The (Past, Present, and) Future of Professional Wrestling Is Transgender

There is an occasion for this post, obviously, which is that earlier this week, Gabbi Tuft, who competed in WWE under the name Tyler Reks, came out as transgender on social media. Though she left WWE in 2012 and has largely moved on from the world of professional wrestling, this is still a big deal for reasons small and profound, and you can tell based on the number of venues that rushed out of the gate hoping to be the first to proclaim her the first transgender WWE Superstar.

More Professional Wrestling

If I’m being honest, I have no idea how to approach this story. There is the temptation to recontextualize Tuft’s wrestling career in the light of her transition, the temptation to editorialize on what this does and does not mean for professional wrestling, to battle back against outlets who’ve taken this as an opportunity to bash trans people or trans wrestling or both. But to do so would be to betray the fact that gender transition, regardless of how publicly shared, is an intensely personal matter. It is beautiful. It is profound. And above all else it is intimate beyond the ability of any kind of media to capture.

I’m thinking now about when Fred Rosser—then known as Darren Young—came out as gay in 2013. WWE has changed since then, its partnerships with entities like GLADD aren’t quite as pointedly cynical as they were when the company tricked it into sending an engagement gift to Billy and Chuck on the occasion of their staged “commitment ceremony,” but it is not fair to Rosser nor his profession to treat his coming out as a monolith, to measure every improvement or regression in his field against a singular moment in his life.

And I don’t want that to happen with Gabbi Tuft, either. So while there isn’t really a precedent for her story, I’m choosing to treat this moment like it’s a stone thrown into a lake. The ripples emanating from it touch the past, however nebulous that is. They intersect with the present, which sees a growing number of trans people enjoying success in her profession. And they point to an acceleration towards wrestling’s inevitable future, one where trans people aren’t a question, but a fact.

The Growing Presence of Trans Pro Wrestlers

I used to own an issue of Wrestling Fury, one of the more lurid monthly wrestling magazines of the 1980s, with ADORABLE ADRIAN: MALE OR FEMALE? as one of its cover lines. The article, as best as I can remember it, didn’t really explore the question it posed, satisfied with the notion of “Adorable” Adrian Adonis: Effeminate Homosexual as a threat to the far more masculine Hulk Hogan, but it’s been stuck in my mind for a few years for a couple of reasons. The first of these reasons is my curiosity over 1980s straight culture’s conflation of femme gay men, drag queens in particular, with transgender women. The second reason is that, in posing the question, Wrestling Fury tacitly admitted that a transsexual would pose a threat to Hulk Hogan, a world I desperately want to exist in.

There isn’t a long history of transgender people in wrestling’s past. We’re there, as fans if nothing else, but the idea of a trans professional wrestler, however many there are now or have been in the past, was impossible enough until recently that I’m being kind of generous in glimpsing the potential for us as a concept within this world in the likes of Adonis and Adrian Street, who were, after all, just men who minced. Here’s the thing: I like being the threat more than I like being an embarrassment. I like menacing Hulk Hogan more than I like being used as an epithet for Chyna due to her strong jaw, or a trap laid by Chyna to embarrass Mark Henry.

AEW

Until Nyla Rose and Sonny Kiss were signed by AEW, that’s largely where trans people stood in mainstream American wrestling. I don’t know where the explosion in trans pro wrestlers came from, what concoction of internet community building, boundary and binary breaking wrestlers here and abroad, and changing attitudes at the foundations of wrestling made their success, the expanding number of trans wrestlers on the indies, and stories like Gabbi Tuft’s possible. It’s real though. It’s tangible. It’s a broken barrier, one that allows us to imagine a future where are accomplishments in this medium are special because they are inherently special, not because our identities were previously a limitation on how far we could go.

Towards a Trans Future

After Fred Rosser came out in 2013, a question that was not infrequently posed to influential people in WWE—a question that’s a lot harder to find now, given Tuft’s coming out—was whether or not the company would be open to signing a trans woman. I’ll acknowledge the specificity of the question in a moment, but the answer to it was usually something grounded in meritocracy, a boilerplate “we wouldn’t do it just because they’re trans,” answering the question without really answering the question. The WWE Performance Center opened in 2013, and while not every participant tryout since then has been made public, I can’t find any record of a trans person receiving an invite, despite several trans wrestlers, professional and collegiate, being high profile enough to warrant one.

First, the specificity of the question: Generally speaking, when it comes to entertainment, trans women are the focus of inquiry and speculation. There are reasons for that, none of them speaking very well of the cis people who ask, but I think there are two things at play here. What’s implied by asking specifically about trans women is how they plan to handle what they see as an inherent conflict between trans and cis women—it’s bathroom panic, plain and simple. Trans men are invisible in this conversation in part because the cultural assumption made of trans men is that they can’t compete athletically with cis men. Non-binary people are made invisible because non-binary gender identities are not treated with the same validity as binary ones. Again, that’s generally speaking.

Regardless, I don’t think that WWE had the language for a genuine answer. Nobody had to ask AEW because they signed trans people on day one, crowned one as champion without making a fuss, and did so without complaint. Nyla Rose is a woman who wrestles other women, end of story. But WWE has a history, and a lot of it is checkered when it comes to issues of civil rights. Storyline considerations aside, WWE has only just fully integrated competitive women’s wrestling into its vision of their brand. In 2013 a real yes or no answer would have shined too bright a light on what the company was looking for in its “Divas.” In 2017, a real yes or no answer would have taken the focus off of the barriers that were slowly coming down during the “Women’s Evolution” era. In 2020, given Santino Marella’s entry into the Women’s Royal Rumble as “Santina,” it wouldn’t have been worth asking.

In 2021, it turns out that they’ve had a trans wrestler on their roster. That she was employed before she began her transition is irrelevant, and not just because coverage of Gabbi Tuft this past week has focused on her past in WWE—she claims it. And in scrolling through the comments and likes on her Instagram posts, what becomes clear is that many of the people in her past in professional wrestling, plenty of whom are still active at the highest levels of the industry in various roles, support her for becoming the woman she is.

That changes the language around this conversation entirely, as one of the unasked questions beneath the surface of “would you hire a trans woman?”—that being “would your roster be comfortable with a trans woman on it?”—is, at least where the public can see it, “yes.” That’s a seismic shift in an industry that’s been embarrassingly slow in taking steps towards even corporatized equality for the marginalized groups within it.

Which isn’t to say that this is a singular moment for trans people in professional wrestling. Transgender people have been having a collective moment for years now, and Gabbi Tuft’s coming out is part of a growing body of evidence that says, emphatically, that trans people have a place in this industry and a claim to its future. There is no promotion beyond us, no scene that can deny us. What comes next is impossible to predict, but it wasn’t too long ago that envisioning the first “trans first” in wrestling was difficult at best. Now, it seems, the future holds our last. I can’t wait to get there.

Tags

Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.