The story of Still Life with Apricots and Pears, the first non-binary champion in pro wrestling history.
By Michael Melchor, Executive Editor
Only a handful of people may know that pro wrestling history was made on March 16 of this year. Not the kind of history where someone broke a record by holding a title for x amount of days, or this person competed for x amount of companies in one evening.
I‘m proud that our new Young Lions Cup Champion @apricotspears identifies as they/them.
I’m proud of @CHIKARApro for featuring them in this way, and I’m proud of how far pro wrestling has come since I’ve started.
I’m excited to see where we can go next. pic.twitter.com/fwrqjdKGF1
— Bryce Remsburg (@dabryceisright) March 21, 2019
On March 16, Still Life With Apricots and Pears became the first openly non-binary champion in pro wrestling history with their win at Young Lions Cup XV. Dictionary.com defines “non-binary” as, “[A]n umbrella term to describe any gender identity that does not fit into the gender binary of male and female.”
What many in the past may have seen as unusual or impossible to understand became an opportunity to educate. According to Still Life With Apricots and Pears, those who did not understand were willing to learn.
“The reaction has been 100% positive,” Still Life said. “Some folks on social media were not sure what non-binary means or why we use they/them pronouns. Instead of this becoming a hostile exchange, it was a moment for respectful education and I am very grateful for that.”
“The outpouring of support after I sent [that] tweet has been overwhelming to the point of tears,” said CHIKARA Senior Official Bryce Remsburg. “Fans that don’t understand are being educated by fans that do, it’s kind of beautiful. I have learned a ton about non-binary people in the past two weeks, and I don’t know if I would have done that research if it weren’t for Still Life. If anything, I think this has made Still Life more popular? As I said, they are now a voice for many who seem to feel voiceless.”
In the weeks that have passed since Still Life became Young Lions Cup champion, the scope of what their win means for those outside of gender stereotypes has grown. While wrestling has been guilty of its share of stereotypes, referee Kris Levin pointed out that progression in wrestling stretches back farther than many may realize.
“Traditionally speaking, professional has always followed in the footsteps of ‘Old Hollywood’ when it comes to leaning on characters that play to or otherwise exploit society’s tropes and stereotypes,” Levin said. “Despite this, my experience since I was first brought through the curtain as a collaborator in 2007 was that this industry is generally one of inclusivity. I have shared many a locker room with people who, on-screen character and persona aside, come from a variety of different cultures, ethnicities, races, religions, gender orientations, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic strata. Not once have I personally or openly seen that become a point of contention for those within the perimeters of the locker room. We are all brought together out of a shared love for professional wrestling, which is in itself an international language unstymied by feelings of bigotry. Going back to the days of pioneer and megastar of the early television era Sputnik Monroe refusing to compete in venues that upheld Jim Crow era laws of racial segregation, professional wrestling has always been deceptively progressive when it came to interpersonal relations.”
Remsburg said that change has continued during his time in the business. “I started inhabiting pro wrestling locker rooms in 2002, and it’s remarkable how far they have come,” he said. “I used to hear hatespeech on a fairly regular basis. Now on the rare occasion I do, from a fellow talent or a fan, it’s quickly squashed and dealt with. So this feels like a logical, and more public next step of this growth across the board.”
For Still Life, being in a wrestling ring has helped them step out of their shell and express who they have always been. “As with my wrestling fandom, this was something I was aware of my entire life,” they said. “The concept of gender and the associated roles never registered with me. I started expressing myself in feminine ways as a teenager. I would always have my nails painted and would experiment with makeup. Performing as Still Life with Apricots and Pears helped me further come to terms with my authentic self. There is a tired cliche that the best wrestling personality is just yourself turned up to 11. Yet, when I am in the ring, I let go and allow myself to be captured by the moments. This granted me the freedom to express a part of myself that is normally repressed.”
Limeade, Cherry. (2018). Portrait of the Artist, Inspiration for Victory [Digital Photography]. pic.twitter.com/9F8AbRnnZq
— Still Life with Apricots and Pears (@apricotspears) December 12, 2018
Because of their gender identity, pro wrestling had not been seen as an option by Still Life for most of their life. “I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember,” Still Life said. “However, I never thought of actually giving it a try. The wrestling I was exposed to was always hyper-masculine and I never saw anyone who I related to. I ended up getting an art degree and pursuing a career as a designer.”
A meeting with CHIKARA founder Mike Quackenbush would pry the door open for Still Life to become a professional wrestler. “I met Mike Quackenbush after his Ignite Philly speech,” they said. “If you ever heard him speak, you know that Mike is a powerful and moving speaker. I would have wrestled a bear after that speech. Instead, he invited me to a free workshop at the Wrestle Factory.”
Still Life With Apricots and Pears made their CHIKARA debut on the first “Hour of Power” show of Season 19 on February 24th, 2018. The company has been the perfect home for a non-binary performer, largely because of its pioneering inclusivity and fairness.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on breaking down barriers and being ahead of the curve,” Remsburg said. “For example, we were naming our events ridiculous titles and presenting intergender wrestling in 2002. We featured an all women’s main event in 2011 – Sara del Rey vs. Kana/Asuka – in Tennessee, nonetheless! We featured the first female primary champion in a male dominated promotion – Princess KimberLee – in 2015. To be clear, it’s entirely possible that there has been another non-binary performer, we’re not trying to yuck anyone’s yum. We’re just excited, and most of all proud to be able to celebrate this and give the underserved slice of the wrestling fan population someone they can identify with. They were the best in a 16 competitor tournament, and they won the Young Lions Cup. Not because of their identification, because they were the best.”
Levin, having been inside the CHIKARA locker room on multiple occasions, has seen that progressive inclusiveness firsthand. “Chikara is the first organization I have ever worked for that has openly made it their mission statement to make professional wrestling be for everybody,” he said. “Whether it be in their storylines, the way they interact with their fans, or the genuinely warm reception Still Life with Apricots and Pears receives from fans and in the locker room alike, Chikara’s actions speak louder than their words. Personally speaking, the fact that their actions match and exceed their words tenfold makes me feel incredibly privileged to be part of that locker room and part of the Chikara family.”
Levin said he can identify with Still Life despite their differences. “What I admire most about Still Life identifying as gender non-binary is that this is not portrayed in an exploitative way,” Levin said. “Gender is not what the character is about, it is just an aspect of who they are. In that way, the character really resonates with me, speaking as someone who does not consider themselves gender non-binary but does consider themselves gender apathetic—which in my view is adjacent to the topic at hand. Aside from recognizing that I am a heterosexual guy that prefers like pronouns, traditional gender roles and concepts of “manhood” have never held much stock with me. Projecting masculinity has never been a meaningful aspect of my identity, how I care to be viewed, or how I view and interact with others. Being that I have so much love for an art form that is so frequently fueled by conflicts predicated on aggressive, testosterone-fueled displays of machismo, it is nice to see a character whose motives I can more closely relate to on a personal level.”
The example set by Still Life as a non-binary performer has been inspiring to others who also saw pro wrestling as a locked door but, because of the example set by Still Life With Apricots and Pears, now see a welcoming place.
Mahmud, Basil. (2019). A Still Life with Bulldogs and Baseballs [Digital Photograph]. pic.twitter.com/vzcW2BoAML
— Still Life with Apricots and Pears (@apricotspears) February 12, 2019
“Wrestling is already a very diverse and welcoming community,” Still Life said. “I am privileged to be a part of it. A few people have reached out and expressed that they wanted to train, but never thought there would be a place for them in wrestling. And they were inspired to sign up for a wrestling school because of me. That’s a very moving sentiment. I hope I can inspire more folks to follow their dreams and live their authentic self. A more immediate goal is a successful Young Lions Cup defense against Carlos Romo this Friday in Jersey City. Outside of that, I just want to travel and perform my craft in front of as many audiences as I can.”
According to CHIKARA founder Mike Quackenbush, the company’s efforts to include everyone in on the fun – including giving performers such as Still Life With Apricots and Pears a platform on which to express their true selves – is a necessary step if pro wrestling is to evolve.
“It is important to our identity, because so many organizations pay lip service to certain, ‘relevant-in-the-moment’ ideals, and they create an illusion of change,” Quackenbush said. “But lip service isn’t change. We are really bringing that change. It’s no illusion. And all of us take great pride in being the avant garde of that change. You cannot expect these things to happen at the top of pro-wrestling. Those massive machines turn too slowly. It will come from us.”
Special thanks to Kris Levin for his assistance with this story.
STILL LIFE WITH APRICOTS AND PEARS
CHIKARA PROFILE: Still Life With Apricots and Pears
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