Sport’s Hidden Lives: Ben English
Coming out as a sportsman has always been a complicated affair. Nick Smith considers what this means, and talks to wrestler Ben English, aka The VIP, about his experience of coming out in the world of professional wrestling.
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A few weeks ago, Ian Thorpe, an Australian swimmer, decided to tell the world he was gay. This was preceded by a rather tasteless “will he-won’t he” cliff-hanger advertising campaign from the interview with Michael Parkinson in which this was revealed. It’s so not 2014. Of course, there were the usual ignorant comments from the heterosexual peanut gallery, one particular gem was, “I am not letting my children swim in the same pool as Ian Thorpe because I don’t want them getting HIV or AIDS! #IanThorpe #GayIsWrong”. Fellow countryman Matthew Mitcham faced a similar reaction when he came out prior to the 2008 Olympic games, although social media was not quite as ubiquitous then. What is most disconcerting, however, is the lack of support from within our own community. There were those bemoaning his multiple denials, those saying that it doesn’t mean anything and those simply saying “duh!”. I think it’s very important to have people in the public eye come out and what people easily forget is that coming out is a very personal experience. Every one of us has a different story, some of brilliant acceptance, others of ignorant disapproval.
Tom Daley seemed to get an even rougher backsplash when he decided to come out in a YouTube video. Some of the comments about him saying he still liked girls, meaning that he was inferring he was bisexual – thus not purely gay – were particularly insidious and lent further credence to the bitchy-gay stereotypes.
If we think back to when Martina Navratilova came out in 1981, it must have been a very lonely experience. She lost millions in endorsements, but battled to keep her integrity. Because of her, other people have had the courage to renounce the closet in the locker room. That is not to say that attitudes changed in the way, or at the speed, we would have wanted. When Amelie Mauresmo came out some 18 years later, she suffered some dreadful criticism from her peers – a bitter Lindsay Davenport saying it was like “playing a guy”, particularly ridiculous and ironic as Davenport towers over her by six inches and has a much bigger frame. The insolent and childish Martina Hingis was quoted to say Mauresmo was “half a man”, but such levels of ignorance and jealousy are really quite unparalleled. The women’s tennis circuit has always had a narrow-minded view of what is feminine. At the time, we could thank our own Andrew Castle who stated, “She is the perfect antidote to the way women’s tennis is going… …we care about Amelie, because we feel as if we know her.” Annabel Croft reshifted the focus back to her tennis saying, “Her game is beautiful to watch. It’s full of artistry and variety.”
Ben English, who has performed for years in the world of professional wrestling/sports entertainment under the name The VIP, decided that he could no longer hide his sexuality. Beginning his career in August 2006, he travelled around Canada, Australia and the UK, playing the villainously arrogant character. One of the highlights of his career was being one of the stars of Pyramid Productions television show, World of Hurt, which was broadcast across the Cave Network in Canada and Trace Sports in the UK.
Was there a particular trigger to you coming out or was it more of a natural thing?
For me, the main trigger for choosing to come out to my peers in the world of professional wrestling was a desire to no longer live a double-life. In a world of social media, having to be constantly aware of everything that was posted about me became incredibly exhausting. I was (and still am) in an incredibly happy relationship and felt secure enough in myself to know that I would be able to handle the reaction.
Did you face any scrutiny from your peers or people from the LGBTIQ community?
I was very fortunate to receive huge amounts of support from not only my peers, but also the LGBTIQ community as a whole. The only scrutiny I faced was from people’s stereotyping of professional wrestlers as oiled up men in spandex. On the day I decided to “come out”, I received tweets of “well of course he’s gay, have you seen wrestling on TV?”. I was very conscious throughout this to protect the wrestling world, so these sorts of messages were somewhat frustrating.
What advice would you give to someone facing the same issues?
My advice would be simple, only do it when you’re ready to do it. You should never feel pressured by those around you to do anything you’re not comfortable with. But let me assure you, it’s never going to be as bad as you think. Professional wrestlers are not the most politically correct group, but the messages of support I received from my peers were incredible. When you are ready and feel the time is right, you will feel a huge weight lift from your shoulders and will be able to enjoy just being you!
Do you think it’s important for people in the public eye to come out?
I think it’s fantastic when people in the public eye choose to come out publicly. They have the opportunity to be an inspiration to people out there who may be struggling with acceptance for who they are. Last year, WWE superstar Darren Young came out as gay, and has received incredible support from WWE. He serves as a huge inspiration for wrestling fans young and old. We can only hope, however, that we reach a time when members of the LGBTIQ community won’t need to “come out”, much in the same way that members of the heterosexual community don’t have to come out as heterosexual.
It’s a real shame that the focus is often on a person’s sexuality and being defined in a one-dimensional fashion with labels. I like to think that there is much more to me than my sexuality and that I have a lot more to offer and I certainly do not view others solely in terms of their sexual proclivities, no matter how they identify. This is not to say that I am conceited and that I am not an advocate for equal rights and diversity; I just like to think there is much more on the table. There are some “militant” gay men that believe sexuality is finite; in fact I have often been defined bisexual because I have slept with a woman. An ex of mine once said I was not a “thoroughbred” which is a particularly small-minded and absurd view of sexuality. I identify myself as a gay man and have done for the past 14 years. I spend far less time pondering my sexuality than I do travelling, reading, writing, cooking or, in other words, opening my mind and continuing to keep it open.