This June, the USGA Golf Museum and Library celebrated the players, influencers and professionals in the golf industry who are proud members of the LBGTQ+ community. Throughout Pride Month, the Museum team highlighted their stories through collecting artifacts, sharing social media posts, displaying temporary exhibits and supporting community events.
By interacting with this small but important group of golfers, I was reminded of our responsibility as historians of the game: to share the breadth of experiences and diverse stories that have always existed in golf despite the game’s sometimes exclusionary history. As more golfers continue to come out and the sport slowly becomes more welcoming of the LGBTQ+ community, uncovering and sharing their stories will signal that players from all backgrounds have a place – and have always had a place – in golf.
Highlighting LGBTQ+ representation is made complicated by the societal pressures and emphasis placed on the idea of “coming out.” Though there is evidence of homosexuality in ancient cultures, the idea of “coming out” did not became popular until the 1930s. Then it simply meant joining the small LGBTQ+ community in the city where you lived because coming out to the wrong person meant risking arrest or violence.
As the Gay Liberation Movement progressed during the second half of the 20th century, the idea of coming out became a political tool used to show the average American that being gay did not make someone inherently bad.
Today, coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is often an expected rite of passage; but for heterosexual people, announcing one’s sexuality is hardly ever deemed necessary. This double standard has created a world in which everyone, especially people in the public eye, are assumed straight unless they explicitly say they are not.
Through my experience as a historian, I have noticed that this modern concept of coming out is often retroactively applied to LGBTQ+ individuals in history even though they lived during a time when being openly gay was not safe. Because notable people in previous generations were not likely to publicly announce their sexuality, historians often ignore or explain away evidence that a historical figure was gay, transgender or nonbinary if that person never explicitly came out. Whether intentional or not, this tactic has been used to effectively erase LGTBQ+ people from history, or at the very least minimize that part of their story.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that if young people from different backgrounds can see themselves represented on the course, they may be inspired to pick up golf clubs and learn the game. In 1998 when Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open, her success sparked a surge in the popularity of golf around her home country of Korea.
Pak’s win had an especially significant impact on young girls who now had someone showing them what their future in golf could look like. Today, thanks to Pak and the success of other Asian players, the number of players on the LPGA Tour from Asian countries has increased dramatically.
Erasure of gay individuals from golf history can be damaging to the growth of the game among the LGBTQ+ community because without historical representation, golf can appear unwelcoming and exclusive. While studying the game’s history, it became clear that there has always been LGBTQ+ representation.
Even though the first openly gay male professional golfer, Tadd Fujikawa, came out only three years ago in 2018, there are vast numbers of professional golfers who privately and authentically enjoyed their lives while in loving, same-sex relationships despite never explicitly stating their sexuality. These stories are just as important to celebrate as the stories of professional golfers like Rosie Jones, Jane Geddes and Patty Sheehan, who all are out and proud members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Understanding the nuance and history of “coming out” brings us one step closer to sharing important LGTBQ+ stories that might have previously been ignored. This will allow us to paint a more complete picture of what the golf community has looked like since its modern beginnings in America in the 19th century. By continuing to uncover and share these stories, my colleagues at the USGA Golf Museum and I hope to ensure that golf’s diverse and complete history is preserved so it can inspire and welcome everyone who wants to play.
Kylie Garabed is the junior curator at the USGA Golf Museum and Library. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.