Wrestling and Stigma

Some of my earliest memories of Professional Wrestling came from my Grandma, Mable Jones. She was a short stout woman, with withered features. She had a shrewd glare that could communicate a great deal without a single word spoken. Grandma had a hard life, raising ten boys and two girls, with an alcoholic husband who contributed very little to the family in the midst of the Great Depression. She took in wash to make ends meet for her enormous family. She understood what working hard really was. There are few people I have met who were tougher than my grandma Jones. She lived on the edge of a rather sketchy part of Eugene Oregon where the crime rate was higher than average and going out at night alone, was a dangerous proposition. Grandma was never afraid, and she was infamous for running people off who darkened her doorstep. One thing that stood out about Grandma Jones, she loved wrestling! If ever you sat in her living room when Portland Wrestling was on, you were treated to quite a spectacle. She would beat pillows and throw them around the room. She would stand in outrage when her favorite competitors lost. Grandma would yell at the television screen, while shaking her fists. As a child I found the experience somewhat intimidating, as an adult, I have developed a fondness for these memories.

One night in the late 1970’s, I remember getting ready for bed and the phone range. It was very late and a phone call at that hour was rare. The instinctual response was, there must be an emergency! My father picked up the phone as the family gathered around holding our breath. What relative was in the hospital? Had someone died? Was there an accident? We waited as patiently as we could, hoping the news wasn’t as bad as the story created in our imaginations. When dad finished the call, he hung up, grabbed his coat and started putting on his shoes.

“What’s wrong?” My mother asked somewhat angry; he hadn’t put her worries to rest.

Apparently, there was an armed man in a stand off with the police a couple doors down from my grandmother’s home. The police were evacuating her block, in case there was gun fire. Why did the police call my dad, you might ask? Because Grandma Jones was not budging, her wrestling show was on.

That was my first memory of Professional Wrestling. My parents were not fans. My mother, in particular, was not fond of any sport. That was evident when she created a man cave for my father out in his shop. My father was more interested in basketball (Trailblazers) and didn’t show any interest in, Grandma Jones’ chosen sport. I grew up with professional wrestling in the periphery of my developmental awareness. I watched it on occasion, when I was left to my own devices, never when mom was around. She would insist I changed the channel. Based on the way she reacted to it, it was obvious she thought it was dumb and a waste of time.

Thus, my exposure was limited to stolen moments when mom and dad weren’t paying attention or otherwise preoccupied. You would have thought I was trying to sneak watch porn, the way I had to maneuver to watch wrestling shows. As I grew older it became easier as I was left to my own devices more opportunities presented themselves to watch TV on my own. This was the Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant era. It was fresh, new and exciting!

By the time I was in high school, it felt like professional wrestling was carving out a niche. There were magazines, Saturday morning cartoons… It was, in many ways, looked upon as one of the social circles at my school, the kids who play Dungeons and Dragons, the kids who watch Professional Wrestling, or the Metal Head kids. There seemed to be a lot of overlap in these groups I noticed, but there was always stigma no matter what group you belonged to.

Like the Dungeons and Dragons kids, the Professional Wrestling kids, were stereotyped as mouth breathing, Cheeto dust covered, basement dwellers, who’s mother had to remind them to take a shower at least once a week. While this wasn’t necessarily true, it was the stereotype, and regardless of your personal hygiene practices, assumptions were made! These stereo types created stigma around Professional Wrestling fandom in my little world.

I should make myself clear, these things alone didn’t create stigma, but they did contribute. To be a wrestling fan was to become a part of what was equivalent to a social leper colony in my school. My parent’s, other kids, and the teacher’s reaction to Professional Wrestling only reinforced the idea’s developing in my head about what it was to be a fan of wrestling. Reactions I witnessed regularly were things like, “that’s not a real sport,” or “Seriously? You’re into that?”

Even though there was my Grandma Jones, we moved away when I was young, and she had passed while I was a teenager. Sadly, she wasn’t there to reinforce the positive.

A type of shame developed around the idea, and though it never killed my interest or kept me from watching shows, it did isolate me as a fan. Growing up as an effeminate gay boy in a rural logging community in the midst of the AIDS crisis was isolating enough. The last thing I wanted to do was stand out even more. Being as invisible as possible, was a matter of survival. So, I enjoyed quietly and privately and went about my life. I had accepted the stigma around me and I lived with it for many years, never understanding how I could enjoy something that most people seem to think was silly. Yet when I watched the shows on TV there were thousands of people in the audience. Maybe I’m not a freak. Do I know anyone who goes to these shows? Nope. There must be people around here who go, why would they come to the Tacoma Dome and other venues in this region if they didn’t. Why weren’t people talking about it?
These were the days before the internet. By the time I made it to college and started my career, I was so out of touch with wrestling I barely paid attention to it anymore. It was a busy time, I had an important position and I wanted to do a good job. I didn’t have a lot of time, and only occasionally watched a show. I missed a lot in the late 90’s and 00’s.

When I moved up the I-5 corridor into Seattle, I looked around casually to see what was going on in the wrestling world. There wasn’t much, in fact, I don’t recall seeing anything in Seattle at the time. Only if I was willing to travel down to Portland or up to Vancouver, B.C. I’m too busy for that, I thought, and put my head down and focused on life, occasionally catching a show on the television.

Fast forward to 2017. I have a major health crisis. I’m in the hospital a while and have to do follow up treatments for several weeks. My work was great, they covered my patients and tell me to rest and take care of myself. Suddenly, I have all the time in the world! I guess I’ll look in on what’s happening in professional wrestling.

To my surprise, I learned the wrestling world was ON FIRE. All these independent people were popping up. Local promotions seemed to be the thing, like the days before, what is now the WWE, but, with the internet, distance meant nothing anymore. I could watch wrestling shows happening in Florida, Rhode Island or Texas! There were all kinds of people all over the world putting on fantastic shows. Wrestlers performing moves I’ve never seen before. Openly gay wrestlers! Women taking on men! Dick wrestlers! And inter-species matches! What the hell? This is great!

My interest was emerging from the isolated depths of fandom. I began paying attention and consumed whatever I could get my hands on via the internet. Several months passed and I thought, it’s been over a decade since I looked around locally, maybe I should see if anyone has done anything in the last few years. This is when I discovered a local promotion called Defy. I casually looked at it and thought, oh, you’re not going to go to one of those shows. Who would you go with? I don’t know anyone who would want to go to something like this. I’m not going alone. I quickly put the notion away and went about my business. It didn’t occur to me, I could see if any of my friends would be interested. Why? Images of stereotypes began filling my brain like they had when I was a kid. The very idea of admitting to professional wrestling fandom wasn’t even worth considering. Even though it had been decades since I received any negative reinforcement about pro-wrestling, the internal dialogue was already programmed in my thought process.

Like any introvert, who spends a great deal of time in their own head, I began thinking about this, really, for the first time in my life. Why do I have this disturbing idea in my head about what it is to be a professional wrestling fan? I know as well as anyone, how harmful and untrue most stereotypes really are. Why am I being so ridiculous? I’m an adult! I don’t need anyone’s approval to be a fan of anything! Why didn’t I pull my head out of my ass years ago?
I got back on line and went to Defy’s website, and there it was, Requiem! Look who’s going to be there! One of my absolute favorites! And a local! Kimberlee! I’m going. I don’t care if I go alone. Who cares if I don’t know anyone. I decided this is happening and purchased a ticket to the first live wrestling show of my life. That is, if you don’t count my grandma Jones’ living room pillow wrestling… those sad pillows.

It was a conscious decision at that point to begin emerging from the repressed fandom I had sat on for over forty years. While I didn’t feel the need to shout it from the roof top, I knew, I wasn’t going to hide it anymore. Why should I? The shame and stigma I felt was learned, but I can unlearn those things. I’ve had to do this kind of emotional work before.

My emergence as a professional wrestling fan shared many haunting similarities to when I came out as an openly gay man in the late eighties and early nineties. While the latter was a gut-wrenching life trans-formative event, coming out as a wrestling fan wasn’t the easiest process in the world. Why I wonder? It’s not some kind of horrible thing. It’s not illegal or offensive. Yes, it can be dangerous, but, so are most contact sports. So why was it such an awkward process? Am I the only one? It turns out, I’m not.

The more I became open about what I was doing, the more I learned about the people around me, some of whom I’ve known most of my life. I learned a person I’ve been friends with since high school, is a very enthusiastic fan. A colleague from work, raised two boys who were huge WWE fans and grew to love it herself. She spoke very fondly of several shows she attended with her sons.

We are Pro-Wrestling fans!

Wrestling fans are not basement dwelling social lepers. It’s true, we don’t have to hold onto the reactions of others and let them navigate our life. We are who we want to be. There is no shame in being who you are and liking whatever it is you like. Anyone who thinks you’re stupid or wasting your time for liking professional wrestling, is being incredibly disrespectful, and they can just… Fuck Off!

Philip Jones
About Philip Jones 8 Articles
A social service worker by day, and a writer by night, I defy all labels, boxes and societal definitions. I am a classically trained violinist, published author and proud member of the LGBTQ community. I spend most of my time at home indulging in my favorite interests including reading, writing, horror films, eating and watching independent wrestling shows.

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