Before the video went up on Monday, fewer than 10 people knew Kendra Little’s deeply buried secret. In 13 minutes, 38 seconds, Little told the world via YouTube that she had been 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 fear that a drug test would reveal her secret by showing higher levels of testosterone. She’d seen it play out in track and field and was terrified about facing the same controversy. The only solution she found was to walk away.
“If I had success, I knew that was going to push me closer to the LPGA,” said Little. “But it also would’ve pushed me closer to having to deal with my gender. That was such an insane internal battle.”
Blocking out the truth
When she was around 12 or 13, 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.
She said those days in the doctor’s office were the darkest. Little had to face that she was different. That this was her confusing, complex reality. Every other day of the month, 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, one out of every 2,000 people are born intersex.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that two to five people in 100,000 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.”
Her talent was obvious
A golfer since the age of 7, Little grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and followed her father to the University of Oregon. Doug Little played basketball for the Ducks and later professionally. Kendra was one of the best to ever play at Oregon, winning four times and never missing an event in four years.
Former Oregon golf coach Ria Scott, now head coach at Virginia, said the nearly 6-foot Little did her own thing in college, almost to the point of being mysterious. Her talent, however, was obvious.
“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. He’d clocked her swing speed at 115 mph, after she hadn’t played in three months. That was 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 golf. That was before he learned about AIS. Now, he can’t imagine how much inner strength she has.
Little is at peace knowing professional golf is in the past. But she sometimes wonders how far she could have gone 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 became ill. He is improving, and Kendra has jumped into the creative content space as a freelancer. But she’d like to get back to college coaching.
Finally telling her story
Last fall, after Little felt comfortable enough to share her story with someone close, she decided 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 closer.
Through a friend, Little connected with LeBron James’ digital media company, Uninterrupted, and seven months later, the video that changed her life was posted.
Strangers have sometimes said that Little resembles 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 man would have “destroyed” her.
“You just get to a point where the paradigm in which you’re living just flips, and there’s no going back,” she said.
Little said she used to think fear of telling others about AIS came from what they might say, when 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. Sitting across from someone who could relate to her in every sense felt surreal. They laughed and cried together.
Little stopped taking estrogen injections several years ago in part because she didn’t like the way they made her feel or look – soft and lethargic. The idea of pumping something foreign into her body to fall into a certain category didn’t sit well.
While Little identifies as a woman, as early as elementary school, she realized 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.”
It’s OK to be confused
Little said most people don’t have a basic level of understanding or awareness of AIS. “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 educate and help others in similar situations not feel so alone.
Little said she thinks there’s a way for someone like her to compete in the LPGA. It would be wrong, however, to think she didn’t have an advantage in terms of her build and strength. But she was also taking estrogen injections to cancel out the high levels of testosterone.
“It’s a difficult subject, and there will have to be compromises on both sides, 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,” she said.
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 Little’s story will inspire more athletes to share their challenges, both physically and emotionally, so “we all can continue to understand them, and build programs and policies to address them.”
Dye, now an LPGA member and Little’s friend, said, “This is a learning lesson for me that you can’t put every person in a box.”
That’s why Little is telling her story. To stretch minds and open hearts. It’s OK that people are confused. She was, too.
But now, she’s ready to have the conversation.