A crowd chanted ‘He’s gay’ at wrestler Anthony Bowens — and it was heartwarming
The openly gay AEW wrestler talks about his character coming out on primetime TV
Last week, Anthony Bowens — a queer Black wrestler with All Elite Wrestling and one of the first openly gay wrestlers to hold a major championship belt — stood in the center of the ring while thousands of fans chanted, “He’s gay.”
While that sounds like a traumatic experience, it was actually a heartwarming event that represents a sea change in how gay performers are treated in the traditionally homophobic sport of pro wrestling. AEW has championed the LGBTQ community from its inception and the segment, which aired on AEW Rampage, was part of a storyline between Bowens’ tag team, The Acclaimed, and QTV, a rival group. QTV member Harley Cameron, a woman, approached Bowens about creating a “power couple,” to which Bowens replied, “Lady, I’m gay.”
As soon as he said it, the crowd erupted in cheers. The “He’s gay” chant was celebratory and and Bowens’ tag team partner and manager jumped for joy. While he’d come out years ago, Bowens’ in-ring pronouncement during a scripted segment, as a natural part of a storyline —coupled with the crowd’s embrace — would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.
Queerness in wrestling has often been treated as a trait that makes someone a villain. When Adrian Adonis, a straight man, announced he was gay on WWE programming in the late 1980s, the crowd booed and an audience member yelled, “AIDS is a killer!” Pat Patterson, the first openly gay WWE wrestler, kept his boyfriend a secret for decades. Dustin (Goldust) Rhodes’ androgyny was a central component of what made him a heel in the late 1990s. Darren Young came out in 2013 via TMZ and his queerness was mostly ignored on-screen in the WWE. But in 2023, Bowens’ acknowledgement of his sexuality and the viral moment it created, showed how far wrestling has come.
Recently, I spoke to Bowens about the segment, his journey, and what he hopes is next for LGBTQ wrestlers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your understanding of how queer wrestlers, or people who played queer characters on TV, were portrayed coming up?
I really started to pay attention to all that once [former WWE wrestler] Darren Young came out in 2013, because around that time was when I really started to think about becoming a professional wrestler. That’s when I started to pay attention to how the representation was. And it didn’t look too good for me back then, which is why I stayed in the closet.
When you say it didn’t look good for you, what do you mean?
There wasn’t any out, successful LGBT professional wrestlers at the top. They didn’t really do much with Darren after he came out. And I thought, well, maybe if I was to become a professional wrestler, I would just be there and exist as opposed to being world champion one day. So that scared me. I didn’t know how other wrestlers would react to me, how fans would react to me. So a lot of that fear and anxiety kept me from saying something for a very long time.
You originally came out via a YouTube video where it’s said in passing. How did you decide this would be the moment that you come out publicly.
I met my boyfriend in May of 2016, and we dated secretly for six months or so. One of his dreams was to have a YouTube channel and make a video with me once we got together. And I was like, “I’m not entirely sure. I’m not out yet. I promise I’ll be out one day. I need to be ready for it.” He understood, but he was slightly hurt that he had to continue to be this secret. And then I was like, “You know what? You don’t really have that many subscribers, so I don’t think anybody’s going to see this. Let’s make this video.”
We made the video and a few months later, one of my buddies who’s a wrestler messaged me. He is like, “Hey, we saw the video. I wish you would have told us. Everybody saw it really. They love you. They respect you.” And once I saw that, I just knew that I had this opportunity to help other people who were in my shoes because I had the support of my best friends. I had the support of my family. Now I had the support of people in wrestling, which meant a lot to me. So I ended up coming out in January of 2017, and when that video took off, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since in a very, very positive way.
Let’s talk about the recent AEW segment. How’d it come about?
[AEW wrestlers] Billy [Gunn] and Q.T. Marshall came to me and said, “Hey, we’ve got this segment. Would you be comfortable doing this?” And I said, “Absolutely.” Because my type of activism isn’t particularly in your face. I like to go out and just be me, exist as successfully as I can and be as visible as possible and authentic to me as I can. And if there is a time and a place where I feel like it would fit best, let’s go for it. And I felt like this was a really, really fun segment to do it in. I thought it also would be a monumental moment because no one’s ever said it inside of a wrestling ring.
There’s always been, from an athlete perspective, a hint there, maybe a joke that references [someone being gay]. It was never just flat out blunt, like, “Hey, I’m gay.” And I thought, screw it. This would be a great time for it to be done. And also a relatable thing for people who are in the position that I used to be in, who are scared to come out and didn’t have somebody to look towards as a role model, an LGBT role model for them.
What did you expect the crowd to do?
I didn’t know what to expect at all. I didn’t think they would boo. I thought maybe there’d be a smattering of hand claps or something. But the reaction really, really blew me away. And you can see in the camera shots where I’m smiling, laughing because I was like, this is so crazy. Never, ever, ever in a million years would I think that a chant like that would break out in the most positive of ways. It was a fantastic moment. I wish I was able to go back and tell 17-, 18-, 19-year old Bowens that everything was going to be okay and that he would have this amazing moment that all of these people would enjoy and also affect so greatly. The messages I’ve been getting are so emotional. It really, really struck a chord with a lot of people, and I’m so glad it did.
How do you think wrestling got to this moment? Fifteen years ago there would have been a totally different reaction.
In wrestling, a lot of it has to do with policing each other. All that negative talk was being pushed out of locker rooms because people are saying, “Enough of that. We’ve got to create an inclusive atmosphere for other athletes that come in here to feel welcome because there’s so much talent going around.” And fans are along for that ride as well. I’ve seen fans, in defense of wrestling shows, kick people out, boo people out of the building for saying a slur during the match. Society’s changing. It’s slow, but it’s definitely changing.
What do you think the legacy of that moment will be?
I would hope it’s a moment that a lot of other people and athletes can relate to and hopefully would feel more comfortable with themselves, feel comfortable coming out. Because the more athletes we have that are more open and authentic, the more we can normalize it.
I hope everybody who is LGBT on this roster continues to inspire other athletes to be themselves, so there wouldn’t have to be this big moment of coming out or this big moment where I have to say “I’m gay” in the ring. It’s just everybody is who they are. They’re authentic to themselves and they don’t have to worry about a thing.