Gender equality in golf is often debated, but there’s also the lesser known issue of trans gender golfers and their struggle to become accepted on the course.
Gender equality in golf is often debated, but there’s also the issue of trans golfers and their struggle to become accepted.
As Caitlyn Jenner prepared to tee off in a PGA Celebrity event at her home club in California last year, she light-heartedly asked her fellow golfers if she should tee off from the men’s or ladies’ tees.
The 1976 Olympic decathlon champion may have been speaking facetiously, but her comments were fitting of the ambiguity that often faces transgender athletes upon emerging into, or reentering, the sporting arena.
Since the reality TV star publicly announced that she was changing her name from Bruce to Caitlyn in the July 2015 Vanity Fair cover story, she has emerged as the most high-profile athlete to openly transition, and at a time when the political atmosphere, at least in the United States, is making it increasingly difficult for trans people to be recognised for their true selves, she has arisen to become a fervent advocate of transgender rights.
In a sport that is not exactly known as a shining light for diversity, the single figure golfer has also become a role model for women of all orientations to take to the fairways, and sparked a fresh conversation about the role of trans women in sport.
Landmark moves by the International Olympic Committee, and the two leading women’s professional golf tours over the past two decades, has ensured that those who have openly transitioned need no longer fear discrimination if they wish to compete professionally. Nonetheless, ignorance about the realities of life as a trans woman remain very much alive, and for those who have, or are in the process of transitioning, the conversation generated because of Jenner’s global profile couldn’t come soon enough.
But how comfortable would you be if you were drawn to play a competitive match against a transgender player?
Would you fear an unfair advantage, resent the fact that your opponent is to play off the same tees, or be intimidated by what you assume will be a significant advantage for your competitor off the tee?
All together, after decades exposed to testosterone, and a larger and more muscular frame, this must surely be the case? Well, not exactly.
Transgender people experience their transitions in a variety of ways, with many opting to transition only socially, hormonally, or instead choosing to undergo a combination of hormone therapy and surgery.
Thus while the old-fashioned anxiety of men masquerading as women to claim sporting glory appears to have permeated into modern day society, the treatment by the IAAF of eighteen-year-old hyperandrogenous athlete Caster Semenya following her victory at the 2009 World Championships, and its subsequent portrayal in the media, providing the perfect example, for those who opt to undergo Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), thedrastic changes in terms of strength and athleticism cannot be overstated.
As a result, those wishing to compete either on a professional circuit or in top amateur events must have undergone surgery and completed at least two years of hormone-replacement therapy, to be eligible to compete.
Such was the case for Bobbi Lancaster, a respected doctor who after being forced out of her profession after undergoing gender-reassignment surgery, made the decision to pursue a career on the LPGA, a tour which until 2010 had required its athletes to be female at birth.
While dissenting voices were certainly in the minority, Bobbi, who had enjoyed an acclaimed amateur career as Robert, divided opinion when she entered LPGA Qualifying School, and while she was unable to make the cut, sparked an international debate as to whether she should be entitled to play among female born athletes.
While the 59-year-old’s story is an inspirational one, her decision not to compete on the Legend’s Tour, the American ladies senior circuit, believing that her length gave her an unfair advantage, and instead endeavour to make the cut on the LPGA, demonstrates the ambiguity that continues to surround trans gender golfers.
Questions regarding length and advantage were also raised after the emergence of Danish golfer Mianne Bagger onto the Ladies European Tour in 2004, who by doing so became only the second openly transitioned woman to qualify for a professional sports tour since Renee Richards joined the Women’s Tennis Association tour during the 1970s.
For professional golfer Alison Perkins, the matter of transitioning is far more than simply debates regarding potential advantages gained off the tee.
A highly regarded male coach, Perkins stepped away from the sport eight years ago when she decided to begin a new life as Alison, but has recently come back to the game she loves, and by doing so has become the first openly trans gender member of the PGA.
Now splitting her time between coaching at Wavendon Golf Centre and the American Golf unit at Biggleswade, the forty-four-year-old admitted that the decision to step back into the game was a huge, and extremely daunting one, and while delighted to be back coaching and encouraging more women into golf, two things she is passionate about doing, her unique experience has also given her the rare, and sometimes shocking opportunity, to experience the contrasting ways with which men and women are perceived and treated in the sport.
The Milton Keynes based golfer has lost count of the amount of times that people who would have once approached her without a thought, now, despite her twenty years of experience, automatically approach her male counterparts with coaching or equipment queries.
Having transitioned socially, Alison, with the help of the PGA, is beginning to take her fledgling steps back onto the golf course, competing in her first professional event in almost a decade last month.
For those who find themselves drawn against a trans player, it’s worth remembering that golf, more than any other sport, has the ability to reduce all players to an equal playing field through the handicap system, and the greatest beauty of our game is its capacity for everyone, regardless of age, gender, or skill to compete against one another.
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