Ken “Dazzler” Dunlop, Australia’s First Openly Gay Pro Wrestler Pens Autobiography
Professional wrestling has always had flashy, flamboyant characters who proudly wore sequins & feathery robes. People like “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair & Gorgeous George were the epitome of this on the global stage. Down here in Australia, Ken “Dazzler” Dunlop was paving a legacy of his own as Australia’s first openly gay professional wrestler.
Ken’s wrestling career began in 1977 at just 16 years old and would last until just 3 weeks before his 40th birthday. As a lifelong wrestling fan, Ken grew up watching wrestling with his family while growing up in the rural Victorian town of Moe. When wrestling shows would come to Gippsland, Ken’s family would always attend, but when they moved to Melbourne the passion really took off.
“We moved to Melbourne when I was 13–14, so then Mum & I started going to Festival Hall every Saturday night,” remembered Ken excitedly. “It was just the most amazing time in the world to go and meet some of the local wrestlers.”
With his passion having grown from a flickering flame to a roaring inferno, Ken knew he had to at least try to train to become a wrestler himself. A decision that would alter the course of Ken’s life & ultimately see him inducted into the Wrestling Hall Of Fame.
While all of Ken’s achievements inside the squared circle are phenomenal, it is actually his personal journey that is truly remarkable.
FINDING A HOME IN SYDNEY
While Ken grew up in Victoria he found his greatest wrestling success in Sydney after making a rather spur-of-the-moment decision to uproot his life & move.
As much of a career-defining decision as the move to Sydney was, it was an even more pivotal moment in Ken’s personal life. When Ken moved to Sydney & ventured down to Oxford Street for the first time he was “quite shocked” by what he saw.
“When I first came to Oxford Street, I saw two guys walking down the street holding hands, two girls holding hands. And I just thought, ‘Oh, wow’,” Ken recalled. “You just didn’t see that in Melbourne because there was no sort of gay area… So just seeing that really blew my mind.”
At that moment Ken immediately knew he was where he was meant to be.
“It made me feel like I was normal… when I came up here & saw people being so open & accepting, it just felt right & you felt safe.”
Having found his home & a safe place to be his true self, Ken would go on to meet his husband & again alter his life forever.
“Joey & I met in 2003,” glowed Ken. “At the time I was thinking about packing up & moving back to Melbourne because I’ve always wanted to go back home. But then I met Joey & just knew there was something special there & we’ve been here together now for 20 years.”
In the 20 years since then, Ken & Joey have called Sydney Inner West their home & have witnessed that area undergo major changes.
“When we moved here there were only 2 big buildings & we could see all the way to the airport. But now, there are 12 or so buildings blocking our view & the area itself has blown up. The area is a huge city of its own now, there are no houses anywhere it’s all just apartments but it’s still really peaceful. It’s fantastic.”
COMING OUT TO FAMILY
Not only was Ken an outstanding talent but he was an openly gay man in wrestling. A fact made even more noteworthy because it was at a time when homosexuality was still outlawed in Australia.
When Ken first started training he hadn’t come out to anybody, so he really struggled mentally & emotionally with coming to terms with his own sexuality. In his book, Dazzler Dunlop Inside My Squared Circle, Ken revealed that his struggles with his sexuality even led him to attempt suicide once.
As Ken explained, following his attempted suicide he knew he needed to come out to his family.
“I wasn’t necessarily scared to come out to my family but my father was a real old-fashioned, hardworking Australian guy. In his family history, there were never any hugs or anything like that, it was always just a handshake,” explained Ken. “So on the first night when I was going to tell them I chickened out. But then on the second night, I got my Mum, Dad & Grandma in a room & told them. Mum said ‘Oh, I’ve known forever’ & didn’t seem to care but Dad didn’t say a word & just walked out of the room.”
Thankfully after a night to sleep on it, Ken says his Dad told him, “Look, you're my son. I love you. I don't understand it. Just don't talk about it.” And then according to Ken “everything was back to normal.”
It wasn’t until some years later that Ken & his Dad’s relationship would become much closer.
“Ten years later, when my mother passed away, Dad & I became really, really close,” said Ken proudly. “He’d hold my hand & tell me he loved me. He accepted Joey [Ken’s husband] as his son-in-law & everything was fantastic.”
COMING OUT TO THE LOCKER ROOM
After coming out to his family Ken then had to come out to his second family, his peers in the wrestling locker room. A process that was met with a more shrouded hostility according to Ken, “I didn’t get a lock of negativity but some of the older guys didn’t like me & I assume it was because of my sexuality.”
However, Ken does recall vividly one moment when the hostility reared its ugly, violent head.
“The only time I ever got really abused for being gay happened in the early 80s. It was a really big thing back then to have an earring in your left ear & I’d forgotten to take it out before a match. As the referee was telling us the rules, my opponent said ‘You fucking faggot you’ve got your earring in’ before he leaned over & ripped it out so there was blood pouring out everywhere. Then the bell rang & we started the match as normal. That really, really shocked me & not a word was said after the match. The guy didn’t apologize or anything. That day I lost all of my respect for that guy.”
BLOOD IN WRESTLING
Blood in wrestling during Ken’s heyday was a relatively regular occurrence, which was remarkable given the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s.
Looking back on this time Ken described it as “really scary” despite the New South Wales Government Department of Sport and Recreation, which oversaw wrestling during that time, outright banning the intentional use of blood.
During that time in wrestling “juicing”, as it was known, was the process of intentionally cutting yourself to introduce blood into the match and was a common practice. However, for 5 years, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, “juicing” was banned.
“While there was no blood, HIV wasn’t really talked about with the other guys,” recalled Ken. “But, I remember when we started juicing again I would always ask my opponent if they were ok if I did it & nobody ever said no.”
Outside of wrestling though Ken said he was very scared of HIV, “I was still going out & doing my thing… I was pretty much a slut in those days. I’d go out looking for sex all the time but you just had to be very careful, so it was a pretty scary time.”
Although he was very careful in his consensual sexual interactions Ken explained in his book that he still experienced the dread of awaiting HIV test results after he had been raped.
“When I got raped that was unprotected sex & that really terrified me. In those days it took around 10 days to get your test results so for those 10 days I was shitting myself thinking what happens if I’ve got it. Luckily enough the result came back negative.”
EVOLUTION OF WRESTLING PORTRAYAL OF GAY CHARACTERS
In closing out our conversation with Ken we asked how he as a gay man, whose character avoided the gay stereotype tropes, felt about the portrayal of gay characters in wrestling.
“Gay characters were always made to be the bad guys because at the time it was said the fans loved seeing them get beat up. I think that’s pretty sad & pathetic.”
For Ken, he believes it was this portrayal of gay characters that contributed to many gay wrestlers being afraid to come out.
“So many gay wrestlers, both male & female, never came out. That's sad because they always had to have secrets & keep everything hidden.
Thankfully now the wrestling scene globally, but particularly here in Australia, has come a long way.
“I’ve been to about 6 shows in the last 6–7 months & it’s good to see that there are openly gay wrestlers on the shows now. There’s no backlash from the crowd or anyone. That’s how it should be because we all train the same.”
Ken’s book can be purchased at www.shawlinepublishing.com.au