By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: AEW, Joshua Shelton
Queer people everywhere are experiencing heightened discrimination, but if there’s hope to be found, it might just be in, of all places, the wrestling ring. That’s where Anthony Bowens recently experienced a tremendously heartening show of allyship during Pride Month, when the openly gay Black pro wrestler was showered with support from thousands of wrestling fans.
During an All Elite Wrestling (AEW) Rampage event in June, Bowens responded to QTV on-air personality Harley Cameron, who suggested that Bowens couldn’t resist her if he tried, by telling her she must have been “kicked in the head too many times by a kangaroo” as a kid. It took her a minute to figure out what he was alluding to — that he’s gay, ladies, and coupled with his boyfriend of seven years, Michael Pavano. Then, a full crowd showed their solidarity with Bowens when they chanted “He’s gay!”
Bowens, who came out as bisexual in January 2017 and then later as gay, made history in 2022 when he and Max Caster, a tag team in AEW (a rival of WWE) known as The Acclaimed, won the company’s world tag team championship for the first time. The win made Bowens, 32, the first openly gay wrestler to win an AEW championship. His raw, tearful emotions were captured after their victorious moment on video, when Bowens offered hope to those struggling with who they are: “I never thought I’d be able to have a moment like this. I never thought I’d be able to live my dream because there was a time when I was very confused and I didn’t know how to accept myself,” he said at the time. “And now I cry because I’m a champion.”
During our recent interview, Bowens spoke about being surprised by the recent pro-gay chant, his vastly different experience in the locker room these days and being the example he wished he had as a kid.
When I watch the “He’s gay!” chant, it gives me hope for the queer community and for this next presidential election — maybe there are fewer homophobic people than I think.
It looks grim, but at the same time, it’s not. A lot of people have humanity, they’re human beings. They appreciate, respect and love other people. But that segment was something very unexpected because I had never approached it in that way before. My type of activism is, I show up and I am trying to be as visible and successful as possible and to try to lead by example. I’ve always been that way. When I played baseball, I was never the team captain, but I was a team leader. I showed up, I played hard, I contributed, I supported everybody. They supported me. And then I go home. I figure that’s just who I am as a person, and that’s how I do it every single week on TV. I try to represent as best as I can.
But I also don’t want to shoehorn anything. I want it to be something fun and something special. And when they presented that to me in this particular scenario, I was like, “Absolutely.” This seems like the perfect time to do it. It was Pride Month. I didn’t know how people were going to react. I thought it would just be like a “cool.” But to have an entire arena chanting at you, “He’s gay,” in a positive way, it was so much fun. It was unexpected. But I think the aftermath of it was the best part because it touched so many different people. I was expecting it to be, excuse my language, a shitshow of just negativity considering what’s been going on in the world. So much positivity, so many messages from other athletes, from just other people in general that looked at that as a moment of hope for them. Something that I really didn’t have when I was in the closet and trying to figure out my sexuality and trying to figure out if I had a space within professional wrestling if I came out. So I am honored that I could do something like that for other people. And hopefully it’s something that will connect with them and they can understand that there are doors and avenues available to them to live your dreams, whatever that may be.
What are some of the reactions that you received after the chant?
A lot of gratitude and a lot of thank yous. Because no one’s ever said it in a wrestling ring. No one just ever said it. And I found that, now that I think about it, kind of strange. I don’t know if it’s out of fear of what the reaction would be or if they just didn’t want to cross that bridge, but it’s like, “This is who I am.” Everybody can be themselves in any other way possible every single week, so why can’t I, and why can’t everybody else?
So now that we’ve crossed that bridge, hopefully there’s a lot more doors open for a lot more LGBTQ athletes in professional wrestling. We’re in a lot better place than where we were when I first started, because there’s a ton of open LGBTQ wrestlers out there. Some on television, a lot of thriving [ones] on the independents. So hopefully we continue to grow and get more in, because there are a lot more in other sports and entertainment.
Some wrestlers, like Nyla Rose, the first openly trans woman to sign with a major pro wrestling company, have been met with some vitriol. Wrestler Rick Steiner, for instance, went on a transphobic rant and was banned from WrestleCon. It seems you’re having a different, more positive experience, but as somebody who’s part of the community you must also be aware that not everyone’s having that same experience.
Absolutely. I always say that I am lucky in the sense that I could navigate a lot of parts of life without worry, because sometimes people don’t know, and other people don’t have that privilege. If I give a piece of advice to somebody who may not be living in an area where being LGBTQ+ is welcome, that advice could potentially harm them. And I don’t want to put anybody in that kind of position. So it gets to be very hard.
I can’t speak to Nyla, I don’t know what her experience is, but I do know that there are always horrible people out there. And I’m not clear from hate either, because two years ago in Long Island somebody was yelling out, calling me the F-word. I didn’t hear it in the ring, but it came out over the broadcast and it caused a bit of a hoopla. But he got reprimanded, and I believe he was escorted out. A lot of people now are policing that when they hear stuff like that. There’s plenty of independent shows where somebody’s yelled out something homophobic, and fans are just like, “Get out. You’re not welcome here.”
Did you ever expect your “Scissor me, daddy ass” catchphrase would become the phenomenon that it has?
No. It’s something that I said on a whim live on television. I just thought of it five minutes before I said it, and the next thing you know it just exploded. And I cannot believe the amount of scissors that people create themselves. They spend all night creating custom scissors to bring to the arenas, and we got the foam finger. It’s crazy.
What’s your earliest memory of how you felt watching wrestling?
It was about the pageantry and the aura that it had around it. It’s a different kind of energy and a different kind of vibe than any other form of entertainment. You have a live audience and you’ve got physicality, you have athleticism, you got millions of people watching you at home. You’ve got different characters, you’ve got storytelling. I loved everything about it. And did I know I was going to be a wrestler one day? No. Did I think it was possible? Also no, because I didn’t know how. I just knew that I loved it, and it’s just a very unique form of entertainment. When I started questioning my sexuality, there wasn’t much to relate to in terms of what I was watching.
Did anyone help you feel that you could be a wrestler?
Really no one. Darren Young came out I believe in 2013, and I had just started wrestling then. Other than Darren, there wasn’t anybody really, because a lot of times, anything that was remotely LGBTQ was used as comedic fodder. So there wasn’t really much, which is all the reason why … that’s what kept me in the closet a lot longer. It drove me even more to be successful because I would like to be that example. And I’m fortunate enough to do that every single week now. The community needs somebody to look toward in this particular space.
Knowing your struggle, what did it mean to you when you became the first gay champion in AEW history?
It’s mind-blowing. It was one of the best nights of my life, to be honest with you. The one thing that stood out after I won was, throughout all the confetti and all the people cheering, I was able to look up and somehow saw my dad cheering me on. It was a great night, and it meant a lot to me, and it meant a lot to a lot of people.
And I still have a ton more goals that I’d like to achieve because there’s never been a gay world champion, and hopefully one day. Max and I are doing a lot of cool things together as The Acclaimed; maybe we’ll be a tag team forever, maybe there might be a time where we split off. I have no idea. But if that does ever happen, that’s what I’m gunning for.
What does it mean to you to know that a younger LGBTQ+ generation is looking to you as an open door? How do you process that?
It means a lot because I may not have went through what other people have gone through, but what I went through was shitty. A lot of mental anguish, a lot of feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. A lot of stress. A lot of fear, a lot of anxiety. I just wish I could go back and tell younger Bowens that everything will be OK. All I could do was cry. I didn’t know what my future would be like. I’d pulled into my garage and I just sat in the car for 30 minutes and just wept. I felt like it was hopeless.
How old were you?
I was in college, probably about 18, 19 years old, maybe 20. I had a great support system around me, my friends and my family, but none of them can truly relate to what I was going through, none of them are LGBTQ. So it was a very, very rough time. But again, I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that. And also I hope that I could help people not feel that way. So hopefully this journey continues to connect and reach people across the world so they can feel a little less hopeless than I felt.
As a closeted gay kid, the locker room in school was one of the scariest places for me. For you, what is it like sharing a locker room with other wrestlers and being open about your sexuality?
I’ve had zero issues. I think that was one of the things that impressed me most about All Elite Wrestling before I signed — how inclusive the locker room was. We had [trans and genderfluid wrestler] Sunny Kiss there and Nyla Rose that were already contracted before I arrived. And it impressed me so much how much they walked around judgment-free, and they were just themselves. They weren’t altering their personalities at all to fit in. They were just themselves. And I thought, “Wow, this is cool.” So I’ve never had an issue with anybody on the roster. I feel very comfortable. I was very comfortable talking about my personal life. I could talk about my boyfriend and about past experiences, and everyone welcomes it. And I don’t feel out of place at all.
In the past, maybe when I first started wrestling in the independents 10 years ago, the locker room talk was very different [and it] would make me feel uncomfortable to even bring anything up.
You mentioned your boyfriend, Michael, who joins you on a YouTube channel called “Michael & Anthony,” where you parody a lot of trash TV together. How did that start, and what is it like to work with your boyfriend?
The YouTube channel was actually kind of the catalyst to helping me come out in the first place. We made a little video back in 2016 that went viral and it helped grow the YouTube channel. We would do couples vlogs for a while. We just couldn’t figure out what our niche was content-wise. And then the pandemic hit, and we were watching a show called “Love Is Blind.” Michael’s very good at impressions, and he was making fun of one of the people on the show, and he was like, “Why don’t we make a parody of this and put it on YouTube?” And I was like, “That sounds fun. We have nothing else better to do, we’re stuck indoors.” So we put that up and it got a million views. So we thought, “Huh, well this is maybe something that we should go to.”
We’ve kind of backed off it a little bit. We’re in here in Los Angeles, and he’s really starting to get his acting career jump started. So he is really focused on that. And I’ve been traveling ridiculously. We just bought a home together.
Now that you’ve broken major ground with your career, what would you like to see as the next frontier in wrestling when it comes to visibility for queer people?
I think more representation in general in sports, because I think that would be the best thing for moving things forward. Because everyone, they love sports, they love soccer, they love football. It’s such a massive thing. And if we had a lot more out successful athletes that are just proud of being themselves, and we can normalize this experience as opposed to it being this whole big ordeal of coming out and then, “Well, can they adjust?” Of course they can adjust. We’re great athletes; we just happen to be gay or bi or whatever. It doesn’t matter.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.