Arts·Cutaways

'Out in the Ring': How professional wrestling has become an LGBTQ friendly space

Ry Levey's new film explores the sport's storied history of queer representation.

Ry Levey's new film explores the sport's storied history of queer representation

Professional wrestler Sonny Kiss in Out in the Ring. (Jahlen Barnes)

Cutaways is a personal essay series where filmmakers tell the story of how their film was made. This is one of 5 essays from directors featured at the 2022 Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival

"Write what you know" refers to creating from your own experiences. In my case, I was compelled to make a documentary about what I know. 

As a filmmaker, I've always been driven to look at stories through my own experience as a queer man. Seeing glimpses of myself in the stories presented in the cultural spectrum, whether through literature, art or cinema, has been an integral part of my human evolution.

So when the time came to follow up my previous short documentaries with my first feature, it was inevitable that I would try to make a film about something I knew and that had a special meaning for me in my childhood professional wrestling.

I distinctly recall a Saturday afternoon of flipping channels growing up in Edmonton, one of those many children whose parents used the TV as a babysitter and finding the action-packed and exciting world of Calgary Stampede Wrestling. A decidedly low-fi, regional brand of wrestling far away from the glitz of the Hulk Hogan led WWF/WWE. Entranced, it was hands down my favourite thing as a child. I recall saving up my allowance and taking a bus downtown to see these local legends, many of whom would be the biggest stars of the 90's WWF/WWE (Bret Hart, The British Bulldog).

I recall attending WrestleMania 6 in Toronto in the early '90s, too, with its pageantry and massive crowds. Eventually, my enthusiasm would wain, as other endeavours would take a more significant place, namely boys and partying. However, I still always kept an eye on the world of Sports Entertainment, as it would come to be called by legendary impresario Vince McMahon, head of the now branded WWE.

Retired pro wrestler and pro wrestling trainer Susan "Tex" Green in Out in the Ring. (Michael Galinsky)

Cut to 2015, and upon completion of my second short documentary, I began thinking about creating my first feature documentary. I knew that I wanted to tell a story that spoke to the LGBTQIA+ diaspora. But what topic would I focus on? 

I was brought back to "write what you know," bringing me back to my childhood of professional wrestling.

Indeed, there was a very queer and homoerotic component to the sport, scantily clad men and women in spandex, pretty much underwear, grappling and pressing against each other in the form of combat. But it also had pageantry that we now can compare to drag or Ball culture, shown most notably in Jennie Livingston's seminal documentary, Paris Is Burning.

Pro wrestler Charlie Morgan in Out in the Ring. (Jahlen Barnes)

What wrestling was lacking was a prominent "out" wrestling component. At the time, no major wrestling federation had any openly gay talents on their rosters. Indeed, as with other sports, some would come out after their careers were over, but I felt there was a hidden history to uncover. 

So I chased the rumours of who might be gay and followed the sex scandals that would force closeted legends like Montreal's Pat Patterson into the unwanted spotlight and the few retired wrestlers of the past or indie queer stars that peppered the industry.

Little would I be able to fathom how this once intensely homophobic and closeted industry full of flamboyance and glitz would see an explosion of queer gender expression.

Pro wrestler Mike Parrow in Out in the Ring. (Jahlen Barnes)

This allowed me to meld the stories of the past with the exciting present, led by an army of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary stars, who currently appear on TV and in venues around the world over. Many of those stories appear in my film Out In The Ring.

After nearly five years of fighting to complete the film to honour brave stars of the past, forced to stay in the closet, or punished and exiled from the business for living their truth and introducing audiences to the now hundreds of out stars from across the globe, this journey to bring these stories to the screen, has allowed me to find a now greater love for the profession, a respect for the pageantry and amazement at the bravery and athleticism of their performance and profound respect for the risks and hard work these unique performers put in. 

With Out In The Ring, I hope to enlighten and inform others, showcase the incredibly storied history, and hopefully, create a few new fans


Out in the Ring screens in Toronto at the Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival on Friday, June 3. It is available to stream across Ontario from May 26 to June 5.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ry Levey is a 20+ year film industry professional who has publicized and or distributed over 100 feature films, including award winning documentaries like Emmy Award winner Matt Shephard is a Friend of Mine, Oscar nominated The Invisible War, and films by documentary legends Frederick Wiseman and Steve James, Tony winning and Oscar nominated filmmaker/Theatre icon Julie Taymor and two time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. His documentary directorial debut, The Closest Thing to Heaven, premiered at the 2013 Cleveland International Film Festival and his most recent film, Nora: Through the Years premiered at the 2016 Cinequest Film Festival. Out in the Ring is his feature directorial debut. .

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