TV

Revolution in the Ring: Why Queer Wrestlers Are Winning 2019

Trans wrestler Nyla Rose leads the charge in a movement that is redefining one of America's most popular pastimes.

Queer wrestlers aren’t just having a moment in 2019—they’re becoming more visible and celebrated in pop culture than ever before. This year, transgender male wrestler Mack Beggs, a former high school state champ in Texas, not only starred in ESPN’s 30 for 30 docuseries episode “Mack Wrestles” but also appeared as a subject in the documentary film Changing the Game, about young trans athletes. Gay wrestler Jake Atlas recently signed with World Wrestling Entertainment and will make his WWE debut in 2020. Choke Hole, a New Orleans–based group of drag queen wrestlers, has strutted its way into the public psyche. And Cassandro, a gay Mexican-American wrestling icon, got his big moment in the spotlight in the documentary Cassandro the Exotico!, which hit theaters earlier this year.

Meanwhile, All Elite Wrestling’s Nyla Rose is now the first trans woman to sign to a major U.S. wrestling promotion. Like an upstart RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant coming out of nowhere to snatch the crown, AEW launched to much fanfare in 2019 and quickly became a huge challenger to WWE, which has dominated the sport for decades. AEW has sold out arena shows, and its TNT show All Elite Wrestling: Dynamite, which premiered October 2, has been crushing USA’s WWE NXT in ratings. The two shows are in the same time slot, and Nielsen reports that Dynamite has been getting an average of 908,000 U.S. viewers per episode, compared to WWE NXT’s 695,000 per episode.

The secret to AEW’s success? Diversity. It’s a pro wrestling company that’s genuinely inclusive of different ethnicities, races, genders, sexual identities, and body types. (It also helps that AEW was founded by billionaire heir Tony Khan, who serves as its president and CEO.)

“We’re kind of like the ’party mix’ of pro wrestling,” Rose tells NewNowNext. “There’s something for everyone here.”

Nyla Rose.
Lee South/All Elite Wrestling
Nyla Rose.

AEW stars Chris Jericho and Cody Rhodes get the most attention from fans and the media, but Rose, who is a Native American from the Oneida tribe, has been rapidly growing her own fan base. She’s been a hardcore stan of wrestling since she was a kid, watching as many shows as she possibly could and collecting massive amounts of merch.

Rose grew up in a lower-middle-class home in Washington, D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood and attended T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. In college she decided to go to wrestling school—KYDA Pro Wrestling in Manassas, Va.—where she learned not only what to do on the mat, but how to conduct business outside the ring. “I didn’t know how far it would take me,” she says of her decision, “but in the back of my mind failure was not an option.”

She came out as a trans woman more than a decade ago. “It was a slow roll,” Rose says. “I definitely didn’t have the courage to throw it all out there and be who I was. I was definitely tip-toeing around the bush.”

Professional wrestler and actress Nyla Rose visits SiriusXM Studios on October 4, 2019 in New York City.
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
Nyla Rose.

The turning point arrived when she was watching an Eddie Izzard documentary in which the transgender comedian discussed how challenging his own experience had been. “Seeing all he went through was kind of like the final piece of the puzzle,” Rose says. “That and [coming out to] some really close friends were the missing ingredients I needed. I was like, ‘I can’t hide this anymore. I have to be me, 100% authentic, to the fullest.’ I threw caution to the wind. I was ready to lose everything, and that’s when I gained everything.”

Rose offers advice to queer aspiring wrestlers and athletes on a similar journey: “We’re living in a much different time now. Trust me, I know, because I’ve lived it. If you surround yourself with the right people, if you find that safety net and you’re ready to risk it all, you’re going to get some great rewards.”

Nyla Rose and Riho in the ring.
Lee South/All Elite Wrestling
Nyla Rose and Riho in the ring.

Once upon a time, people would scoff at the idea of a wrestler becoming a blockbuster movie star, but Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—now one of the highest-paid actors of all time—and John Cena have proven it can be done. Rose also wants to try out acting and producing, and one of her dream projects is to make a horror movie that she’s conceived.

In the meantime, she’s ready for a rematch with Riho, the Japanese wrestler who won the first AEW Women’s World Championship title in AEW’s first Dynamite episode. Says Rose, “I can’t rest until that title is around my waist.”

All Elite Wrestling: Dynamite airs Wednesdays at 8pm EST on TNT.

Writer and editor whose work has appeared in AXS.com, Examiner.com, Lifetime, People, and Billboard.