WWE's Sonya Deville says "uncomfortable" conversations must be held to make changes in the bid for sexual and LGBTQ+ equality.
The Smackdown superstar – the first openly gay female performer in WWE – spoke with Scott Felstead in an exclusive interview for Mirror Sport.
She discussed how far wrestling has come since its male dominated days and how the 'Women's Evolution' helped open up the industry for all.
But during the chat neither were aware of the watershed moment building over on Twitter, as the #SpeakingOut movement began to take hold.
Since then women wrestlers and fans have brought to light allegations of sexual assault, bullying and homophobia on wrestling's independent scene.
Many wrestling companies – including WWE – have taken action to address issues raised by the movement, with a number of talents having already been released, and others now facing investigation.
However, the #SpeakingOut campaign has shown wrestling still has a long way to go before it can call itself a completely equal and inclusive form of entertainment.
New Jersey native and ex-MMA fighter Sonya, real name Daria Rae Berenato, first shot to fame in the 2015 season of WWE Tough Enough.
While she didn't win the reality TV competition, she was soon offered a full time contract and joined WWE's developmental division, NXT.
In doing so, she became the first openly gay female wrestler to compete in WWE, and in less than two years, Deville joined the main roster.
The 26-year-old said: "When I got signed, my coming out story was on national television. It was one of those crazy, surreal moments."
Indeed, far from being made to feel isolated, Sonya was able to connect with many WWE wrestlers and fans that might be dealing with similar issues concerning their own sexuality.
She debuted alongside England's Paige and fellow NXT talent Mandy Rose, before forming a tag team with Rose, aka Fire and Desire, but now she is breaking out on her own.
"The last five years, from the time I came out on Tough Enough to now, has really been a learning process for me and becoming more comfortable with myself.
"So to know that I went through all those real scary emotions, and a lot of my fans are going through that same kind of stuff right now, and I can be sort of a positive influence or comfort to them knowing that I did it, and they can do it, it means a lot to me."
Perhaps the biggest sign WWE could win its battle to be an all-inclusive wrestling promotion came at WrestleMania 34, which took place in New Orleans in 2018.
One of WWE's biggest stars, Irish born Finn Bálor, proved that even muscle bound wrestlers can support the LGBTQ+ community by designing a ring entrance that included members from all walks of life.
He even donated 20% of the proceeds of a special rainbow themed t-shirt to GLAAD (an American organisation monitoring the representation of LGBTQ+ people in the media).
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"For him to use the large platform that he stands on to spread such a good message, he's always been a good friend of mine, he's just like one of the greatest guys I've ever met, and for him to use his voice as an ally is so important, it's such a big statement," says Sonya, who had proudly worn a rainbow inspired wrestling outfit earlier that same night.
As #SpeakingOut now moves from a period of shock and outrage to a process of seeking justice and victims healing, firm action needs to be taken to make sure that wrestling is a safe environment for the physical and wellbeing of its talent and workers.
Thankfully, athletes such as Sonya, and Finn Bálor, are showing that things can be changed for the better if there is a willingness to understand each other's differences and vulnerabilities.
"Conversation is change and I've always said that," says Sonya.
"We have to start a conversation; we have to have the uncomfortable conversations to make any kind of change. Nobody grows by staying still, you know what I mean? You don't get anywhere by staying still."
You can see Sonya Deville in action on SmackDown every Friday night on BT Sport, with replays on Channel 5.
For more information visit WWE.com
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