Can We Talk About…? How “American Gladiators” Made Me Gay When It Debuted 30 Years Ago

In this hyper-muscular, spandexed world, you either break through and conquer, or are broken through and conquered.

Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series that just took a DNA test and turns out…doesn’t want to get sued.

September 9, 1989. A day that will live in spandexed history. Thenceforth, for seven halcyon seasons, American Gladiators jousted, climbed, broke through, and conquered its way into homes across this once “meh” nation.

Roided-out-looking wonder boys with names like Malibu, Laser, Nitro, Tower, Turbo, and Thunder captured my young (but still incredibly gay) gaze. Meanwhile, the Amazon beauties known as Lace, Jazz, Zap, Blaze, and Gold confused me in a different way: Did I want them or want to be them? They were powerful, glamorous, and wearing, let’s face it, very well-designed body-con athleisure.

On the show, men and women from all walks of life would take on these modern-day gladiators in various ridiculous obstacle courses, from the Joust and its large Q-tip mallets to The Wall, Break Through and Conquer (my personal favorite for the name alone), and the infamous Eliminator.

All those bulging muscles in tight Lycra entranced not only me but the nation. American Gladiators became a phenomenon, and in the spirit of the early-’90s, crossed over with other cultural phenomena with a limited shelf life. Remember when Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) and Carl Winslow (noted homosexual Reginald VelJohnson) competed on the show in an episode of Family Matters? Or when the Gladiators appeared on Family Feud? Then there’s that time Ellen dated Nitro (Dan Clark) on her sitcom when she was still “straight” Ellen Morgan, and went toe-to-toe with the Gladiators herself.

The American Gladiators were like superheroes come to life. Except sometimes the challengers really handed it to them. The lesson being: In this world, you either break through and conquer or are broken through and conquered.

In all fairness, though, some of those contestants were serving 10s, 10s, 10s across the board.

With the success of American Gladiators, imitators inevitably followed. The most obvious rip-off was the raunchier and more overtly sexy Battle Dome, which took the American Gladiators model and added the wrestling drama of the WWE (then-WWF)—to even cheesier effect. But, to its credit, Battle Dome also first introduced us to national treasure Terry Crews.

Then there was the attempted American Gladiators reboot in 2008, hosted by beyond-problematic former wrestler Hulk Hogan, which failed to conjure the magic of the original. News surfaced last year that MGM was shopping around yet another revival of the show, with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg expected to executive produce, but nothing has come zip-lining down the pike just yet.

Still, American Gladiators lives on in shows like American Ninja Warrior and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Titan Games, featuring ordinary-ish people (seriously, have you seen any of those Ninja Warriors?) doing extraordinary things, but without the presence of hyper-muscular adversaries. That idea somehow seems as dated as Malibu’s golden locks.

And perhaps too knowingly gay. There was an innocence to American Gladiators that belied its sexual undertones. Despite who got broken through and who got conquered, there was always a sense of camaraderie and everyone was a paragon of good sportsmanship. At the end of the day, we were all just having good silly fun and the stakes were never that high.

For a bit of Nitro nostalgia, check out the pilot episode of American Gladiators below, courtesy of the official American Gladiators YouTube channel.
 

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat