What to get Billy and Chuck for a wedding present? (Nothing breakable. Maybe a cookbook?) "We sent them a gravy boat from Pottery Barn," said Scott Seomin of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "And it's from the Beverly Hills Pottery Barn, so it's just a little bit cooler."
First the New York Times wedding pages went all-inclusive, and now this: The gay newlyweds of the moment are championship tag-team wrestlers who planned to exchange vows in a fake commitment ceremony Tuesday night during World Wrestling Entertainment's weekly "Smackdown." (The proceedings, bookended by some actual smackdowns, will air tonight at 8 on UPN, in accordance with the unwritten rule that any wedding worth going to always ends in some kind of brawl.)
It was a whirlwind engagement: In front of God and everybody last week in an arena in Green Bay, Wis., Chuck got down on one knee, pulled a diamond ring from his tights and popped the question. Billy wept with joy, and accepted.
Two and a half millennia after the Greeks first grappled with the curious homoerotic aura of wrestling, Billy and Chuck have spent the current WWE season overtly flirting with one another -- delighting the audience and taunting their opponents with their blooming togetherness.
Love fuels their powerful rampage. It's hard to know if the audience loves them back or cringes at the sight of them; perhaps both. The Billy-Chuck story monkeywrenches much of what people presume to know about middle America, homophobia, showbiz and machismo.
But which one's Billy and which one's Chuck? You cannot say Chuck is the blond one, because they both have brightly peroxided hair and big, glistening muscles and matching red tights. (It's that dreaded clone-couple dilemma: You see it all the time at the Whole Foods on P Street.)
Despite these nuptials on the mat, Billy and Chuck's relationship, in the end, is just another fictive invention of professional wrestling: Chuck Palumbo and Monty Sopp -- the men who portray Chuck and Billy -- repeatedly avow their heterosexuality in interviews. (To underline that point, they were scheduled to appear this morning "as ourselves," Sopp said, on the "Today" show and "The Howard Stern Show.")
Sensing a ratings boost, WWE created this brute-meets-brute story, and audiences have, mirabile dictu, been as supportive as they know how to be of the team they call the Ambiguously Gay Duo -- although Billy and Chuck are frequently met with posters carried by female fans who have crushes on them and wish to "convert" them.
"I don't want to give away too much, but it went off perfectly," WWE spokesman Jayson Bernstein said of Tuesday's event. "You can expect to see a full-blown wedding. There are three singers at the ceremony, who sing 'It's Raining Men.' " If you don't want to spoil the results of tonight's TV show, then don't read this paragraph:
According to a Web site report filed by Pro Wrestling Torch magazine editor Wade Keller, who attended Tuesday's "Smackdown" in Minneapolis, the crowd chants "just say no" to the couple at the "I do" moment. The vows are interrupted by Chuck's, then Billy's, sudden case of cold feet; both wrestlers confess their straightness to the crowd. Billy never says "I do" because the Justice o' the Peace rips off his disguise to reveal himself as the nefarious Eric Bischoff, who has concocted the whole gay wedding plan with Rico, who was Billy and Chuck's personal stylist. An all-out rumble ensues involving Billy and Chuck and (hold on) Rosie, Jamal, Stephanie, Mysterio and Cena. Now proudly heterosexual, Billy and Chuck ascend to "babyface" status, meaning the crowd can root for them without reservation.
"This is the most mature way wrestling has ever handled a gay storyline, which isn't saying much at all," Keller said yesterday. "But what I've noticed that's different this time is that the crowds have been surprisingly tolerant of the Billy and Chuck angle. It wasn't so long ago that you would go to a wrestling event and be sitting next to kids who were encouraged to chant, 'faggot, faggot, faggot.' This time the audience responds to the gay, or effeminate, characters in a fun way, instead of as a way to express hate."
Billy and Chuck's story undoes that popular notion of red-vs.-blue America, which would generally look to libertine, urban, enlightened classes to pave the way for gay rights. (For example: Daniel Gross and Steven Goldstein, those nice Jewish boys whose commitment ceremony in Vermont over Labor Day weekend was the first same-sex wedding announcement published in the New York Times; a crowning achievement in East Coast, upper-crust terms and a ray of hope for gay men and lesbians who dream one day of the basic human right to the gift registry.)
Pro wrestling is grittier and, though make-believe, in some ways a better reflection of what's true about American life than the Times.
Watching Billy and Chuck's beef ballet in action makes the recent hand-wringing about closeted athletes in NASCAR or professional baseball seem like an outdated hangup: If wrestling fans can let a gay wedding -- even a sham one -- onto their big-screen TVs, is it possible that things could also change in churches, legislatures and city hall? The wedding is a ratings stunt for an increasingly desperate WWE, but what else does it portend?
"It's a hoot," said Seomin, who is GLAAD's entertainment media director in Los Angeles, and has kept on an eye on Billy and Chuck's adventures, given criticism in the 1990s that wrestling frequently glorified gay bashing.
"The audience, from what we've seen, appears to be cheering them on," he said. "While it's entertaining for viewers, it's also enlightening. Because of its teenage audience, 'Smackdown' reaches a lot of potential bullies and gay bashers out there, and what Billy and Chuck are saying is not only 'We're here,' but they also say, 'Don't mess with us.' "
Keller cautions that pro wrestling is still not a gay-friendly work environment: "I've interviewed a lot of other wrestlers who say they feel sorry for Billy and Chuck, that they've ruined their careers. Except for [former wrestler and WWE story writer] Pat Patterson, there's never been anyone in wrestling who's actually come of the closet."
Reached at their New York hotel room yesterday, both Billy and Chuck said they enjoyed pretending they were gay, falling back on a familiar safety net: "People's sex preferences are their own business, but I've never had a problem with people who are gay," Sopp (Billy) said. "I was amazed -- there wasn't one negative thing that's happened. Ten years ago there would have been all kinds of problems -- people would have been yelling [slurs] at us, throwing stuff at us. But it's been great. Maybe because we don't really play it so over-the-top."
"It's almost 2003," Palumbo (Chuck) added. "Maybe people are finally over it."
Billy and Chuck have subverted and toyed with effeminate stereotypes for several weeks of "Smackdown." Rather than rise above it all, they get down with it.
They are rewriting their sport's previous history, which dates to the 1940s, when "Gorgeous George" Wagner -- a lispy, Liberace-esque blond -- took to the ring in purple tights. Despite many victories, Gorgeous George also frequently got his clock cleaned, to the delight of rabidly anti-gay fans. "Exotic Adrian" Street and "Adorable Adrian" Adonis pranced around the ring 40 years later, wearing makeup for provocation. They were cruisin' for a bruisin', and they usually wound up as "heels," or villains. (A pay-per-view wrestling league, the National Wrestling Alliance/Total Nonstop Action, also dallied with a "gay" tag team this summer, Lenny and Bruce.)
The honeymoon, of course, may not last long for Billy and Chuck, given pro wrestling's finicky trend of building up heroes just so they can take a fall.
"We expressed some concern about that," Seomin said. "In talking to the folks at WWE, we were told that the reason for the characters is not to set them up for a gay bashing in the ring or through audience taunts that would come later. I don't think that's what the WWE wants. What they want, what they're doing, is piggybacking on what's topical. Gay weddings are topical right now. And I have to say that bringing camp to the masses is always a good thing."
WWE officials have taken care not to put forth any agenda here -- camp or otherwise. Spokesman Bernstein says there's no greater scheme to promote gay rights or tear them down with a surprise chair hat. It was all just a story.
About two men in love.
Battling the odds.
America seemed ready to accept this, then Billy and Chuck outed themselves to the crowd of 10,000 wrestling maniacs. Before the grooms had a chance to kiss, they came out as straight.
"Which explains," Keller said, "why they were such poor dressers."