These days, with Supreme Court precedent hopefully decided for good, it’s easy to take gay marriage equality for granted. But in the same way that trans people’s rights to access bathrooms, youth sports, or medical care has become a target of reactionary conservative politicians, commentators, and legal projects, gay marriage was once a similar flashpoint in the United States’ early 21st century politics, even prompting considerations of a federal constitutional amendment backed by the president.
WWE Creative loves a political flashpoint. Rarely addressing issues directly, they seem to prefer oblique references that give audiences the visual cues to know what something is without ever saying what’s actually happening. A perfect case study in this was the night Billy Gunn broke my heart, revealing a gay wedding for the farce it was from the start. The entire ordeal is more than just a failure on WWE’s part; it has a lot to teach us about the way storytelling shows us what’s possible, for better or for worse.
The Ass Man
I consider it indisputable that Gunn is one of the best to ever step in the ring. I admire his tag partner from this debacle, Chuck Palumbo, as well, but I was an Attitude Era kid, and Gunn’s role as a pillar of D-Generation X made him part of the reason I was temporarily banned from watching WWE for my liberal use of the “Suck it!” taunt.
He was never as big as Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock, but there was something about Gunn that transfixed me, from the opening peal of his intro music declaring him an “ass man” to his middle-school goth choker necklaces to his lime-green or hot-pink trunks covered in lipstick marks. Mr. Ass, as he was called, was both technically masterful and openly erotic, mooning opponents and playing sexy to the crowd like a himbo Shawn Michaels, a potent gimmick for a pre-teen fan grappling with questions about their sexuality.
Gunn became a big name in WWE thanks to the New Age Outlaws, his duo with “White Dreads”—sorry, I meant “Road Dogg”—Jesse James. They solidified as major heels in the late ‘90s before becoming a part of the DX faction, one of the biggest forces of the Attitude Era. As DX waxed and waned, the Outlaws stayed one of the promotion’s hottest tag duos, a fan-favorite phenomenon by the turn of the century, having mixed it up with The Undertaker and Stone Cold and getting over on the likes of The Rock and Mick Foley. And if you didn’t know that, your ass better call somebody.
What made their success was the authenticity behind the veneer of the characters—Road Dogg’s redneck motor mouth could talk circles around almost anybody and Gunn was either flexing, dancing, or kicking ass, usually with a big smile on his face. A kernel of truth at the root of their in-ring characters is what makes a lot of wrestlers famous, and Gunn was no exception.
You Look So Good to Me
But there wasn’t as much truth behind his next tag team. In 2018, Gunn told interviewer Chris Van Vliet that he viewed the Billy and Chuck gay angle as “a challenge” for him as a performer. Originally intended to basically be metrosexuals, romance was projected onto them and Gunn said Vince McMahon escalated the gimmick to the ceremony, which turned into a national media story in 2002, as states were legislating marriage equality. Palumbo has also confirmed that the angle was a ratings push, telling the same interviewer as much earlier this year.
Combined with their stylist Rico and their sensual R&B entrance music, the duo was framed as heels not unlike the Outlaws, winning matches with Rico’s interference or losing despite his best efforts. But they weren’t exactly fan favorites the way the Outlaws had been because, instead of being renegades, they were queers who could get people over when they got smeared.
All this led up to a “commitment ceremony”—a sort of legal substitute for gay marriage in places where it’s still illegal. In the fall of 2002, Billy and Chuck were joined in the ring by Rico and Stephanie McMahon, the boss’s daughter who was then serving as general manager of Smackdown. The above official WWE edit on YouTube captures the night’s drama, as the ceremony’s officiant was revealed to be Raw general manager Eric Bischoff in elaborate makeup, turning the event into another plot point in the seemingly eternal feud between WWE’s two weekly televised shows.
The Commitment Ceremony
That WWE edit conveniently omits the ceremony’s other big drama, but more video of the ceremony is out there (at least until WWE issues a take-down order). In extended cuts, Chuck says Billy captured his heart, evoking some cheers but mostly boos from the crowd. Billy then tells Chuck he’s being “corny” before asking him to be his tag permanent team partner—the ceremony’s official raison d’etre—and putting a ring on Chuck’s finger to more boos from the crowd. A heartfelt retrospective on their “love story” gets even more boos before Bischoff (still in disguise) makes the customary request for objections, eliciting — you guessed it—some of the night’s loudest booing, apparently meant to be a vocalization of the crowd’s objection.
At this point, an objection also emerges from the locker room as The Godfather, a pimp character followed to the ring by his customary “Ho Train” of beautiful young women, makes an entrance to loud cheers. The Godfather tells the crowd he wants to stop the ceremony, calling on Gunn and Palumbo to remember their skirt-chasing days. The appearance of this problematic avatar of toxic heteronormativty undoes the pretense that this is a tag team commitment ceremony and confirms that it is, in fact, gay as hell.
Billy and Chuck, previously on board with the whole gimmick, suddenly seem apprehensive now that the obvious has been stated within kayfabe. As the disguised Bischoff asks a traditional-sounding line of questions about taking each other in sickness and in health, the crowd makes Nancy Reagan proud chanting “Just say no!” Billy looks to an assertive Rico before begrudgingly saying yes. Chuck also says yes—again, at Rico’s prodding. After Chuck’s yes, Rico celebrates and Bischoff launches into the “power vested in me” part of the routine before Chuck interjects.
“What are you thinking?” Chuck demands of Rico. “This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. This wasn’t supposed to go this far.” Billy questions Rico, too, shouting, “This was all just supposed to be a publicity stunt!”
“We’re not gay,” Billy says, earning a huge pop as some of the crowd can be seen standing to cheer. He clarifies that they “have nothing against gay people,” but, for at least one young fan watching in a parent’s basement, it was the most heart-shattering work I’d ever seen. Billy refuses to be pronounced anything, and Rico starts to freak out before Bischoff interjects and makes his big reveal. He pulls off his mask, his goon squad rushes in to mess everybody up, and the segment ends with John Cena, Rey Mysterio, and Edge rushing out to Stephanie’s defense. The WWE version available in a 2014 YouTube video leaves out the entire part of the segment where Billy and Chuck reveal they’re not gay, a telling omission in a clip posted less than a year before Obergefell v. Hodges would be decided at the Supreme Court.
There was outrage at the time from GLAAD, who said they had consulted on the storyline and bought the couple a gravy boat as a present. After the ceremony, GLAAD released a statement bizarrely asserting that Billy and Chuck were in denial about their sexuality, an apparent attempt to revive the kayfabe of their romance. But it was over. The gay gimmick was dropped, and I drifted away from pro wrestling, disillusioned by my own heartbreak.
It’s hard to figure out who to be mad at, even nearly 20 years later. Gunn and Palumbo were performers assigned a part, and they played it convincingly enough to fool me. WWE management was chasing ratings, putting their business interests first like any business does, playing the game. The fans who booed it, well, it hurts to think that they hated them for being queer, but they ultimately had a point: Who really wants to watch two straight dudes pretend to be gay for TV ratings?
What matters about this entire angle now is what it tells us about how WWE’s creative operation functions and what it might mean for LGBTQ performers or stories. In an era where a trans woman has been the champion at their primary televised competition without her identity being a ham-handed gimmick, I still live in fear of what Vince McMahon’s promotion might do with a gender variant character and if it will be as horrific as “Santina” Marella’s appearance in the 2020 Women’s Royal Rumble, a revival of a lazy man-in-a-dress gag that, ironically enough, used the same entrance music as Billy and Chuck. And while WWE’s unofficial LGBTQ spokesperson Sonya Deville has pledged she’s fighting for a good LGBTQ storylines, we haven’t seen anything hit the ring yet.
It’s no secret that WWE creative has struggled not just with respectful representation, but with simply letting wrestlers succeed on their own terms. And, even taking considerations for the pandemic, we’re now in an era when fans can go to live shows that specifically cater to LGBTQ audiences, like A Matter of Pride, and watch drag queens execute moonsaults that could make Charlotte Flair jealous. So why even ask WWE to do an LGBTQ storyline when the potential for backfiring is so high?
It’s pointless to me, but I fear it would also be foolish to think that something like Billy and Chuck could never happen again, that transphobic talking points about “men in women’s sports” aren’t fodder for some terrible new angle, or that we’ll never see queerness getting booed again by the WWE Universe. Wrestling, like a lot of fiction, can be a very reactionary force. Just as Billy and Chuck’s wedding was a reaction to its time, we’d be wise to expect more reactionary storylines that will play to the emotional impulses that have come to dominate so much of our politics.
I won’t sit here and pretend we can change that. But I can hope that, the next time someone like Billy Gunn breaks my heart, I’ll at least be able to kick out on the two-count instead of tapping out.