This May in Voorhees, New Jersey, two men—suited in matching black cocktail dresses with porcelain skin and blown-out blonde wigs—took each other by the hand as they entered the ring at the Women's Superstars Uncensored (WSU) indie wrestling show. For a moment, the audience had no idea what they were looking at. They had paid to watch women's wrestling, and here, halfway through the show, a pair of drag queens had stepped out before the crowd.
A cacophony of boos and jeers followed. One man mouthed the word queers, while others laughed as a teen pointed at the men and yelled “gross!"
The duo—Rick Cataldo, 26, and Eddy McQueen, 22—are known as The Fella Twins, an unrelated drag parody of the World Wrestling Entertainment's The Bella Twins. They are an intergender wrestling team—meaning they fight both men and women in and out of drag—and they are the first openly gay tag team wrestlers on the indie circuit, which is a low-budget form of wrestling that focuses less on the pageantry of WWE matches and more on the athleticism and wooing of the crowd.
Being the first openly gay tag team wrestlers is a vanguard title accompanied by the pressure of appealing to an industry and fan base that's long had a reputation for being anti-gay. And in a world ruled by masculine stereotypes, where audiences often cheer louder for the duo when they lose, The Twins are carving out a new space for wrestlers whose appearance and identity diverge from the sport's norm.
Above: Rick Cataldo
This February, The Twins defeated a tag team named Chicks Using Nasty Tricks to cinch the WSU Tag Team Championship. They were there three months later to defend that title against M.J. Jenkins and Willow Nightingale, and were staged to win the match. But as they waited for their competitors with championship belts slung over their shoulders, The Fella Twins were left standing cold. One of the opponents in the tag team tournament had been injured and the promoter of the event couldn’t find a replacement, according to a text sent to Cataldo from the show’s booker, DJ Hyde.
Cataldo raised a microphone to address the crowd, but not before he was cut off by a group of men chanting for him to "shut the fuck up!” That kind of treatment wasn’t unusual for the tag team.
Above: Eddy McQueen
The duo are are not the first or only gay wrestlers, but they are the first to openly embrace their sexuality while in character. Many other "gay" characters in professional and indie wrestling have been straight men performing as homosexual for a gimmick. In one 2002 stunt, the WWE tag team duo Billy and Chuck announced that they were gay, planned a marriage in the ring, received an official endorsement from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and then revealed the stunt as a prank during the officiation.
The history of gay professional wrestling is markedly dark.
Chris Kanyon, a WWE and World Championship Wrestling character who came out in 2004, said he was forced out for being openly gay, and protested matches with signs asking fans to "pray for my gay soul." He committed suicide in 2010 after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And Darren Young, a WWE tag team champion who came out in 2013, tweeted that he was excluded from performing in WWE shows in Abu Dhabi because of his sexuality.
Without positive gay wrestlers to look to, the road to their debut was one The Twins had to pave themselves. Cataldo got his start in Brooklyn at 16, as The Boy Diva, and was inspired by his female wrestler idols, like Madusa and Chyna. "He was a kid eager to learn," said friend and former wrestler Danny Demanto. "But he obviously had a disadvantage in wrestling as a gay man and then wanting to play a gay character."
That disadvantage became a strength when he met McQueen in 2014. "It felt as if I already knew him," McQueen said in an interview. "We didn't go through that get-to-know-you phase of our friendship, because we just understood each other.”
From their debut that year at a wrestling show in New Jersey, The Twins served as a social experiment in the limits of what conservative wrestling audiences will tolerate. As they honed their act over several months and competed across the Northeast, they felt as if they were treated more like comedians than athletes. They were slated to lose many matches, and when they won, audiences only hated them more.
They've since headlined matches, won championship belts, and, more than anything, inspired other gay wrestlers within the wrestling circuit.
"Rick and Eddy definitely did pave the way," said openly gay indie wrestler Bryce Boyer, who wrestles under the name Jamie Senegal. "I know a lot of gay wrestlers who were older, and always said how hard it was to come into the business and be gay, and a lot of them still aren't out, so to know there's people like Rick and Eddy—you know, people love them.”
The Twins are revered among other indie wrestlers who say their performances are unparalleled among wrestlers of their stature.
"They can get the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands," said wrestler Marti Bell. "They can make you completely fall in love with or completely hate them. It's something a lot of wrestlers don't know how to do.”
But in May, standing in the ring without a team to fight, subject to taunts from all sides, the duo found a ready reminder that even champion wrestlers can be treated like losers.
"I like the idea of what we're doing—of The Fella Twins—but then shit like this happens," said Cataldo after the match. "The Fella Twins are your champions. We're two fucking drag queens, gender benders, whatever the fuck you wanna consider us. And you can't book two girls against us? It's just stupid."
Cataldo has alluded to the eventual end of The Fella Twins, and has made clear that he may leave wrestling altogether before long. But McQueen has yet to lose sight of the importance he and other nonconforming figures hold in changing the calcifying landscape of a distinctly American sport.
"We are so unique in the world of wrestling," said McQueen. "And I think the world is ready for The Fella Twins. It's something the world needs to see.”
Below, watch the trailer for an upcoming documentary featuring The Fella Twins that will be released in February. For more information, visit the author’s website: JosephDariusJaafari.com.
Joseph Jaafari is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn. He covers subjects ranging from military health to gun violence. His work can be seen in The Atlantic, VICE, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Daily News. Reach him through his website or Twitter @JosephJaafari.