Wrestling with Transphobia

I think that we all have something that we watch that is more analogous to junk foods like potato chips, gummy bears, and Kool-Aid than a nutritious meal. It is the nature of the media. We all consume things that sometimes feed our soul with vitamins and minerals like a salad. Other times we may as well pull up to a drive-through speaker and get a 32-ounce cup of soda. We have different needs at different times. Sometimes we need to be informed of the facts. Sometimes we need to laugh. Other times we need to be educated on an issue. Finally, there are times that we want to kick back and be entertained. We want something mindless that appeals to our inner child.


For me, professional wrestling meets a need of entertaining my child-like self. As I write this, the internal voice in my head is saying, "yea, I just told these people that I watch professional wrestling from time to time, and they think that I am a silly man." I think that is part of why I enjoy wrestling. I grew up watching it. It appealed to the 10-year-old in me. Wrestling is a lot of things. Much of it is entertainment, but it is also telling about our values. I would say that wrestling teaches clear values about manhood. It teaches men and boys that to be respected, they have to be physically formidable. It teaches us that to be taken seriously we have to be able to move others with the weight of our words. There is so much in it about passion, values, strength, honor, and perseverance. So how does all of this relate to a blog about sexual violence prevention?


Recently, I saw something on a World Wrestling Entertainment show that deeply disturbed me. The segment featured Sami Zayn challenging fellow wrestler Bobby Lashley regarding comments previously made by Lashley about how much he loves his sisters. Sami, in true heel fashion, invited Lashley's siblings to Monday Night Raw, but it was immediately clear something was up because Lashley's “sisters” had male builds, bad wigs, and mustaches. The spirit of the segment was meant to be comical, but it was tone deaf and epitomized poor taste. In a word, what I saw was transphobic. Webster's dictionary defines transphobic as the "irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against transgender or transsexual people." After the music stopped Sami grinned and snarkily stated, "I see that trademark Lashley family resemblance.”


Sami then went on to interview each of Lashley's sisters and ask them about the items they were carrying. Cathy in a blonde wig, holding a broom, shared that she carried the broom because Lashley used to bully her and she needed it for self-defense. Frances told the crowd that she carried a soldier’s helmet because Lashley “would take his knuckle and he would hit me on the top of my head as hard as he could,” making her weep. Jessica shared that she carried a towel because Bobby would insult her, hurting her feelings and causing her to cry. She needed the towel to mop up all her tears. Lashley was painted as a man that utilized fear, intimidation, and emotional abuse against his sisters. Above all, the point of this segment was to portray Bobby Lashley as a liar, thief, bully, juvenile delinquent, and menace to society.


Eventually, Lashley came out smiling to greet his sisters. Lashley first addressed Cathy, saying "I can't believe how you are still single." Lashley then decided to mock Jessica's outfits and Frances' "big hairy mustache." Eventually, it got physical, and Sami left Lashley's sisters to fight their brother. Lashley then beat up all of his sisters. Jonathan Coachman, Color Commentator for Monday Night Raw, exclaimed during the fight, "down goes Cathy, Frances, and Jessica. I don't know what else to call them." To finish the impromptu fight, Lashley placed the broom between Cathy's legs to lift her off the ground several times before throwing her over the top rope to the floor.


So much of this segment was problematic. First, it made light of male violence against women, but it also made light of violence against transgender people. In addition, there was no attempt to see the humanity of the gender non conforming people in our lives. This segment was low hanging fruit. More than low hanging fruit, it was rotten fruit featuring low brow comedy. There was no attempt to see Lashley's sisters as anything more than men in dresses. It is the insensitive narrative we often see about non-cisgender folks. The narrative is that they are trying to trick us or that they have something to hide. Another false narrative is that one can identify a transgender person just by looking at them. Gender non conforming people do not all look a certain way or all come from a particular background. And perpetuating these false narratives teaches others that transgender people are to be feared. We see this narrative over and over again around access to private spaces like bathrooms. It is a narrative that is dangerous. It emboldens people to be bathroom police, make assumptions about gender non conforming people's sexual orientation, or ask prying questions about surgical status, genitals, or sex life. It emboldens people to lack empathy or concern for the road that another walks. None of that helps us create safe communities.


I love pro wrestling. One of the things on my bucket list is to attend Wrestlemania when it returns to Atlanta. The saddest part of this segment is that it made me embarrassed to be a wrestling fan. I fear that some of the people who watched that do not share my disappointment, shock, and embarrassment. That this segment aired in 2018 is proof that our work is ongoing. It is proof that those who make stories have work to do. It is proof that we have to do what we can to create safety and safe spaces for transgender people in our lives. That is our work. To be different and to be better than the examples that have been given to us. To create spaces for connection and opportunities to see our similarities instead of our differences. WWE failed to live that example in this segment. It could be argued that segments like this contribute to the bullying and violence that transgender people experience. By making their lived lives a punchline, we “other” them. Moreover, is the media we are consuming feeding our souls and getting us to think about complex issues in new ways. Is it teaching us empathy? Or is it playing off of stereotypes and biases that harken back to dark times when we were less understanding and respectful of one another?