With WrestleMania 39 set to kick off on April 1, and Polygon contributor Abraham Josephine Riesman’s new book Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America set to enter the ring on March 28, we’re spending the week grappling with pro wrestling — and everything it’s shaped.
My bullies all loved pro wrestling.
It was the spring of 1999, we were 13-year-old kids at a public school in the Chicago suburbs, and, every day at recess, they would harass me. Though I long ago wiped my memory clean of any specific insults, the overall theme could be summed up as, “Look at this faggot.”
I was a defective boy: I sang in the hallways, wore flared jeans, had platonic friendships with girls, and always leapt at the chance to play a woman in a class skit.
They were real boys: burly, cackling, anti-intellectual, and always ready to identify a homo.
I loved midcentury musical theater and weird British comic books.
They loved the World Wrestling Federation.
While they tormented me each day, the faces and slogans of their favorite wrestlers leered at me from their T-shirts: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker. There’s a special little humiliation in being gay-bashed by someone wearing a jersey that — in the words of WWF squad D-Generation X — invites you to “SUCK IT.”
I didn’t exactly have a political objection to the WWF at that age. It was simply what the boys who hated me liked, and that was enough to repel me.
Then, something strange happened: my sole male friend, Jonathan, caught an episode of the WWF’s weekly flagship show, Raw Is War, while channel-surfing. He was blown away by what he saw and immediately demanded that I watch it with him. I trusted Jonathan — he wasn’t a bully. So I gave it a shot.
I fell in love.
I must have already known that “professional” wrestling was fixed, more of a scripted art form than a legitimate sporting competition. I absolutely didn’t care. I was entranced by how these humans, these men, defied everyone who stepped into their path. They were my demographic’s visions of ideal masculinity, and, suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to have their confidence.
I began watching WWF programs religiously, first with Jonathan, then with a small group of boys, most of whom I had never been close to prior to this. One kid’s parents had a huge finished basement, and we’d gather there for the sacred viewing of pay-per-view events.
At one such event, I was surprised to find one of my bullies in attendance. By this time, school officials and our parents had stepped in to serve a kind of junior-high no-contact order, so I was prepared for the encounter to be awkward. But instead, we just did what we’d come to do: We watched and talked about wrestling. We were finally on the same side. We were the same thing: just fans. Just boys.
As the weeks and months wore on, this group became a tightly knit cohort — the first group of male friends I’d ever had. We watched the rampant homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, and assorted other provocations, and we loved them. We learned that this was what it meant to be a man — to be safe, to be superior, to be powerful. The bullies had taught me that I had to be a man to be worth anything. Wrestling taught me that being a man was worth everything.
My fandom waned after a few rabid years. But, in early 2020, I began work on Ringmaster, a biography of WWF owner Vince McMahon. To report it, I plunged back into McMahon’s product, the visions of masculinity I’d consumed with such desperation as a kid — including McMahon’s turn as the villain-protagonist that the crowd loved to hate and hated to love.
This time, though, I was an adult, and the toxicity was hard to ignore. In the last 20 years, even as the WWF’s popularity has plateaued, the attitudes and devices it championed have spread into every aspect of our civic life. McMahon’s close friend Donald Trump rehashed McMahon’s hero/villain act on the national stage, while employing McMahon’s wife in his cabinet, supported by a generation of voters who had accepted McMahon’s version of masculinity. This time, I no longer wanted to be accepted by this nation of bullies. Rather, I wanted to defect, to secede.
But I also saw something I hadn’t seen before. Wrestling is built around masculinity, but in its own way it is also transgressive — even queer. Men in wrestling wear bright colors. They intimately touch other men in public. When they’re allied, they speak of each other in the warm terms of life partners; when they’re at odds, they issue ambiguously sexual threats such as “I want your ass.”
Most importantly, they show pain.
The essential, irreducible element of a wrestling match is the ability to show suffering — the very thing drummed out of every boy by high school, if not earlier. It’s the heart of the art form. No matter how skilled a wrestler is technically, it doesn’t count at all unless they can make the audience believe they’re being hurt. Every wrestler has to spend a significant amount of every match showing nothing but raw, visceral agony. They have to show their secret face, the most vulnerable one of all.
Wrestling is an art form, one that turned out to have also planted seeds in my mind about how fun it is to dress up, show tenderness, be vulnerable, and do the things you’re not supposed to.
A few days before I turned in the completed draft of my book, I told the world via Twitter that I’m not a man. I’m choosing to live as a trans woman. I go by “she” now. This is the conclusion I might have come to all those years ago if my bullies hadn’t terrorized me out of it. Wrestling showed me how to be a man. But it also gave me a second message, one that had finally — finally — reached me. Wrestling taught me to be cis at 13, and then it taught me to be trans at 36.
Vince McMahon, at age 77, still operates in an industry where machismo reigns. Last summer, he was confronted with a wave of sexual-misconduct allegations, including an accusation that he raped a female referee, and he made a surprising move: He stepped out of the spotlight. But it was a brief moment; McMahon hates looking like a loser. So he used his clout to restore himself as the head of the company and now rules it again with an iron, masculine fist.
But McMahon only has so much time left. Wrestling will outlast him. And when I think about the fans of wrestling who most get what makes it work, I think of all my queer and trans compatriots who watch and perform it. There has been an explosion in queer-oriented indie wrestling in recent years, driven by performers who can hear the art form’s undertones. They make the implicit explicit, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
I’m not sure what those individuals who bullied me are up to today. We were all kids driven by ideas about manhood that made us miserable. I am now unlearning them, and I hope their journeys have taken them that far as well.
To be a queer and trans wrestling fan is to invert and expand the industry that we all love to hate. Not everyone comes along on the ride. One of wrestling’s virtues is how much it can bring disparate people together — which means there are still plenty of bullies who watch wrestling. But I’ve chosen to opt out of that demographic. I’ve seceded. I’ve shown the world my secret face. And I haven’t looked back.