Every movement needs a solid foundation; figures and moments that make a statement while carving paths for those in their stead. The modern LGBTQ pro wrestling movement has plenty of highlights that accomplish that mission. The accomplishments of Billy Dixon, EFFY, Mariah Moreno, MV Young, Nyla Rose and countless other out pro wrestlers planted the rainbow flag solidly in the pro wrestling landscape in recent years.
But LGBTQ pro wrestling’s rise cannot be limited simply to the last decade. As the forthcoming documentary Out In The Ring points out, the LGBTQ presence within pro wrestling stretches back nearly to pro wrestling’s beginnings. If today’s grapplers are building the house of LGBTQ pro wrestling, figures like Sandy Parker drew the blueprint.
Parker wasn’t the only out pro wrestler during the 1970s and 1980s, but her in-ring career stands at multiple intersections within the cultural landscape of pro wrestling. The Black Canadian-born, self-professed wrestling addict entered the industry in 1969, training under Lou Klein, Mary Jane Mull and Lucille Dupree in Michigan.
Amid the backdrop of the continuing fight for racial equity, Parker began building a legacy in a business that historically didn’t afford equitable opportunities to marginalized populations – many of which Parker represents.
Like many female wrestlers of the era, Parker moved to South Carolina early in her career to join Lillian Ellison, known to wrestling fans as The Fabulous Moolah, and her stable of female wrestlers. Much of American women’s wrestling ran through Ellison at that time, and Parker reaped the opportunities presented. But it wasn’t long before the tight-fisted control Ellison wielded over the women’s wrestling landscape pushed Parker to find her own way.
Ellison took significant percentages of payments to the women under her management, including Parker. Ellison also prohibited the out Parker from going to gay bars and ecouraged her to date men. The contentious relationship ultimately cost Parker bookings.
“If you didn’t do things her way, then you didn’t do it all,” Parker said in a 2008 interview with Slam Wrestling. “I wasn’t on her good side because I wouldn’t do what she wanted me to do. That was one of the reasons I never worked Madison Square Garden because every time the bookings came up, I’d be on her bad side.”
Parker still racked up some highlights before leaving Ellison’s camp in favor of another women’s wrestling legend, Mildred Burke. She partnered with fellow out pro wrestler Susan Green to win the NWA Women’s World Tag Team titles in 1971, though the title change wasn’t recognized by the NWA. Parker also challenged Ellison multiple times for the NWA World Women’s championship.
But Parker would leave her most indelible mark on pro wrestling when she left for Japan in 1973. Debuting for All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling in April of that year, Parker immediately became a highlight of the promotion. She would defeat Miyoko Hoshino for the promotion’s top title, the WWWA World championship, just one month later, ending Hoshino’s 293-day reign. The win etched Parker’s name in the annals of pro wrestling history as the first out pro wrestler to win a world championship.
Parker would remain a top name in the promotion following her run with the world title, capturing the WWWA Tag Team titles eight times, including four separate reigns with Betty Nicoli, a wrestler Parker pegs as her best in-ring companion. “Whenever you have a good match, it is because the other person is good … when you have two people who know what they are doing, you have a great match, people actually believe what is going on,” Parker told Slam Wrestling.
Parker would continue wrestling in Japan and North America, including the first women’s match in 50 years in the state of Oregon in 1975, until retiring in 1986 and settling in Las Vegas, Nev.
Though many of her material accomplishments occurred overseas, Parker’s legacy didn’t go unnoticed in the country where she started her career. Parker was inducted into the Cauliflower Alley Club, an organization that honors wrestlers and boxers and highlights the history of both, in 2004.
Parker’s 17-year career stands as a landmark for so many that came in her wake. She stood atop one of the best women’s wrestling promotions in the wrestling world as a Black wrestler 20 years before Aja Kong and Awesome Kong did the same. She was a key part of paving the way for today’s LGBTQ pro wrestling boom by showing defiance in the face of discrimination.
And that attitude is clearly reflected in today’s roster of out wrestlers as they create their own spaces while making strides in major promotions worldwide.