Conversations about queer representation have dominated the discourse of LGBTQ people in entertainment in recent memory. Now, as pro-wrestling goes attempts a progressive overhaul in the face of growing social change, in what ways do the discussions about sexual diversity extend to an art form defined by artifice?
This is precisely a question wrestling fans have found themselves grappling with as New Japan Pro Wrestling’s explosively popular tag team, The Golden Lovers, has become an unlikely breakout. Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi, the flirtatious duo who comprise the team, must now wrestle with with the responsibility of queer identity.
The Golden Lovers formed in 2008 while both Omega and Ibushi competed in Japan’s more comedic league, Dramatic Dream Team Pro-Wrestling (DDT). With striking good looks and increasingly frisky homo-social contact, the two played with queerness by smooching in the ring to taunt opponents–in between gorgeously synchronized aerial attacks. While the couple never confirmed nor denied a romantic connection, the overt queerness of the pairing became blatantly obvious as Kenny and Kota moved on to New Japan Pro Wrestling, the country’s most prominent federation.
Gaining fame for their solo endeavors, the Lovers broke up in 2014–only to be reunited in January of this year after Omega was ousted as the leader of the nefarious Bullet Club (with Kota romantically rescuing Kenny from a mutiny by his underlings).
The delineation between a wrestler’s real life and their alter-ego is a blurry one, with some fabricating entirely new personalities for the ring and others staying truer to themselves during fights. Since the wrestling business writ large has traditionally kept the industry’s secrets under wraps, it’s sometimes hard to tell who is doing exactly what.
This bizarre dynamic plays into the controversy surrounding The Golden Lovers:Kenny Omega has come out as bisexual, and while Kota Ibushi has not discussed his IRL sexuality in public,fans continue to debate his proclivities. Is Kenny (the real person) or Kenny (the fictional character) queer?
“Let people think what they want to think,” Omega recently told Yahoo Sports. “If LGBT people can identify with our story, if they think ‘the Golden Lovers are my team,’ I’m good with that. It’s the story of two wrestlers who shared dreams on their way up, who became fast friends, who are now reuniting at the top of their game.”
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) April 1, 2018
“I think it’s important to show in the 21st century that if you’re gay, lesbian, trans, whatever, that you should feel just as welcome to be a wrestling fan as anyone else. You’re welcome in the space,” Omega said. “I do get some stupid messages on Twitter from homophobic people and they’re usually WWE fans, which kind of drives things home. In WWE, a gay person is usually portrayed like some sort of comedy act to be mocked and laughed at. The world’s not like that anymore. Everyone should feel welcome to the show.”
Kenny’s shade about the WWE isn’t exactly undeserved–the United States’ biggest wrestling company has a particularly shameful history when it comes to queer representation. And although WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon, has recently promised to improve the situation through a serious of meetings with GLAAD, fans have yet to see much change.
In Hollywood, actors and actresses who receive overwhelming accolades for “playing gay” have become the subjects of criticism–is the Golden Lovers situation that much different?
On the one hand, Omega and Ibushi are clearly coming to the issue with good faith and respect, and both stars deserve a modicum of privacy when it comes to their personal lives. On the other hand, it seems suspicious (at best) or exploitative (at worst) to pile heaps of praise and adoration (as fans have been doing) to people who profit off queer identity while actual out queer people continue to struggle to break through in the same industry.
The extent to which Kenny and Kota use ambivalent statements about their sexualities to deflect criticism remains a larger question about the ethics of the gimmick. It’s certainly unclear if they’d lose fans by taking a stance one way or the other on the matter.
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) February 13, 2018
The perception and popularity of The Golden Lovers as a specifically Japanese phenomenon is also curious, adding another layer of complexity to the situation is Japan’s idiosyncratic relationship to homosexuality. Homosexual activity is legal in Japan, however gay marriage is not. Laws on domestic partnerships vary from province to province. Legal protections from discrimination do not exist for queer people, either.
And yet despite the prominence of LGBTQ characters in many forms of Japanese popular media, considerable social stigma still exists for queer Japanese people, especially outside of major metropolitan areas like Tokyo. That is to say: the exuberance with which Japanese audiences have accepted The Golden Lovers does not necessarily reflect a certain kind of cultural tolerance which does not exist in America.
And yet, The Golden Lovers story line continues to grow. With American wrestler Cody Rhodes (ironically, the little brother of a legendary wrestler who notoriously dressed in drag to stir the audience’s ire) becoming increasingly involved in a bizarre love triangle with both Kenny and Kota, the are-they-or-aren’t-they sub-plot of NJPW grows ever more complex.
It would be too easy to take a hard line stance on The Golden Lovers situation by either dismissing them as cynically profiteering off diversity politics or unequivocally celebrating them as bastions of queer progress. Instead, it makes more sense to consider the questions this conundrum raises: Should we give well-meaning allies or semi-closeted queers a pass when it comes to representing LGBTQ people in sectors where acceptance does not come so easily? Do performers who play queer characters have some kind of social responsibility to be honest about their private sexualities? Is playful ambiguity acceptable when it comes to queer storylines, especially in a socio-political climate growing more hostile to openly gay people?
Header image by Kenny Omega