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My Interview with Ryann O’Toole

I sit down with LPGA Golfer Ryan O'Toole to discuss her experience with golf, and being an openly gay athlete.

Through PXG, and my work in philanthropy, I have been fortunate enough to meet extraordinary people from all walks of life. One of these people, and a close friend to the PXG family, is golfer, Ryann O’Toole. Ryann is one of the most talented players in the game today, and she was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about her experience as an out gay woman in sports, and how her sense of identity and self has changed throughout time.

While we were speaking, I couldn’t help but marvel at her bravery for always staying true to herself. Living authentically is something I think every person, regardless of their background and identity, strives for – and it can be hard to achieve. Ryann is inspiring people of all ages around the world, and I am thrilled to have her celebrate Pride with us.

RENEE: When did you start playing golf? 

RYANN: I started when I was 13. I went to a lesson with some family friends, and I fell in love with it. I came home and I told my parents I wanted to play. They’re like, “Yeah, yeah. You come home with something new every day.” One week I want to ride a unicycle and the next I want to play hockey. I was already in four sports and they were saying, “You don’t have time!” A week later, the head coach called my house and said, “You really have to get your daughter started.” They took it seriously from there.  

After you fell in love with golf, did the other sports fall away? 

Yeah, slowly. I was still playing softball, basketball, karate, and competing in skateboarding competitions. It all started to disappear as high school came along. And then with two years left in high school, I was solely playing golf.

Did they have a golf team at your high school?

When I started my freshman year, we could barely fill a varsity team and a JV team. When I graduated, we had over 60 girls trying out for the golf team.

Wow! What do you think occurred between your freshman and senior year that sparked that growth?

I was the first girl that really came into the program, and I think I brought awareness to women’s golf. They saw there were scholarship opportunities and girls started realizing, “Oh this is really fun! We get to hang with our girlfriends all day and we don’t have to do PE.”

During that time period — or maybe even prior to that — did playing golf, and being in that environment, help you to understand your own identity?

I really started understanding in high school. You know how girls go through the phase of cuddling on the couch at sleepovers? I started realizing I like this more than I thought I should. I tried having boyfriends in high school. I thought that was what you’re supposed to do; it was normal. But I was never inclined to have sexual relationships. I grew up religious and I had this promise ring. I was waiting until marriage, so I think that separated it in my head. But in high school, whenever I would go on a date with a guy, I would be thinking, “Okay I’m ready to be dropped off. I hate this part. Get me out of the car! Do you want to go play catch or video games or watch sports?” I still enjoy guys’ company as friendships more than I do women, and I think that’s where it always has been.

By this point, you’re on the golf team, so I assume you’ve naturally made some female friends?

I was the only gay girl that was out in college. Out of all the athletes, I was the only one who was openly out and talked about it. We would go to parties and then at two in the morning there would be a random athlete that would show up to my door and want to come in. I remember shutting the door and saying, “No. You can’t ignore me during the party and then want to come in later.” So, it was weird being the only one who was openly out, or the only one who was really comfortable with themselves. I spent so many years fighting for myself and fighting to be who I was. And when you fight people who are closest to you — like your family — you don’t really care what other people think at that point. 

To give you a little backstory: my senior year in high school I started doing official visits for colleges. On one of my visits, the girl who hosted me was gay. She was the first person I ever admitted, “Oh I’m gay, too.” I remember driving in the car and she said, “Do you mind if my girlfriend comes with us to the party we’re going to?” I said, “No, I’m gay too.” And she just about swerved off the road. Because I didn’t have the stereotypical “look.” We started hanging out and keeping in touch. She got rid of her girlfriend and we started talking. My parents ended up finding out because one of my best friends at the time ended up talking to her too, and her mom let my parents know something was going on.

My parents called me home from school one day and said, “Get home now.” I could only think of one thing: they found out. My dad came home from work; they were crying. They were not happy with me. And on top of letting me know that they found out, they also told me my girlfriend was cheating on me!

That was the start of the hard part. They sent me into church counseling three days a week after school and monitored my phone. I spent senior year fighting for who I was, very confused. I learned in counseling that there is nothing wrong with me. It ended up always going towards my relationship with my parents and me figuring out how to have them cope with it. I remember them taking me to a Christian meeting for kids who were gay and wanted to change. All that ended up happening was I made more friends. None of it ever worked.

Two years into college my parents called me and said, “You really need to change your lifestyle. This isn’t okay, and we want you to come home.” I said, “I’m not coming home, I’m on a full ride. I’ll take out a student loan to pay for the rest of my needs and you just won’t have a relationship with your daughter.” We didn’t talk for a month. Then they finally came around. All in all, it took about eight years for them to really accept me.

During that eight-year time period when you and your parents were not seeing eye-to-eye, what role did golf play in your life?

Golf is such a mental sport. I definitely have learned that golf has always been my escape. Getting on the golf course made me feel like no one can touch me there; no one can bother me. Looking back now, I blossomed as a golfer after college. That was the same time frame that I fully accepted who I was. And I was living in a world where everyone around me was accepting of it. So maybe the reason I wasn’t as good a golfer in college, compared to where I am now, is because of the mental aspect. Golf is so precise, and you have to be on-point and in such a good mental place, that those things do affect it. Golf was my getaway where the world could shut out and it was just me.

Having that understanding in retrospect, if you could tell your 16-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Part of me would congratulate myself on staying true to myself, and not ever hiding who I was. I constantly fought with my parents, but I stayed true to myself. In life, we want so badly for everyone to accept, understand, and know what we go through. But that takes time. And we as individuals may not understand something as well as somebody else. But being gay, and going through what we have, gives us a greater acceptance of life. We have a greater acceptance of those around us and the differences we meet in people.

Ultimately, telling my 16-year-old self that the more you are you, and the more you can show people the genuine love you have for someone else, the more understanding and acceptance others will have.

What does Pride mean to you? 

I’ve always worked to just be no different from anyone else or any other relationship category. For me, Pride is a way for the younger generation to feel proud of who they are; to show the love and support of those around them; to show them they have a voice; they have a place; and they are accepted in this world. It’s a way for the younger generation to say, “Hey, you’re not alone. There’s many people here to hear you, to love you, to stand by you, and to help you create and build a community around you.”

That’s so important. And I think also showing both younger and older people that Pride month can be inclusive for everyone. Allies are able to lend their voices and support as well.

I think it’s amazing what PXG is doing by taking a stance saying, “We represent everyone.” Because there are so many times when you’re growing up as a professional athlete and stepping into the pro light, where there’s the thought of, “Sponsors won’t like that,” or “You need to hide your personal life.” And right off the bat I thought, “If I can’t be me, then I don’t want to represent them; we are not a good fit.” There are a few girls out here whose agents told them to not post stuff like that. How can you live like that? I’m proud to say that all of my sponsors have a personal relationship with me, and they know my fiancée, Gina Marra, and are all supportive. And to me, that’s just one way I can live a healthy life.