'It's progress': How AEW's Nyla Rose raises transgender awareness

·9-min read
Nyla Rose. (Photo Credit: AEW)
AEW wrestler Nyla Rose. (Photo Credit: AEW)

As a public figure, Nyla Rose has learned how to drown out the noise on social media.

Although the 38-year-old All Elite Wrestling star receives negative and hate-filled messages on the internet, those aren’t the ones that get to her. Instead, Rose focuses on the messages that let her know she’s doing her job — not just as a professional wrestler, but as a symbol for an entire community.

“I love every bit of positive energy, but what means more for me is when someone will message me with an apology,” Rose told Yahoo Sports. “It’s usually something to the effect of ‘Hey, I was uneducated on the subject. I was ignorant before, but I’ve come around and see what you’re doing. I understand now.’ It shows people are understanding, respecting, and accepting us in their own time. It’s progress. It may not be where we want it to be or need it to be, but it is progress nonetheless.”

'Once I learned what transgender was, everything just kind of clicked'

In 2019, Rose became the first openly transgender wrestler to be signed to a major promotion when she joined AEW, then in its fledgling stage. Despite becoming one of the faces of the company’s women’s division and is a former champion, Rose’s journey to AEW — and of discovering her identity as a transgender woman — did not happen overnight.

“It’s a little tricky because I’ve kind of always marched to the beat of my own drum,” Rose said. Obviously, being a child, being super young, I didn’t have the language to put with how I felt, so I was just always myself. I never tried really to be anything other than myself. If it meant wearing a dress or doing this or that, I just did it. 

"It wasn’t until my parents intervened and said that this was the role I was supposed to be in and these were the things I was supposed to do, that’s when I started to get a grasp of the language and the gravity of the situation, of what made me different from everyone else. I tried to fit that gender role and cater to everyone else’s needs, but I didn’t have the language to put with how I felt until much later in life. It wasn’t until my late teens that the journey of self-discovery really began.”

Rose’s journey, as unique as it is to her, is not uncommon for those in the trans community in the U.S.

According to the most recent Williams Institute report, 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender. While acceptance across the LGBTQ spectrum has increased in recent years, the reality for Rose and countless others is that they grew up in a less progressive era, potentially hindering their ability to find their identity at a younger age.

“Once I learned what transgender was, everything just kind of clicked,” Rose said. “It was a moment of ‘Oh my God, that’s me. That’s exactly how I feel. I don’t feel right being what everyone else wants me to be.’ I needed to be true to myself and what I felt inside. From that point on it was a moment of educating my family and my closest friends.

“I didn’t think actual transition was ever a possibility, so I relegated myself to being comfortable with being as fem as I could be. At the time, that meant cross-dressing. It wasn’t ever how I personally identified, I knew there was always something more, I just didn’t think it would be actually tangible. Much later in life is when it reached an actual breaking point and I went to see a therapist, underwent hormone therapy and I needed to actually transition.”

An hour-long drive and a chance DM: Rose's journey to professional wrestling 

It wasn’t until she was in college that Rose began to consider professional wrestling as a career path. A fan of WWE and WCW — the two major wrestling promotions in the 1990s — growing up, Rose became enamored more with the performance aspect of the medium.

Nyla Rose. (Photo Credit: AEW)
Nyla Rose. (Photo Credit: AEW)

“Growing up, I studied theater and I was a trained actor. Doing theater, movies, short films and commercials, that was my world for the longest time,” Rose said. “The theatrics of The Undertaker, the over-the-top persona of Shawn Michaels, Trish Stratus and Lita became people I looked up to. Chyna, she was such a polarizing figure, everyone fell in love with her for one reason or another. She was so different from anything we had ever seen and I gravitated towards that because I knew if I ever had a place in this industry, I’d be different than everyone else as well. At the time, I still didn’t know that transition would be possible so I didn’t know just how important that mindset would become.”

Rose started attending a wrestling school an hour away from her home — a relatively short trip considering the industry she was flirting with joining. It was there that her childhood entertainment turned into a full-fledged obsession.

“It was a no-brainer,” Rose said. “It was an actual possibility, so I went out to the school and I fell in love with getting to be in the ring and getting to do what I always dreamed of and had only seen on television. At that point, it became a need. I needed to be in the industry in some capacity.”

From there, Rose joined the independent circuit. While promotions like WWE, AEW and others perform on a much larger scale, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller companies that hold shows locally.

After spending some time in the indies, Rose received a life-changing Twitter DM from Kenny Omega, arguably the best professional wrestler in the world and one of the executive vice presidents of AEW. Omega wanted Rose to join the company.

'People tend to be a little too woke a lot of times'

Two years into her tenure with AEW, Rose has seen both sides of the wrestling industry. One of the many positives of working with a company like AEW is that she is afforded the opportunity to develop chemistry with her colleagues.

“The biggest difference for me is that now, being signed to AEW, we have a talent pool, a regular rotation of people to work with, so you can learn their bodies, their mechanics, how they move, how they operate,” Rose said. “On the independents, you bounce from town to town and you don’t get that same repetition often. You might cross paths with people a few weeks in a row, but then you won’t see them for years. In AEW, getting into that rotation allows you to build chemistry with your co-workers.”

There’s also a chemistry and a camaraderie built between the talent outside of the ring. Although Rose admits there are sometimes moments of education in the locker room when it comes to her trans identity, she insists that she is “Nyla the person who just happens to be transgender.”

Still, her impact has not been lost on her colleagues. In June, AEW and several of their high profile stars — including Rose — released Pride-inspired merchandise with all proceeds going to LGBTQ charities. Despite its altruistic nature, some on Twitter were displeased with the endeavor, particularly Cody Rhodes’s effort.

It was a criticism that Rose quickly dismissed.

“People tend to be a little too woke a lot of times and overlook a lot of things,” Rose said. “Cody’s an ally and he wants to go out there and do good. How can you hate on someone who wants to do good because it isn’t how you want it to be done? That’s absolutely silly. Cody actually asked me about the charity, so I did my research and due diligence and said absolutely and we agreed it was a great place for the proceeds to go to. To have someone like Cody, Dustin Rhodes, Brandi Rhodes back me and see me as a person first, it means the world to me.”

The hero of her own story — and likely many others

Rose’s platform makes her one of the most visible trans athletes — and people — in the world, but it’s a position she is still getting used to. Although it’s a “wild” concept to be a role model for the trans community, Rose knows she can fill a void that existed when she was growing up.

“I honestly think that the first person that I had ever seen in a positive light as being trans was Laverne Cox on ‘Orange is the New Black,’” Rose said. “She was an actress playing a role and her character wasn’t the butt of the joke, her character wasn’t fodder for someone else. She was her own character, with her own story arc and that was so refreshing to see. Now, I’m in that position, so if I can give the younger audience inspiration or even help the older audience become more educated or have a better understanding, it’s an honor.”

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 78% of children who expressed a transgender or non-conforming gender identity in school were subject to harassment, with 35% experiencing physical assault and 12% experiencing sexual violence.

Rose being a beacon in a medium that spans many age groups could help build confidence and stem some of the hate trans children experience.

Part of helping to raise awareness is Rose raising her profile both inside and outside of the ring. Rose is on the cusp of challenging to become the first two-time AEW Women’s Champion this summer, and has developed a remarkable social media presence. Rose has amassed more than 102K followers on her Twitter, Instagram and Twitch profiles combined.

Rose likens her ability to play both a powerful, unrelenting heel on TV while also sharing her authentic self on social media to her favorite mediums — comics and video games.

“Let’s take Lex Luthor for example,” Rose said. “Yes, he is a villain, but in his own social circle, he’s loved, he’s not always seen as the bad guy. I kind of take that tonal shift [when it comes to the balancing act]. Some people may see me as a villain when I go out and perform in the ring, but really I’m the hero in my own story.”

While she’s the protagonist of her own story, Rose is undoubtedly playing hero for many others, she just may need to keep checking her DMs.

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