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Former pro golfer shares her journey struggling with gender identity and why she left the sport

Golfweek logo Golfweek 7/11/2019 Beth Ann Nichols

Garfield Sobers et al. posing for the camera: File Photo © File Photo File Photo Before the video went up on Monday, less than 10 people knew Kendra Little's deeply-buried secret. In 13 minutes and 38 seconds, Little told the world via YouTube that she was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, or AIS. She has the physical appearance of a female, but the genetic makeup of a male.

The support poured in.

"They're not texting and saying, 'Hey, cool video,'" said Little. "They're writing paragraph-long messages that are incredibly thoughtful and compassionate. People are just amazing."

Kendall Dye, who played alongside Little on the Symetra Tour, was among those who reached out. Dye said she was heartbroken to learn of the burden Little had carried for so many years, calling her one of the best ball-strikers she'd ever seen. Dye often wondered why Little hadn't dominated the developmental tour.

Little, 30, left professional golf four and a half years ago in large part out of the fear that being drug-tested would reveal her secret. She'd seen it play out in track and field and was terrified of the same controversy enveloping her. The only solution she could find was to walk away.

How cruel, Dye thought.

"If I had success, I knew that was going to push me closer to the LPGA," said Little, who knew a drug test would have revealed her higher levels of testosterone.

"But it also would've pushed me closer to having to deal with my gender. That was such an insane internal battle."

Replay Video

It was around the age of 12 or 13 that a doctor first told Little that she was both a boy and a girl. After that day, she never discussed AIS with her parents or anyone else. Once a month she'd get estrogen injections. Later, once every three months.

Those days in the doctor's office were the darkest. There Little had to face the fact that she was different. That this really was her confusing and complex reality.

Every other day of the month, however, she tried to forget it. Convinced herself it wasn't real.

"I had lied to myself almost to the point of just blocking it out completely," she said.

AIS is a variation of intersex, an umbrella term used for people with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't fit the typical definitions of male or female. According to Human Rights Watch, 1 out of every 2,000 people are born intersex.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that two to five per 100,000 people, like Little, have complete AIS.

"With golf, it's so entrenched in tradition and the gender binary," said Little. "To hear from people from that world be so compassionate and so understanding and accepting is just incredible. I think that's partly why this story is so unique. Golf is so traditional, and gender is such a huge part of it. I kind of feel like I'm throwing a wrench into it."

A golfer since the age of 7, Little grew up in Eugene and followed in the footsteps of her father to the University of Oregon. Doug Little played basketball for the Ducks and later professionally. The statuesque Kendra was one of the greatest players to ever come through the Oregon, winning four times and never missing an event in four years.

a person in a swing: File photo © File Photo File photo

Kendra Little. (Kendra Little)

Former Oregon coach Ria Scott, now head coach at Virginia, said the nearly 6-foot tall Little did her own thing in college, almost to the point of being mysterious. Her talent, however, shone brightly.

"Kendra could win any tournament she teed it up in," said Scott. "She was long, really long. She hit the ball and it would turn heads kind of long."

David Glenz played golf at Oregon while Kendra's father was in school. He started teaching Kendra in high school and was ready to get her short irons dialed in on his new launch monitor when she told him she was quitting the game. He'd just clocked her swing speed at 115 mph after she hadn't played in three months. That was back in February of 2015.

"I thought the sky was the limit," he said. "An unbelievable talent."

Glenz used to question Kendra's inner-strength when it came to competitive golf. That was before he learned about AIS. Now he can't imagine the amount of inner-strength that she possesses.

Little is at peace with the fact that professional golf is now part of the past. But she sometimes wonders how far she could've gone in the game if she had been born fully female.

After pro golf, Little worked as an assistant coach at North Texas before moving back to Oregon when her father fell ill. He's doing better now, and while she has dived into the creative content space doing freelance work, she'd also like to get back into college coaching.

Last fall, after Little finally felt comfortable enough to share her story with someone close, she decided that it was time to tell her two older siblings. She wrote a letter to her sister Kelly (33) and her brother Scott (35). The truth brought them even closer.

a group of people posing for a photo: File photo © File Photo File photo

Left to right: Carla (mom), Doug (dad), Kelly (sister), Charley (niece), Kery (brother-in-law), Scott (brother) and Kendra Little. (Kendra Little)

Through a friend, Little became connected with LeBron James' digital media company, Uninterrupted, and seven months later a video was posted that would change her life.

Strangers have commented that Little looks like Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Today she takes it as a compliment because she thinks he's "majestic and gorgeous." But a year ago, being compared to a boy would've "destroyed" her.

"You just get to a point where the paradigm in which you're living just flips," she said, "and there's no going back."

Little used to think the fear of telling others about AIS stemmed from what others might say, when really it was more about how she viewed herself. She grew to see the parts that make her unique as a strength.

Around Thanksgiving last year, Little knowingly met an intersex person for the first time. Being able to sit across from someone who could relate to her in every sense felt surreal. They laughed and cried together.

Little chose to stop taking estrogen injections several years ago in part because she didn't like the way they made her feel or look - soft and lethargic. Just the idea of pumping something foreign into her body for the purpose of falling into a certain category didn't sit well.

Little identifies as a woman, but as early as elementary school realized that she was "uniquely Kendra," even though she couldn't quite articulate or understand what that meant.

"I can relate to both genders in some senses," she said. "I can't imagine being fully male. I can't imagine being fully female. All I can imagine and all I can feel is just my unique genetic makeup."

When asked about common misconceptions she has heard, Little said most people don't even have the most basic level of understanding or awareness of AIS to get it wrong.

a person sitting on a beach: File photo © File Photo File photo

Kendra Little and her dog, Hudson. (Kendra Little)

"A couple of friends, I've told them," she said, "and their minds are blown. They don't understand."

She gets it. People weren't taught this in school. The information is out there, but it's not mainstream. Little hopes to drive the conversation to educate and help others in a similar situation not feel so alone.

Little believes there's a way forward for someone like her to compete on the LPGA. It would be inaccurate, she said, to say that she didn't have an advantage in terms of her build and strength. But she was also taking estrogen hormone injections to cancel out the high levels of testosterone.

"It's a difficult subject and there will have to be compromises on both sides," she said, "but we can't live in a world where someone is told they can't do something because of the way they were born or because of something that's out of their control."

LPGA chief tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio acknowledged that gender in sports is a complex issue and something that many, if not most, sports and governing bodies are working to address. She's hopeful that Little's story will inspire more athletes to share their own challenges, both physically and emotionally, so that "we all can continue to understand them, and build programs and policies to address them."

"This is a learning lesson for me," said Dye, now an LPGA member, "that you can't put every person in a box."

That's why Little is bravely telling her story. To help stretch minds and open hearts. It's OK that people are confused. She was too.

But now, she's ready to have the conversation.

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