiming for, whatever they’re trying to be, they can do it … I’ve been fighting adversity. I’ve been breaking stereotypes.”
Those were the words Jake Atlas used to introduce himself ahead of his first match in WWE’s Interim NXT Cruiserweight championship tournament on April 22, signaling that his path to WWE glory is one to be shared with those he represents. But the question of who he represents remains for those who didn’t know Atlas prior to WWE.
Those familiar with the young grappler for years know the people he wants to pave the way for belong to the LGBTQ community. Yet, he didn’t use those familiar letters on WWE programming. He won that night’s match with his highlight-worthy finisher, the LGB-DDT, yet it was only referred to as a “Cartwheel DDT” by announcer Tom Phillips.
WWE’s vague allusions to Atlas’ identity, offering the least sturdy olive branch to a community that is only now starting to gain proper representation and treatment with pro wrestling as a whole, didn’t cause shock. It’s par for the course for the company that squashed out wrestler Sonya Deville’s pitch for a same-sex relationship storyline while utilizing LGBTQ identities as a joke on national television in 2019.
Sure, the company deserves some praise for running with Deville’s idea for a Pride photoshoot on its website last year and presenting legendary wrestler Pat Patterson’s coming out on the WWE Network’s short-lived reality series Legends House. But neither of those platforms are WWE’s key focus nor where they draw their largest audiences. Those designations remain with its TV deals on USA and Fox.
So, since we at Outsports are joining the rest of SB Nation in exploring “What If” scenarios in sports this week, the obvious choice for an out bisexual writer who never saw himself properly represented in an industry he loves is to wonder what things would be like if one of the companies he grew up on actually acknowledged his community on its largest stage.
The truth is that, honestly, not a ton would change. WWE storylines would still be hit and miss. Wrestlers would be divisive. A portion of the fan base would inevitably revolt against the company’s latest anointed torchbearer. There would be plenty left to critique.
What would change is that the LGBTQ community might find something legitimate to sink their teeth into when watching WWE programming. We could celebrate triumphant moments for the heroes of marginalized communities similarly to the collective catharsis that was Kofi Kingston’s WWE title win at WrestleMania 35.
More importantly, LGBTQ wrestling fans would have their humanity acknowledged. Sexual orientation doesn’t solely define any of us, but the discrimination LGBTQ people have faced historically because of who they are makes it a key rallying point. That is why we cling to the crumbs the company gives us in actual reality so intensely. Deville’s rainbow flagging and Total Divas appearances along with Atlas’ empowering words don’t have to be where validation stops.
The company is quick to humanize their wrestlers in many ways. Becky Lynch’s heartwarming pregnancy announcement (Congratulations!) on Monday’s edition of Raw showed as much. They’ve even done as much with their LGBTQ talent with Shayna Baszler’s episode of WWE Chronicle. That mini-doc shed light on the Queen of Spades’ interests in heavy metal, Warhammer 40K and card magic; all interests that flesh out the person that Baszler is outside the ring. But even that intimate look makes no mention of Baszler’s LGBTQ identity.
Omissions like that shouldn’t be the routine, especially when the company has more out LGBTQ roster members than ever. Being able to hear the stories of Baszler, Atlas, Deville, Piper Niven, Mercedes Martinez and any other LGBTQ people WWE houses only helps endear them to the wider WWE audience. They prove that LGBTQ people are just as capable of being badass in-ring competitors and engrossing public figures.
If fears that openly acknowledging LGBTQ identities would touch on social taboos keeps WWE from reaching this alternate timeline, then it needs to look both internally and externally to see why that belief still persists within. WWE’s prior portrayals of LGBTQ-coded characters fed into those beliefs, playing this sense of the other up for laughs and/or ridicule from an audience that didn’t understand LGBTQ identities.
The company let another opportunity fall through its fingers when Fred Rosser aka Darren Young publicly came out in 2013. The wave of support Rosser received inspired hope which was further bolstered by Stephanie McMahon’s announcement that WWE would explore implementing LGBTQ stories into WWE programming. Those stories never came and Rosser was out of the company a few years later..
WWE’s fear of putting off the greater wrestling audience continually feels like one it perpetuates by its own practices. The best evidence for that lies in the wrestling world beyond its borders. Independent pro wrestling has embraced LGBTQ wrestlers, promoters, stories, and culture in such a way that is hard to ignore. And fans, LGBTQ and otherwise, have responded with far more support and celebration than negativity.
LGBTQ pro wrestling’s rise within independent circles and even the tacit acknowledgement put forth by major companies like All Elite Wrestling and Impact Wrestling showcase what could be in WWE. It’s there for the taking and it doesn’t take too much to grasp the rainbow ring.
We aren’t flamboyant, exotic or unorthodox. We’re gay. We’re bi. We’re pan. We’re lesbian. We’re non-binary. We’re trans. We’re genderfluid, queer, ace, demi, intersex and sapio. We’re LGBTQIA+ and we’ll keep waiting and watching for you to, if I may borrow a phrase, say our name.