Man in Fights: a gay wrestler’s story

Ohio Valley Wrestling has its first openly-gay heavyweight champion, and fellow queers, we’ve been missing out.

That there are athletes who are gay isn’t unusual, but for a lot of us, this particular, er… sport — a hybrid of showmanship and athleticism — evokes gargantuan, mulleted white men who can barely be restrained, with spittle flying as they shout threats at their opponent. The characters have often relied on stereotypes and jingoism, but it’s 2018, and maybe pro wrestling is finally ready for a wider audience.

This milestone for gays probably shouldn’t be surprising — homoeroticism has always been the elephant in the wrestling ring. Literature nerds love to dissect the elaborately-detailed, naked fireside wrestling scene in DH Lawrence’s “Women in Love” (Passed off by Lawrence as two good friends larking about), so when I asked Stu Perry, the new champion, about it, his self-awareness was refreshing:

“I’ve always said you have to be a little gay to be a wrestler,” said Perry, who performs as Amon, Demon Marquis of Hell when he is not working as a supervisor at Uspiritus, a residential psychiatric facility for kids. “It’s sweaty guys in underwear picking each other up … it’s pretty gay.”

Becoming a Heel

Once again, wrestling is in.

And I’ve been working on my Halloween costume all summer. It’s gloriously outlandish, part of a group costume, and based on “GLOW,” the critically acclaimed Netflix show about lady wrestlers.

Even so, when Ohio Valley Wrestling, or OVW, announced its first openly-gay heavyweight champion, I spent a week in my feelings about actually attending a match. While I was happy to check off yet another item on the gay agenda, the last thing I wanted was to visit a place I imagined was not only hyper-masculine, but a magnet for MAGA hats.

When I arrived, the staff was in hustle mode, exuding that universal, pre-show energy as they set up for the match. The place felt charged with the type of creative energy that springs up when people are busy making something special.

There were no MAGA hats.

It was a few hours before that evening’s performance when Perry gave me a tour of the facility. In a small locker room that could just as easily be called a dressing room, Perry talked to me about showmanship, faith and being gay in an unusual sport.

Perry, 29, first made a name for himself as Reverend Stu, Pastor of Disaster.

According to his fans, Reverend Stu’s trademark was humor and an over-the-top laying on of hands. Then, after a mishap onstage, Perry discovered what so many villains have always known: It’s fun to be bad.

“It was actually an accident,” he explained. “Everyone thinks that everything is staged, but the only thing that’s fake about pro wrestling is the finish. So we know who’s going to win, but everything else is, kind of like, we’re talking to each other and reacting to what’s going on out there, and I knocked a good guy out with a belt by accident, so we had to come up with a reason a good guy would do something like that.”

He explained that in wrestling, there are babyfaces (good guys) and heels (bad guys).

“I was out there with Paradise — he’s actually a gay character — and I read his signal wrong, so we had to come up with something. The choices were to forget it, and pretend it didn’t happen, but I was like, ‘It happened in front of a pretty big crowd,’ so we all sat down, and decided I was a demon now. Over the next few weeks you saw Reverend Stu tweak out a little more, and now he’s fully possessed.”

To clarify, it’s Perry himself making headlines for being the first openly-gay heavyweight champion, and not Amon, who as a demon, thrives not on relationships, but acting out his evil impulses.

Being evil also means there are no rules: The heels cheat, and the babyfaces play fair. It’s all perfectly spelled out for the audience, and, despite this clear articulation of good and evil, the audience shows no hesitation about crossing into the gray area and championing the heels — sometimes for giving a good show, sometimes, in the case of wrestler Billy O, for being a hot guy writhing around in his underwear.

Amon, Perry’s demon character, lords over a team of minions called “The Void,” whose existence annihilates any sense of fair play. “I’m king demon, and they all follow me, so if I start to get beat up, my demons run out and start ruining stuff.” Amon even yanked off war veteran wrestler Michael Hayes’ prosthetic leg and beat him with it in one match.

“Being bad is so much fun,” he said, smiling at the memory. “There are no rules.”

From left: The Void, Amon, Demon Marquis of Hell and Abyss during a recent match. (photo by Deena Lilygren)

The siren-call of camp

The OVW locker room has rows of gray lockers, a wall with the giant OVW logo, and, at the time of my interview, an assortment of intriguing items: Atop a locker sat a crumpled sequined item, covered by a dangling red feather boa. A top hat sat on a duffel bag. Propped against a wall was a skull-topped staff. It was half gym locker room and half drag show dressing room.

When I mentioned how familiar this would look to a drag fan, Perry said, “You are not the first person to mention that!” The two art forms are similar, he agreed and scrolled through his phone to find a picture of himself posing with his championship belt along with Mykul Valentine, Leah Halston and Bianca Nicole, of PLAY Louisville fame.

“It’s not only about a fight; it’s about the drama of it and becoming someone else. I’ve met the ‘Drag Race’ queens like Eureka and Cameron and the things they say about how they feel when they walk through the curtain and how I feel when I walk through the curtain — it’s a show.

“My background is theater. I tried every single sport and couldn’t do it, so I started in middle school and was in every single show and in college I was on scholarship and got paid to be in shows. Once I got out I wanted to be in acting, but there aren’t a lot of places you can act as a 29-year-old man, so wrestling worked out.”

Anyone in the performative arts, particularly arts that embrace the campier aspects of performance, can attend a wrestling match and recognize the general language of it. The performer emerges from the wings and struts, preens, demands a reaction from the crowd. The best wrestlers, like the best drag queens, will have both athleticism and a well-developed persona. The difference is that where drag carves out meaning with a sharp blade, wrestling uses a hammer. In the drag world, audience participation means dollar bills and a moment of seduction, but in wrestling, it means shouting “You suck!” at the performer.

And that’s fun, too.

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Winning the belt and winning at life

In college, Perry was overweight and struggled with multiple addictions. He’s a self-described “chronic addict,” so it took an intervention by his frat brothers to launch him toward the life he has today. His brothers woke him up early every morning and took him to the gym, which channeled his addictive tendencies into a healthier obsession: fitness.

A lot has happened for Perry in the last year. His character transformed from Reverend Stu to Amon, Demon Marquis of Hell, he became heavyweight champion… and he came out.

Perry explained that he had technically come out at a young age, but it was always theoretical. “I came out to my family when I was 15, and it was fine. So it had been 13 years of me being gay, but I wasn’t living gay. And last year I found a guy I really liked and decided to come out publicly, because I wanted to be able to bring him around.”

According to Perry, the response has been positive.

I asked how coming out has affected the part of his career that focuses on motivational speaking, particularly for youth groups and young people and he said that it shouldn’t affect it at all.

“It’s still my message even today — I still travel to churches and camps and speak, and I think people get afraid my message is going to be ‘everybody, go be gay!’ but my message is actually that Jesus loves you no matter what.

“One of my friends from Adventure Christian came up to me and said, ‘There is nothing that disqualifies you from sharing the love of Jesus. From a stage, from a video, anything. And if anybody tells you [otherwise], they’re wrong,’ and the guys back here [OVW wrestlers] — no one cares. There were two guys in particular who came up to me, Michael Hayes especially, said, “If anybody gives you crap, let me know, and they will never set foot in this locker room again.”

Perry is an optimist.

When you meet him, it’s clear how he got into wrestling: He radiates the kind of joy that goes over well onstage. Since coming out, he gets the occasional Facebook message from acquaintances who are worried about his mortal soul and his parents have cut off contact, but the response from the wrestling world has been positive.

“I work at a psych facility with kids and, while they don’t know I’m gay, someday they might, and it’s great because now they can see that gay doesn’t mean you have to put on a dress or whatever — I beat up people and got the same belt John Cena did.”

It was an hour before the show when they told me I was going to win the belt. When they sat me down to tell me I was going to win the belt — and it’s fixed, but you have to earn it — and when they said, ‘You’ve been a leader in the locker room and you deserve it,’ and it’s incredible to be a part of this start of a new legacy at a time when we’re literally going through a new legacy — OVW is brand new, with Al [Snow] taking over, there are some huge things about to happen.

“My new thing is hashtag kiss my belt, since my parents aren’t supportive, to be able to show ‘I’m doing stuff. You walking away didn’t stop me, me being gay didn’t change anything.’ And I want people to know.”

Stu Perry, Ohio Valley Wrestling Heavyweight Champion.

Wrestling, an ‘American art form’

Before Perry arrived, I chatted with Al Snow, the new owner of OVW. Snow, a notable former WWF/ECW wrestler, director and commentator, has the physique of a pro wrestler and a strong vision for the future of OVW. He expressed particular interest in the development of characters and stories and how the audience responds to those.

The details matter to Snow.

“If you think about it,” he said, while I stared at his arms, “aside from jazz, wrestling is the only truly American art form.”

His wrestlers seem to understand his vision. Perry told me that “Al is all about characters and that’s why he’s pushed us [to develop them]. It doesn’t always matter who wins; people like to know why things are happening. We call it a male soap opera. The UFC has characters, rivalries. It didn’t used to be that way, but that’s where it’s gone.”

Showmanship is certainly part of Amon’s success as a character. Perry has embraced costume — demonic makeup, dramatic chains and detailed gladiator skirt — with the same enthusiasm he’s embraced character — a demonic voice, erratic behavior and a frightening intensity. At the match I attended, his character was rivaled only by Abyss, a giant who made his mark by throwing Justin Smooth through a wooden desk while commentator Gilbert Corsey and other bystanders fled the wreckage.

As Amon left the ring, I turned to two men behind me who’d been shouting “Avon” at him — because he wears makeup, they explained. When I asked how they felt about an openly gay wrestler, their faces froze, fell to the ground and shattered. One of them explained — painfully, through his teeth, while staring down at his broken garbage-face and refusing to make eye contact — that it “shouldn’t matter, so long as he does good in the ring.”

He didn’t mean a word of it, but I pretended to be pleased. The thing about wrestling is that the point of it is to yell insults at the wrestlers, so for me, a newcomer, it’s difficult to parse.

He does have fans.

“We’re here for Amon,” said one fan who was having a cigarette during intermission. “He has a lot of excitement around him and the way he talks, he really gets into it.”

The fans get into it, too. There was the larger group experience of sharing a space and watching the same performance, but each person I looked at was experiencing the evening in a different way. I saw a preschooler standing on a chair, waving a tiny replica of a heavyweight champion belt. A young woman indulging her crush on the denim-clad Bro Godz. Identical twins with eerily synchronized cheers. A father and his adult son discussing the psychology and technique of different wrestlers.

OVW shredded my expectations and assumptions, of which I had many. I didn’t expect to see people of color, but there they were. The venue was also one of the most accessible places I’ve ever been — the entirety of ringside seats are reserved for people with disabilities and they were all in use.

What struck me most was how utterly translatable wrestling is, but it makes sense, because joy is very easily translated. Joy can be an immaculately designed evening gown, a parade float adorned with rainbows or the first-violin rising above the rest of the orchestra.

And sometimes, for some of us, joy is watching a man in a speedo get tossed around onstage by a sweaty, demon-possessed Reverend. •

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