A key product of LGBTQ pro wrestling’s expanding profile is a heightened focus on reaching out to and supporting LGBTQ communities outside of the industry. That process goes beyond the welcoming atmosphere cultivated by LGBTQ-focused events or the increased presentation of marginalized identities.
Those leading the charge are using their platform to invoke LGBTQ history and impact marginalized populations beyond those already interested in checking out the in-ring action. Like any movement, though, a coalition between community members and allies only helps to strengthen the house being built. Especially when an ally has the ability to reach audiences that don’t regularly interact with LGBTQ identities.
For Ring of Honor announcer Ian Riccaboni, being part of that coalition as an ally is requisite to his role as the voice of a major pro wrestling organization. He literally lent his voice to the cause in January when he committed all profits from his Cameo account between Jan. 13 (Riccaboni’s birthday) and April 1 (his wife’s birthday) to the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in his hometown of Allentown, PA.
Located in the heart of Allentown, the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center serves LGBTQ populations throughout the Lehigh Valley through community advocacy campaigns and various arts, health, youth and pride programs.
According to Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center executive director Adrian Shanker, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed the center’s main focus to LGBTQ health advocacy. “We’ve engaged more strongly in health advocacy to ensure that the public health leaders in Pennsylvania that are making decisions throughout the pandemic are including LGBT people,” Shanker told Outsports.
That advocacy work has resulted in some substantial wins for Shanker and his team, including guaranteeing Covid-19 infection and contact tracing data collection for LGBTQ identities and prioritizing those living with HIV for Covid-19 vaccines in the state.
The pandemic also affected Bradbury-Sullivan’s in-person programs as well. The services that the center could move to virtual platforms have done so, but that process caused the center’s technology costs to skyrocket. Shanker is thankful for charitable campaigns like Riccaboni’s as a support for the Bradbury-Sullivan Center’s commitment to meet what Shanker calls “the demand for community.”
“We serve a community that is under-resourced compared to some larger cities in our country. It’s one of the reasons why we’re so grateful for celebrities like Ian Riccaboni who take it upon themselves to raise funds to support our critical work.
Riccaboni’s goal is to hit 67 Cameo purchases before the deadline. The ROH personality is well on his way to hitting that goal. The campaign is currently averaging roughly one Cameo per day.
The campaign surfaced from an unlikely piece of serendipity. Riccaboni’s Cameo account received a boost in popularity after controversial and periodically homophobic wrestling personality Jim Cornette reviewed it on his podcast in January. Riccaboni and Shanker decided to capitalize on the moment for a pro-LGBTQ cause. “[Cornette] reviewed one. That dropped in the morning and I talked with Adrian at Bradbury-Sullivan… we just kind of ran with it,” Riccaboni told Outsports.
”Ian jumped on the opportunity and was very excited to have another opportunity to support our organization and, more importantly, the people we serve,” Shanker told Outsports. “That [Riccaboni] is able to use his celebrity status as a wrestling announcer to raise critical funds to support LGBTQ+ arts, health, youth and pride programs in eastern Pennsylvania; we’re really grateful for that support.”
The Cameo campaign marks the third year that Riccaboni and the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center have cooperated on a fundraiser benefiting the Lehigh Valley’s growing LGBTQ population. Riccaboni donated proceeds from the sales of a Pride T-shirt featuring Riccaboni’s signature sign-off ”Happy Wrestling” in 2019. The ROH announcer followed that up with a special Pride-themed Micro Brawler in 2020.
Riccaboni’s commitment to supporting LGBTQ organizations like the Bradbury-Sullivan Center has solidified in recent years, but recognizing his ability as an ally stretches back to his high school days in Allentown. Riccaboni, who is reticent to acknowledge he speaks from a place of privilege, first noticed the discrepancies in how straight and LGBTQ identities were treated in his community in observing his English teacher.
“I would see other teachers come to school and be affectionate to their spouses, and have children; all these “nuclear things” so to speak. For me, knowing that my English teacher had a partner, I thought, ‘Why is this something that has to be hidden? Why is he not able to participate in this open display of affection like everybody else is,” Riccaboni recalled.
Riccaboni also had the unique experience of observing a close friend come out as trans and transition during the same time period. The two attended prom together as well. “I learned a lot about what it means to be trans… what that meant physically, emotionally,” Riccaboni said. “It opened up another window to know that folks in the LGBTQ community weren’t being afforded some of these simple things.”
Though the ROH staple noticed these things in his youth, he admits that he didn’t have the courage to address the prejudices he saw until he moved back to Allentown in 2017. Riccaboni points to not speaking up as an LGBTQ ally earlier as one of his biggest regrets.
“I wish I had the courage when I was in my 20s,” Riccaboni said. “There was part of me that was worried that, you know, you look around and you kind of wonder ‘Well, who’s with me on this one?’”
Riccaboni quickly found numerous allies within ROH that helped him find his voice. He points to Colt Cabana, Dalton Castle, Matt Taven and Quinn McKay among others that empowered him to lend his voice to the cause. “Colt really took any kind of fear out of expressing myself, and helped me grow both in wrestling and as a person and eliminated that anxiety,” Riccaboni said.
That growth was on full display during 2020 Lehigh Valley Pride when Riccaboni joined out wrestler Ashley Vox for a panel addressing homophobia in sports held virtually by the Bradbury-Sullivan Center. It was the latest in the center’s efforts to address homophobia in sports after working with local minor league sports organizations like the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs and Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
“We’ve thought about homophobia in sports, and we’ve helped to facilitate these conversations in our community, but we hadn’t talked about it in terms specifically of wrestling before,” Shanker said. “When we invited Ian and Ashley to be part of Lehigh Valley Pride, that was part of that conversation about how do we talk about wrestling as an opportunity where LGBTQ people can once again be their true selves and authentically show up as themselves and also show up as an athlete.”
Fans saw the latest example of that sentiment on ROH’s Week By Week program on Tuesday when out wrestler O’Shay Edwards made his ROH debut.
Riccaboni also pointed to the increased visibility of the racial equity movement during 2020 as another moment that empowered allies to use their privileged positions to uplift the voices of marginalized communities. “I think Black Lives Matter helped rip the band aid off of folks who were very vocal and supportive in the background. Now they’re coming to the forefront and they’re fighting with [communities] arm and arm to tackle these inequality issues,” Riccaboni said.
“I think that anyone who has any kind of elevated voice to help expand the message of equity and justice, we welcome that voice. And, as an announcer, he has quite a literal voice,” Shanker said. “That those [Cameo] funds are going to come and directly support the LGBTQ community; that’s exciting. But it’s also a message that our community is moving forward on the path towards equity.”
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