All in the Family character Archie Bunker dealt with it when his pal and the strongest heavy lifter on the loading dock turned out to “play for the other team.” Male-centric heavy metal fans dealt with it when high-octane Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford came out. I dealt with it retrospectively when in the early nineties I learned that the drawling, intimidating professional wrestler I’d worshiped as a teen in the mid-sixties had been a barely closeted homosexual.
Ripper Collins, aka Roy Collins, aka King Ripper, was a trash-talking bringer of mayhem during the Golden Age of Hawaiian professional wrestling (1960-1970). His ring persona was cruel and unusual; he made his name with choke holds, eye gouges, and folding chairs. His signature move was the Atomic Drop, a bear hug lift from behind which brought the opponent’s tailbone down on Ripper’s big white knee.
He was hated by the Pacific Islanders, and for that reason was a box office dynamo. His outsize gut and big mouth were a large part of why every seat in the old Civic Auditorium, and later at the Honolulu International Center (since renamed the Blaisdell Center) usually sold out. But Ripper wasn’t just one of best heels in the business; he won just about every championship belt available during his career.
He’d cut himself while down, win or lose, and bleed until you could smell iron in the first rows. He was the only wrestler in Hawaii who got in the ring with Victor the Bear.
Interestingly, it was my exposure to a form of reverse racism that caused Ripper to resonate in my teenage mind. My father had been transferred to Oahu with his corporation, and I wasn’t in attendance at Kailua Intermediate School five minutes before I realized I was suddenly part of a hated group of people. I was a “haole,” the name islanders gave to the Caucasians who were invading the island chain. From that moment on, every hour of my school life held the danger of having my ass kicked.
Harassment of white military/corporate brats in Hawaiian public schools ran the gamut from property damage (they’d smash your binder), public humiliation (the Samoan girls were brutal), to outright infliction of pain. The last day of school was “Kill Haole Day.” If you were white and male and didn’t feel up to the challenge of roving bands of economically disadvantaged youths, you didn’t hang around after the final bell.
Ripper was a holy terror in the ring, but his real forte was the locker room interview, where his shtick was to ridicule the islanders, their culture, their language, and their favored wrestlers, often men of color like Peter Maivia, Pepper Gomez, and Chief Billy White Wolf. Ripper mispronounced indigenous names, dismissed hallowed Hawaiian traditions, and strongly intimated the superiority of his own racial legacy as a good-old-boy Georgia southerner.
Ripper infuriated the locals with blatant political incorrectness before political correctness was even a thing. Harassed and hunted along with my Beatle-loving haole friends, I loved every minute of it.
I would only find out years later, at the time of his death in 1991, that apparently everybody but the fans knew Ripper was in possession of a mean homosexual streak.
While the lore surrounding Ripper generally portrays him as a guy you’d want to drink beer, shoot pool, and raise hell with, not all the wrestlers who came his way had good things to say. Here’s an excerpt from Bret Hart’s autobiography, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling:
As I was lathering up, I was startled by Ripper Collins, a squat, pig-faced wrestler with slicked back white hair. I hoped he was just admiring my tan, but he asked me straight out if I was gay. He shuffled off after I bluntly told him that I wasn’t.
During his heyday in the islands, Ripper lived in the same town we did, Kailua, and many times I’d see his big purple Cadillac cruise past bus stops where I waited vigilantly, hoping to avoid island kids looking for a haole scalp. He was married to professional wrestler Barbara Baker and had two daughters, so I wouldn’t have entertained the slightest inkling that Ripper was anything other than a brave warrior and something of a great white hope.
Many times I waited after the matches and met him outside the Civic Center, shaking his meaty paw, checking out the healed white scars on his forehead, and collecting a sheaf of Ripper-autographed photos.
Ripper died at age 58 of skin cancer from the many hours he spent tanning on Hawaii’s beaches. His ashes were scattered at sea off the coast of Oahu. For the record, Baker denied until her death in 2015 that her husband was homosexual, and claimed she still loved him.
What would my reaction have been if I’d learned at age fourteen that Ripper was, as we used to say, “queer”? It would have been a great disillusionment. I did not grow up in a gay-friendly household. I would have distanced myself immediately from King Ripper, tossed my collectibles in the trash, and glommed onto whichever wrestler stood to give him the thrashing of his life. Things were very different in 1964. Homosexual men often married women and started families, so socially onerous was the admission of same-sex attraction.
Have I “evolved” on the issue? When in 1998 my favorite metal vocalist, Halford, came out, it was a surprise, but I didn’t jettison my collection of Judas Priest CDs and dozens of played-to-death cassettes. Item: Rush Limbaugh has been using Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin” as bump music for years.
Public sentiments about issues surrounding same-sex attraction, particularly gay marriage, are as varied as there are people to react. Societal implications of mainstreaming such orientation are very much open to debate. For straight men, using just one construct as an example, accepting folks that Archie Bunker could not abide may hinge on being more comfortable with male-comporting gays than with effeminate ones, and feminine lesbians compared to masculine lesbians. Halford, yes; Boy George, never.
Traditionalist values about gender norms aside, individual tolerance, acceptance, and even celebration of gay and lesbian orientations may be as simple as which particular gay people—past, present, and future—have an impact on our lives. That’s when our core values, religious or otherwise, are put to the test. I always think of the way Vice President Dick Cheney evolved from what was certainly a traditional hetero-normative outlook to a more inclusive position in light of revelations concerning his daughter Mary.
In the final analysis of this case, my adolescent infatuation with Ripper Collins, it is likely that early on young Roy Collins found aspects of his sexuality harshly stigmatized in post-war and early ’50s Georgia, and developed unique defenses.
As an uprooted haole boy thrown into an academic snake pit, I could relate.