When All Elite Wrestling was founded in 2019, the company set out to create an inclusive company that was accepting of all races, sexualities, ideologies, and genders. Four years into the company’s existence and it’s safe to say they’ve done just that — Nyla Rose was the first trans women’s wrestler to sign with a major promotion (later becoming the first AEW Women’s Champion), Anthony Bowens was co-holder of the AEW Tag Team Championships, Toni Storm held the AEW Women’s Championship, and Aubrey Edwards was the first female referee to officiate a world title match. But these are just a few of other examples of this woven throughout the company.
We spoke with Bowens about what pride means to him, and how the landscape of professional wrestling has changed in recent years with the influx of LGBTQ+ wrestlers not just in mainstream wrestling, but the independent scene, as well. From Effy, Edith Surreal, Allie Katch, Jamie Senegal, Max the Impaler, AC Mack, Asuka/Veny, Dark Sheik, Trish Adora, Billy Dixon, and more — what was once a predominantly hyper-masculine sport that put queer people at the butt of every joke, is now embracing queerness and putting their talent and stories on the map. For companies like AEW, it’s become a destination for LGBTQ+ talent on screen and off.
New Jersey born Bowens got his start in professional wrestling by taking bookings as a singles wrestler up and down the east coast on the independents before eventually catching the eye of AEW in 2020. Being featured primarily on AEW Dark, he met his now tag team partner Max Caster and the two were packaged as The Acclaimed: a quirky, eye-catching team with leaps of potential that won over fans with their in-ring ability and Caster’s head turning raps that became synonymous with the duo, as soon as you hear the sirens blare through the arena and “Yo! Listen!” you know you’re in for a treat.
In 2022 after becoming a red-hot tag team, they would face Swerve in Our Glory (Swerve Strickland and Keith Lee) for the AEW Tag Team Championships at All Out, one of AEW’s biggest yearly pay-per-view events. During the show, they proved exactly why they deserved that spot and in that moment, fans knew it as well. Chicago wrestling fans are always a passionate group, but not a single person in the NOW Arena that night was rooting against them.
Just a few weeks later in New York for AEW Dynamite Grand Slam, they would have a rematch, one that they would win and become tag team champions for the first time. Bowens became AEW’s first Black gay male champion, joining AEW’s Rose and Storm as openly LGBTQ+ champions within the company. “I take representing the company as a badge of honor in all kinds of fields. I want to represent AEW in all assets of entertainment, you know? Not just in the ring, but outside the ring as well. I want to bring more eyes to the company so they can see how diverse our roster is, how fun the shows are. So that’s something that I’ve always wanted to do for wherever I landed. And I want to make sure that the whole world knows what AEW is, how inclusive they are, and how fun professional wrestling can be.”
With decades of chronicled homophobia and toxic masculinity in the sport, Bowens and Caster’s on-screen personas aim to dismantle that. When heading to the ring, Caster does his famed rap while Bowens puts his fingers down into an “A” for Acclaimed. After Caster interconnected their fingers by doing the same motion so it looked like scissors on live TV jokingly, it stuck. Since, this “scissoring movement” of sorts has taken over AEW and it’s something that Bowens is extremely proud of. “Max [Caster] and I are very proud of it. We know it’s a little bit of an innuendo but at the same time, [you] find friendship and it’s something fun that people can do no matter who you are to each other. Everybody extends their hand and shakes hands or you can extend your two fingers and scissor each other,” Bowens said. “But it is fun just seeing people from all walks of life doing it and enjoy doing it. Max and I get tagged all the time with people from around the world — gay, straight, no matter what race you are, how old you are, how young — everybody loves to do it. And it’s really, really cool to see. That’s something that we want to continue to do is bring people together, especially with all the craziness that’s going on. Yelling at each other and hating on each other. I want to bring people together and have some fun and put smiles on people’s faces.”
There’s a lot to be said about some companies in and out of wrestling showcasing people on television strictly during Pride Month (i.e. “rainbow washing”). With AEW, not only are LGBTQ+ wrestlers becoming champions, they’re also being featured in major storylines on a weekly basis and for a lot of them, are cornerstones for the company. All across the wrestling sphere there’s a push for better queer stories highlighted stemming from wanting to preserve the importance of the topic while rewriting the ugly underbelly of LGBTQ+ “representation” in the sport by making wrestling more progressive and inclusive. “I think companies should be working towards better. For me, I’d want to present it the right way, considering how things were presented in the past which was presented terribly. So I’m actively trying to figure out what would be a good story to tell; what would be the right way to go. Because, again, if we are going to do it the right way, we’ve got to make sure that we are doing it the right way. It will be under a microscope because people want to see how this goes, how it plays out, how the story’s written. So there’s a delicacy to it too. It hasn’t really been done correctly before. So that’s something that I would like to probably do in the future.”
Like previously mentioned, Bowens doesn’t want his contributions just to lay in the ring — in fact, he’s already taken steps in pursuit of an acting career after starting a YouTube channel six years ago with his boyfriend, Michael Pavano, where they post skits and vlog style content. Bowens has appeared in commercial ad campaigns as well, and most recently modeled for Savage X Fenty’s Pride collection. “My wonderful manager Julian had been working on that for awhile and it finally came to fruition this year, which was super, super cool. That’s one of the examples of what I mean to go out and represent the company in all facets of entertainment. I’d like to do more — I have a few other projects that will be dropping soon. TV and film is a big goal of mine as well. I want to be able to hit everything and keep all these cool moments coming.”
While Pride has always been a fight for equality, Pride month is also a time to recognize how far we have come as a community with activism since the events of the Stonewall Riots, a catalyst for the gay rights movement. Above all, it’s about reinforcing equal rights for all — especially with the rampant hate campaigns currently taking place around the world. However, with the diversity amongst the community, it means everyone has their own unique experience and Pride can mean something different for every individual. For Bowens, it means not living in fear of who you are. “Pride means just being authentically you and embracing it and loving yourself. You know, a lot of times when you’re struggling with yourself or you’re in the closet, or you’re trying to present yourself to the world and you’re scared, your self-confidence drops and yourself image drops. It means breaking and shaking that completely — accepting yourself, loving yourself, and not letting all of that negative energy consume you. It’s about celebrating who you are as an individual.”