When I came out as trans, I thought I’d have to leave pro wrestling behind.
Not that there aren’t a lot of trans women who enjoy WWE (there are), but, as a former announcer for Absolute Intense Wrestling, I figured I was too well connected to enjoy wrestling in obscurity. Wrestling is an odd space, though; simultaneously more accepting than you’d expect and less accepting than you’d hope. When my coming out went public, the friends I’d made in Cleveland reached out and congratulated me.
I’m starting here because I don’t want you to make the typical assumptions people usually make about professional wrestling; that it’s dumb people pretending to punch on each other for dumber, less coordinated people; that everybody in the stands is intolerant on issues of race, gender, and sexuality.
There’s always been a classist edge to such critiques of wrestling, erasing a legion of queer, POC, and otherwise non-white, non-male performers.
I tweet about wrestling frequently. I’m a fan and a critic, and that’s what fans and critics do. On my Twitter timeline the other day, somebody retweeted a Vine from the accountbelonging to WWE’s NXT brand, a particularly brutal-looking moonsault performed by Manny Andrade, the lucha libre star formerly known as La Sombra.
On the receiving end of that moonsault was Austin Aries, a former champion in Ring of Honor and TNA who had just made his debut in NXT during their TakeOver event in Dallas during WrestleMania weekend. It was the second match Andrade had wrestled against a highly-touted new arrival to the WWE fold that weekend, the first being the sensational Shinsuke Nakamura, whom Andrade had bloodied the night before.
My tweet was…not good. Innocuous, but difficult to explain. What matters isn’t my use of insider terminology or Andrade’s previous name, but that I said “I want to see Austin Aries’ face get smashed on the TV.”
Aries vanity searched his name, found my tweet, and quoted it to his 237,000 followers.
I don’t mind the tweet. Besides the fact that the best this lifelong wrestling heel can muster is a crack on my face, I usually don’t care what wrestlers do to garner heat for attention. But Austin Aries is a hot new debut on a globally broadcast wrestling show produced by the largest wrestling company in the world, and I’m a transgender woman who made a comment about a Vine.
Inadvertently or not, a quote tweet to 237,000 followers is an invitation for those followers to dogpile the person being quoted. Some wrestling fans, the sad ones who spend their time online seeking validation from strangers, were all too happy to take up that invitation
But I’m not writing this because I’m offended by a few trolls and their references to bad films and bad music. I’m taking the long view here, and, as a marginalized fan of an entertainment medium that’s never done particularly well with regard to its marginalized fans, am going to let 48 hours of notifications, slurs, and subtweeting (encouraged and started by the employee of a wrestling promotion that touts, among other things, an anti-bullying campaign) stand as a teachable moment.
Let’s dispense with the notion of “kayfabe,” since that word is tempting to reach for. Whatever Austin Aries thought he was doing by quote tweeting a trans woman (information which is very visible in my profile) and calling her ugly is largely irrelevant. In-character or mortally wounded by a tweet he found by vanity searching and reading out-of-context with other tweets his employer sent out, it’s hard to claim the heightened, unreal world of a wrestling show was where @johnfuttbuck and @RkoMaster2000 were operating when they replied to Aries, leaving me tagged because they wanted me to see it.
So I replied to them, hoping not to educate them or get them to apologize to me, but to push them towards the endgame of making a blatantly transmisogynist statement, keeping Aries tagged the whole time, because there are people working in the labyrinth of WWE’s corporate structure whose job is to monitor the way their talent uses social media.
It really didn’t take @RkoMaster2000 long to jump from tweeting a picture of Elton John to flat out calling me a man.
Was it worth the effort to get Aries to acknowledge the situation he enabled? In truth, probably not. I’ve been internally debating the logic of writing such a piece after spending the weekend watching notification after notification roll in on my Twitter account, first for Aries’ initial tweets, then for the people including me in tweets to Aries to say that they regretted creeping on my profile, then from the people who responded to my pressing the issue by doubling down on transmisogyny.
Aries only replied when his fans leapt from making veiled references to trannies and faggots to flat out stating it, and that was after calling me a victim and subtweeting about how thin-skinned I was for not being able to take what I had apparently dished out.
Before addressing his tweet, I want to address the imbalance of power between the two of us. Beyond my being a broke trans grad student and his being a white cisgender straight man living his dream under the auspices of Vince McMahon, our circles of influence on Twitter are vastly different, which is something I’d expect an employee of a company as socially connected as WWE to figure out.
Of my 1,100 or so followers, there’s maybe 15 or so who meet in the overlap of a Venn Diagram of trans or trans-ally and wrestling fan. Of Aries’ 237,000 or so followers, there were a few who stood up for me (thankfully without tagging my handle), but even had nobody gone beyond praising him for landing a sick burn and hashtagging his ridiculous wrestling moniker, I got to see some 291 accounts concur with a wrestler about my looks and another 270 or so dig on his comment about victims hiding behind screens with their thin, baby soft skin.
And then he dropped his non-apology.
This reads like two things: A tweet from somebody who got a talking-to from corporate, and a tweet from someone who doesn’t think they have anything to apologize for. I waded into engaging with these tweets because I figured it had to come down to some sort of resolution, but the payoff was dispiriting, to say the least.
Another 112 mentions rolled in, and @RkoMaster2000 made a friend in @theycpr, who was simultaneously retweeting support for the gay community while remarking that I deserved a bitch slap and that the Bruce Jenner joke cracked him up.
Worth noting: after making this non-pology, he did the same fucking thing to my editor, who is also a trans woman, for challenging him on his professional boundaries.
I can’t say I wasn’t mad, because scrolling through my timeline makes it clear that I absolutely was. Writing this right now, I’m still mad. As far as dogpiles go, this one was mercifully brief and didn’t end with my getting doxxed or hounded. While people were calling me a fame whore or debating how big a fan I was or wasn’t for deciding not to go to an ill-promoted WWE NXT show four hours from my home, I watched Blackjack Mulligan and Bugsy McGraw promos so I could put together the second issue of a wrestling zine where I work through the thesis that interviews and promos are a kind of poetry.
I love professional wrestling more than I can possibly explain; it’s an elemental part of who I am, and no number of cave-dwelling men with Twitter handles that read like late 90s AOL account names can drive me away.
Yet, I remain bothered. Austin Aries responded to the transmisogyny of his fans like a coward. Directly tagged again and again by people comparing me to Elton John, the “It’s a man, baby!” scene from Austin Powers, and It’s Pat!, Aries could have stepped into any number of threads, any number of times, and done something. Instead, he washed his hands of the whole thing and gave those fans another opportunity to harass me.
This is the receipt. This sticks. This is something people will find when they Google Austin Aries, queer or straight. This, hopefully, is something wrestlers learn from if they’re vanity searching in an effort to score some heat from their fans.
I’m more bothered, however, by the response to Aries’ tweets, which were largely an assertion that professional wrestling exists for straight men and straight men alone. It’s not. It never was.
There have been marginalized wrestling fans (and marginalized wrestlers) for as long as wrestling’s been around, and we’ll be in the stands and in the ring, squeezing blood from this rock, until there’s no more wrestling to watch. The difference between now and then is that we’re more visible. We’re heard more often. And as a union of soft-eggs who went through childhood thinking you were put upon for liking something that wasn’t cool but now is in some fashion, you’re starting to feel like you’re being pushed out. I want you to know that that isn’t what’s happening.
We’re not coming for the thing you love. It’s been ours for longer than you know.