In November, rumours swirling around the release of former World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar James Ellsworth indicated that he was poised to win the Women’s Championship following the coming out of his character as a transgender woman.
Perhaps in an effort to incorporate LGBTQIA storylines into their product - as they declared they would do in 2016 - WWE would have gone about it all the wrong way, casting a cisgender man in the role of a trans woman, as other movies and television shows have done in the past.
When I asked Leilani Tominiko - a transgender wrestler better known as Candy Lee in the ring - about what she made of this rumour, she found it “offensive” and “distasteful”.
“Given WWE’s history around LGBT characters and the way they represent the community, I wasn’t that surprised,” she tells SBS Sexuality. “It was a slap in the face, really. If they’d gone through with it, I don’t think I’d watch WWE anymore. It would have really devalued trans people and made us more of a joke.”
Speaking to me from her home in New Zealand, where she emigrated with her family from Samoa as a child, Tominiko, 23, says that if it was WWE’s attempt at appealing to the LGBT market, “it’s such a poor attempt at it”.
She explains: “They should have had a transgender woman come and be a part of [it], not make a joke out of it and use some guy who’s been portrayed as a joke for so long... Why would you even throw that idea around, it’s not even a good one!”
Tominiko says it reminded her of male wrestler Santino Marella, who won the Miss WrestleMania women’s Battle Royale while in drag as his “sister” Santina Marella in 2009. “I thought [that] whole thing was kind of stupid, [and this] would just be redoing it again.”
The woman wrestler who crowned Marella Miss WrestleMania at the conclusion of that match was former Women’s Champion Candice Michelle, whom Tominiko says - with cheekiness in her voice - inspired her wrestling name “just a little bit”.
Michelle is “the person who inspired me and made me want to become a wrestler,” Tominiko says. She loves women such as Trish Stratus, Lita and Victoria, who are considered pioneers of women’s wrestling, “but there was something about Candice that really resonated with me. I was drawn to her, loved her, and I wanted to be like this woman.”
Other women wrestlers Tominiko name check are Nikki Bella and Kelly Kelly who are, like Michelle, perceived as eye candy rather than wrestlers, and don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve.
“I guess it’s to do with being feminine,” Tominiko says. “When I was younger, I looked up to Victoria’s Secret models and I wanted to be a model or a cheerleader. So I think I was drawn to the whole femininity of [women’s wrestling].”
When I ask Tominiko about the apparent contradiction between femininity and wrestling, she adds that women’s wrestling is what “made me fall in love with” wrestling as a whole. “Women are doing what these guys are doing and that is so amazing to me.”
As for the “women’s revolution” currently underway in wrestling, Tominiko thinks she has “a place somewhere in the women’s evolution because there hasn’t been a trans wrestler that’s been in the WWE before, and there are only a few that I know of in the independent scene, so I feel like there’s bound to be an openly transgender wrestler in the WWE one day and hopefully more trans wrestlers come out in the independent scene.”
Tominiko will next wrestle at Impact Pro Wrestling New Zealand’s ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ event in Auckland in mid-December. Though she’s never wrestled outside of the Land of the Long White Cloud, she says: “I want to come wrestle in Australia. The wrestling scene in Australia is really good, and I want to wrestle overseas. I figure Australia should be my first stop as it’s our next door neighbour.”