A professional wrestler based in Orlando, Florida, has spoken publicly about his sexuality for the first time.
Mike Parrow, 34, says he finally decided to come out to friends, family and fellow wrestlers around four years ago. This was around the same time that he met, and fell in love with, the man who he recently asked to be his husband.
Standing 6’4” and weighing 300lbs, Parrow makes for an imposing figure. Those who have watched him in the ring are unlikely to know that for many years he wrestled foes of a different nature – internal struggles that led him to contemplate suicide and seek out conversion therapy.
Growing up and moving to Florida
Parrow was raised alongside his brother and sister in Troy, New York State. His mom is a teacher and his father a police officer. He did well enough at school to contemplate a career in law after gaining a degree at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina.
‘After college, like every college student, you really don’t know what you’re going to do or what you’re going to be,’ he says.
‘I had a couple of friends that I went to college with, and they knew that I had a passion for professional wrestling, and they had said, “Why don’t you give it a go?”
By this stage, he had already applied for law school, but a voice inside him urged him to follow his dream. ‘Something just said, “You know what: Try this.” The worst that could happen is you just don’t like it, you know? Law school’s always going to be there.’
Although his family were surprised by his decision, he sought out a wrestling school and committed himself to a year-long course. Parrow packed his bags and headed for the 3D Academy in Kissimmee, Florida.
‘I hate losing’
That was in 2009. The academy’s course is rigorous and tough.
‘I was about 330lbs when I came too wrestling school, and I hadn’t been working out in a while, so it was a little bit harder for me. But they work with every student to get them ready to step into the ring.’
Despite the physical demands of the course, Parrow relished the challenge.
‘I’m an extremely competitive person. Extremely competitive. I absolutely hate losing. So everything I’ve ever done in my life, I’ve set goals for myself. So once I stepped through that door I told myself that no matter what, I am going to get through this year.’
Struggles with his sexuality
If the relocation to Florida and decision to wrestle felt right to Parrow, other parts of his life did not.
‘I’ve always known I’m gay. That was never a question in my mind. But growing up, I went to Catholic school my whole life. My mom’s a Sunday school teacher. I came from a small town in upstate New York. It didn’t have a flourishing gay community.
‘The only exposure I saw of any gay culture was extremely effeminate and that was what was on TV. I’m not like Jack on Will and Grace, so I’m not gay.
‘Maybe it is a choice,’ Parrow remembers thinking. ‘So I tried to hide it. I played football and did manly stuff. It wasn’t because I was gay. Those were the things I gravitate to – competitive stuff.
Trying to hide it extended to dating women.
‘In the beginning, when you’re younger, it’s easy – you’re young. But the older I got, the harder it got for me to have any kind of emotional relationship with a woman.
‘I would find ways to end it. I’d be like, “Listen, I just don’t think you’re pretty.” And I was kind of mean to some women. It’s wrong. And I wish sometimes I could have that back.’
First steps on gay scene sent him further back in the closet
Parrow thought moving to Florida would be his opportunity to explore his sexuality.
‘I’m in a new town, nobody knows me. I’m in my late 20s. Let’s give this a go!
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.
‘It was absolutely the worst experience in my life,’ he recalls.
‘Gay men can be the meanest, cruelest people you’ve ever met in your life. I was “fat”, I was “ugly”, I’m a “closet case”, and at the time I was just looking to understand what’s going on.
‘I learned you can get very much masculine shamed in the gay community as of late, which is really weird, but it happens.
‘And so that put me further back in the closet than going forward. So I buried myself in wrestling and focused on my career. And I had some success, but that was always in the back of my mind.
‘It became the greatest fear I ever had: was someone was going to find out about me? Was my career was going to be over? Would people only see me as gay, rather than who I am or how my work is?’
Parrow’s state of mind went into a downward spiral.
‘I became massively depressed. Extremely depressed. I couldn’t get out of bed. And I knew what it was. One of my major rules in life, my grandfather always told me, “If you need to lie, you’re already wrong.” And that stayed with me: I was lying.
‘I felt like nobody knew who I really was. So I became very lonely. Very distant from my friends. I was very angry. I was very rude and mean, and a lot of things would just set me off.
‘And I’m a big guy, so when I get angry, I kind of scare people! I’d purposefully be mean because it’s a protection mechanism that I’ve built into myself – “Don’t let people close because that way they can’t find out anything else about you.”
At his lowest point he contemplated suicide.
‘I just didn’t want my family or anybody to live with the embarrassment that I thought I was at the time.
‘I drank a lot of vodka and I got ready. Then I got a phone call from a friend.’
Although he didn’t come out to the friend, something they said made Parrow think again.
‘It made me realize: this is not what I want to do. This is not who I am.’
‘I prayed to God and said, “Hey, show me what I need to do. Just show me a sign. Show me something: Am I gay? Am I straight?”
‘Because I did try to pay for conversion therapy. It was an absolute joke. Kind of hilarious. Basically, it was just them saying, “We’re going to set you up with girls and that’s what you’re going to like”
‘What, all of a sudden? Um, no! That’s the whole point. We don’t like girls!
‘And I saw a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist said, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re depressed because you’re gay!” So I’m like, “I wanna fix that!”
‘The psychiatrist is like, “That’s something you can’t fix.” Which I laugh at now, but at the time I was serious. “No, I want to fix it.”
‘And so, a weird thing happened. I met my fiancé.’
A chance encounter
That’s his new fiancé, Morgan. Parrow proposed the day before our chat, after being together four and a half years.
‘I went to a bar with friends to play pool, and he was sitting at the bar by himself. I knew right then: That was my sign.
‘Didn’t even talk to the kid. He left that night and I didn’t say a word to him. Couple of days later, he was in the supermarket and this big weirdo followed him around the supermarket. Again, didn’t say anything.
‘At the time I was bar tending. Three days later he comes into my bar with his aunt – it was like a bar restaurant – and finally we talked.
‘We then went on the worst date ever, cos I have no idea how to talk to guys. And it was funny, but I told him, “You’re never going to meet my friends, I’m probably never coming out, and the only time you can see me is in the house.”
‘A couple of weeks into us talking about stuff, he broke it off. And it was the first time in my life I was absolutely crushed. That’s how I knew.
‘You need to start being you’
‘I said to myself, “If you want this to work, you need to stop being so scared. You need to start being you.”
‘He called me back and I said, “We’ll start all over and I promise we’ll go out on a real date. We’ll go out, we’ll do things real.”
‘And he said, “That’s all I’m asking.” And from that day, little by little, it got better.
‘I worked up the courage from being with him to tell my best wrestling friend. He’s actually my manager. That’s the first person I ever told, and he thought it was a joke at first.
‘Anyone I ever told thought I was kidding. Their perception of gay men was totally different. So when I tell them, they get shocked, but every time I tell someone it gets easier rather than harder, and I always try to tell people that.’
Coming out to family
Four and a half years later, Parrow is in a much better place. He came out shortly after meeting Morgan to his family. They were all very supportive – confounding his initial fears.
‘I can tell you, it’s the most scared I’ve ever been in my life. Terrified,’ he remembers.
‘I will jump off the top of a cage, go through barbed wire, fight someone in an alley – those things don’t scare me. But that had me in tears. I was afraid. How do you say those words: I’m gay. And you won’t understand it unless you are a gay individual.
Fortunately, his family reacted in a positive manner. Some may even have been anticipating the announcement.
‘I told my dad and he was like, “Yeah?” And I’m like, “Yeah?” And he was like, “Well, you’ve got to give me some credit. I am a detective. I kind of figured that out of all the girls you kept denying that you didn’t like girls, I was just waiting for you to tell me!”
His Sunday school teacher mom’s response was simple: ‘God doesn’t make mistakes.’
The reaction from other wrestlers
Parrow is proud to be engaged to the man he loves and happy with the way is career is going. He says he’s rarely experienced homophobia on the wrestling circuit.
‘It’s weird, the higher up you go, no – they’re awesome. The two companies that I mainly work for have been awesome.
‘But when you’re wrestling in the backwoods of like Georgia, I have come across a couple of guys that… I wouldn’t say were uncomfortable wrestling with me, but there has been the odd comment.
‘When I personally hear those things I address it. So, I will go up to them and say, “If you have a problem, we can discuss this.” I don’t let it sit and roll off me, and maybe sometimes I should but, I do like to address things. Especially the locker room, because a locker room setting is extremely different to everyday life.
‘You get a lot of different things said in locker rooms that you’d never say in real life. People will throw slurs around left and right, so I just address it when I feel like it’s gone too far. Maybe it’s not towards me, but if it’s gone too far, I will address them. I’ll say, “Do you really think that’s necessary right now?”’
‘I find, especially with a lot of wrestlers, they have a lot of questions. A lot of questions. I’m open and honest when people ask me questions. So, I’ve not necessarily had hatred towards me. More curiosity.’
There was another incident that had a big impact on Parrow’s decision to live an open life.
Living in Orlando, he was understandably affected by the Pulse tragedy in 2016. It’s the reason he wears the number 49: in memory of the 49 people who died.
‘I lost a lot of people [at Pulse] that, when I was coming out and was scared, were telling me, “Stop being so scared and help people.”
‘I said, “What do you mean by help people?”
‘One of the girls that lost her life, she told me, “You don’t understand. You are important. You do have a voice and you need to show people, especially with what you do, that it’s OK to be gay.”
‘She herself played basketball. She said, “When you’re a kid, it’s very hard to tell your friends that you’re gay because there’s really no role models for young, gay athletes, because everything you see on TV is stereotypical. It might be you are able to help a 14-year-old or 15-year-old from deciding to kill themselves because they don’t have a role model.”
‘That really stuck with me, especially after what happened. After Pulse happened, it gives me my drive to be myself.
‘That’s why I wear the 49. To honor them and be myself. To remind me that you do need to tell people. They do need to understand that not everybody’s the same, that everybody has a journey: You need to keep going forward.’