On a Saturday night at a F1RST Wrestling show at the Uptown VFW, 20-year-old Devon Monroe is going toe-to-toe with arguably the biggest name in independent professional wrestling: Joey Ryan.
Monroe, who is openly, proudly gay, is sporting flashy rainbow hologram tights, and flying around the ring like a seasoned veteran, while the crowd is in a frenzy. After the conclusion of the match, the two shake hands out of respect while the crowd chants, “YOU DESERVE IT” towards Monroe, echoing the respect he has been paid for his performance by someone with the stature of Ryan.
Monroe is just one of many up-and-coming performers blazing a trail and changing the stigma of LGBTQ wrestlers in the evolving landscape of professional wrestling.
For generations, pro wrestling has been regarded as a straight-man’s world. In fact, being gay was often one of the easiest ways for a character to garner “heat,” or the outpouring of negativity from the crowd. As recently as the late 90s and early 2000s, wrestlers like Goldust, who was one of the most hated bad guy wrestlers due to his infatuation with fellow male performers, and the West Hollywood Blondes, who caused protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation who claimed the team was portrayed in a way that encouraged people to hate and inflict harm on people who were openly gay, were presented on weekly television in front of millions of viewers.
That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that gay wrestling fans felt like there weren’t any performers who they could identify with.
“Growing up I didn’t see anyone on TV who represented me or who I could relate to,” says Monroe. “I started out wanting to be a wrestler, but I didn’t think I could succeed because I was gay. It wasn’t until later when I saw other LGBTQ wrestlers who were being successful that I decided to really go for it.”
One of those wrestlers is Jake Atlas, a Mexican-American wrestler from California who is one of the hottest prospects in wrestling today, and just recently signed with WWE to join their performance center this coming year.
While today he is one of the most in-demand wrestlers in the country, when Atlas first decided to break into the business back in 2014, he worried that his sexuality would hinder any potential opportunities.
“When I first started training I made the decision to get into wrestling as a straight male,” Atlas says. “No matter who I met, I would refer to myself in a way that would appear I was straight.”
The reason, Atlas says, is because LGBTQ representation, even just a few short years ago, wasn’t something that had been met with open arms in the wrestling community.
“I didn’t have anyone who made me feel like it was okay,” he says. “[WWE Superstar Darren Young] is a great friend of mine. He came out while he was in WWE but nothing was really done to capitalize on that. Nothing was made from that and I thought maybe it’s because it’s not okay to be gay in this world or in this business. That’s when I made the decision that I wanted to be a wrestler first and make a conscious effort to shy away from any indication that I was gay. I would deepen my voice, speak in a masculine tone, change certain words. It was a whole orchestrated, dark, depressing direction I went in. I was desperate and felt like I had to do it.”
Finally, Atlas did come out to his fellow wrestlers and was relieved when he was met with support from the wrestling community.
“I told the other guys I would travel with, mostly because I didn’t want to end up in a situation where I had to be in a car or a locker room and be worried about accidentally saying something that would out myself,” he says. “They were all supportive and just basically said, ‘That’s cool. You’re still Jake Atlas and your sexuality doesn’t change anything.’”
“To me, representation and inclusivity is everything,” he says. “You can be gay and still be a good guy.”
Even across the big leagues, LGBTQ representation is becoming more and more prevalent in wrestling, with performers like Sonya Deville, Effy, Sonny Kiss, and Nyla Rose being featured on a national platform. What’s most refreshing is that while each is open about their sexuality, the degree to which it impacts their characters varies greatly.
“The spectrum of the LGBTQ umbrella is just everywhere,” says Atlas. “You’ve got the super masculine athletes who still identify as LGBTQ, and then there are the more feminine men who need representation as well. Not every gay wrestler is Jake Atlas. We’re all our own people with our own personalities.”
Both Atlas and Monroe will be a part of the bi-annual Minneapolis wrestling supershow, Wrestlepalooza, happening at First Avenue on January 3 and 4. Beyond that, Monroe says he sees LGBTQ representation in wrestling growing to new heights in 2020.
“We got the rumblings going in 2019, but in 2020 we’re going to blow up,” Monroe says. “I have adults and kids coming up to me at shows telling me that they’re so proud that I’m living my truth. I never thought I’d be in a position to be a role model for other people but it’s something I really embrace and take pride in.”
Adds Atlas, “We’re in a time where someone like Devon can promote himself as a gay wrestler and it’s beautiful,” he says. “And you also have the ability to be a wrestler who happens to be gay, and that’s amazing too.”