EDITOR’S NOTE: Today I am pleased to have Victor Rook guest blogging for DanNation.org with his story of gay bashing and homophobia in wrestling. Welcome, Victor!
First, I want to thank Dan for allowing me to be a guest writer. Thank you, Dan!
For the past five years I worked on and completed probably the most comprehensive and thorough documentaries on wrestling, Stronghold: In the Grip of Wrestling. It talks frankly, no-holds-barred, about wrestling history in the U.S., homophobia in the sport, as well as homoeroticism. Very important issues considering recent coverage of gay suicides and homophobia in sports. I interviewed over 200 people across the U.S., both gay and straight, single and married. The film tackles issues like how the fear of getting an erection has kept a considerable amount of young men out of the sport. It also uncovers gay-bashing incidents at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA schools. In one case, a skilled competitive grappler was forced out of a South Carolina dojo when they found out he was gay. He received death threats to the point that he felt he needed to leave the state. That clip is below.
So good, I have a film with an important message to get out. Now time to let everyone know.
Over the past 18 months I’ve sent thoughtful, thorough emails about the film to the following website editors and writers: Advocate, GLAAD, HRC, Joe.My.God, Perez Hilton, AfterElton.com, GLSEN.org, Dan Savage (of “It Gets Better”), Village Voice, LGBT weekly, Q-Notes, LOGO, Towleroad, 365gay, ProjectQAtlanta, Queerty, and more. I also contacted several mainstream writers who have published an article or two about homophobia in wrestling and sports, though they usually only take notice when a WWE wrestler or MMA fighter utters a gay slur.
Surprisingly, of the websites listed above, not a single one of them has gotten back to me. Some I’ve sent follow-up emails a month or two after. Still, nothing.
But I wasn’t going to let this stop me. As a filmmaker you work very hard to uncover these kinds of grievances. You put in exhaustive research, spend a lot of money (my life savings went into this film), and often times sit in airports and travel across the country just to get one interview. Multiply that by 100 and you have a film—or the pieces of a film. Then you spend years editing it all together. You dig deep to find the truth and expose the best you can why these things happen. To let people see first hand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of homophobia, rather than focusing on the messengers of homophobic ramblings. To make sense of it all, so things can change for the better.
First I put up clips of the documentary on Youtube, which have generated a lot of discussion. Then I had the film shown at a couple of film festivals, however you’d be surprised how gay film festivals opt for more generic gay films. (I think every gay film festival program has that token movie with two shirtless guys sitting up in bed staring at each other). Then I paid for press releases and put the documentary on sale in DVD format and online pay-per-view. The reviews from buyers have been tremendously gratifying. I really touched a chord in a lot of men. Sales are going well, and interest is certainly high.
Back to my efforts with the media
When I contacted Q-Notes, the only gay publication in South Carolina (the state where this incident happened), I got no reply. Three months later I sent a follow-up email to the editor calling him out on this. How could he ignore something that happened in his own region? I was quickly met with a sharp email and a phone call saying “I was thinking of covering this, but now I’ve changed my mind.” Somehow I think “thinking about” covering something for three months really means it was ignored.
Gay.com wrote up a short, campy piece which quickly got buried under other stories. It was written by a television writer rather than, more appropriately, a sports writer. I believe the first sentence was “Where do old wrestlers go?” Sigh.
I contacted Outsports, and they did reply. Twice as a matter of fact. With keen interest too. And I was like “absolutely” and “ask whatever you want.” Then, oddly, I heard nothing back. They never saw nor covered the film. Maybe they got distracted with their story about the two straight wrestlers who did gay porn. As a matter of fact, I believe it garnered three articles alone from them that month. Now how could I compete with that?
In spite of these let downs, I knew in my heart that this film deserved broader coverage. I didn’t risk my life in straight bars getting guys to talk about wrestling (and in some cases wrestle on camera) to serve just the gay audience. Even at the cost of alienating some of the gay men in the film who wanted only gay men to have their say, I opted to make the documentary open to everyone. So I contacted The Washington Post, Huffington Post, MSNBC, CNN, Boston Globe, New York Times, and just about any media outlet that covered anything to do with homophobia in sports. I’ve still not heard a word from any of them.
A month ago I emailed award-winning sports writer, Michael David Smith, who had just completed a piece on MMA gay slurs. I thought certain he’d like to know about my film. I mean, he must be pro-gay, or at least anti-homophobe? And, he did reply. He wrote, “Thanks for your note. I just watched the first clip on YouTube. It’s very compelling. I really appreciate the work you’ve done and I appreciate you reaching out. MDS.” My friends were convinced, as I was too, that this was a very polite brush-off. I mean, if you can get away with calling out homophobia now and then, but not alienating your core audience who is homophobic, why cover it anymore? Why put a face to the pain? Why, because seeing a face is a lot more effective than mere surface coverage.
What does this say about the media, and especially gay media? Why is it that getting the community to cover what someone like me uncovers is more of a chore than making the film itself? Why do I have to rely on Youtube clips to get the word out? Or purchase expensive press releases that end up on faux aggregate news sites? Shouldn’t we all be working together on things like this? Maybe they think it would be advertising for the film, even though I’ve put large chunks of it up on Youtube to watch for free. Who knows?
Recently athletes Ben Cohen and Hudson Taylor have been in the news (almost on a daily basis in the New York Times and Huffington Post) for promoting anti-homophobic messages from a straight viewpoint. I actually sent Taylor a copy of my documentary over a year ago before he started Athlete Ally. We exchanged a few nice emails, but in the last he stated that he never really watched the film; it was too loud in his dorm when he put it in to play. My work, which could serve as a valuable tool to get out the message, was made, in essence, background noise. I’ve yet to hear back from Mr. Cohen. I really do like these two and hope we can connect somehow.
Most people would give up at this point. But there’s something deep inside me, a very nagging feeling, that tells me I’m right to pursue this. Five years is an awfully long time to invest yourself into something, and waiting two years to get fair coverage is simply mind boggling. People would be astonished to hear some of the things that happened to me and to others in the making of this documentary. And I continue to hear sad stories from friends who have been forced out of dojos because they are gay.
For those out there who really care about abolishing homophobia, and want to write about my experience, it’s never too late to write a wrong. I hope you’ll Twitter and Facebook this article to get the message out. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and the film’s website is http://www.wrestlingfilm.com. Let’s make some real change!
Victor Rook has produced several award-winning films. “Beyond the Garden Gate” was honored with two Telly Awards, including a 25th anniversary “Best of” Nature award. It went on to air on PBS for four years. Victor served as producer, cameraman, interviewer, narrator, and editor for the STRONGHOLD: In the Grip of Wrestling documentary. He also wrote the song “A Hold on Me” for the credit roll, and published the book “Growing Up Wrestling.”