For 17-year-old Rio Pearlstein, golf has been his game since first grade. He fell in love with it so much that he was willing to lose sleep to play.
“I went home and I told my parents this is what I want to do and I want to play this game forever,” he exclaimed. “My dad responded that we’d have to get out on the course at 5 in the morning. The next morning I came to his bed, 5 in the morning, poked him on the shoulder until he woke up and we played golf.”
Today, he’s junior at Milton Academy in Massachusetts and one of the top players in New England PGA Junior Tour competition. Since entering NEPGA play at age 12, Pearlstein has 11 tourney wins.
In the COVID-affected 2020 season, he won two tournaments and had a finish no lower than sixth. Yet underneath the strong outings, there was inner turmoil.
“I felt like I was living life through a TV screen. That’s what I was realizing what dysphoria was,” he recalled. “Your being spoken as the girl’s winner for today and with everything around you is so gendered, especially in golf. It was hard to be truly present.”
The gender dysphoria gnawed at him even while becoming a rising star in girl’s competition on the Junior Tour. After that 2020 season and pushing through freshman year at Milton, he came out as a transgender boy.
In an interview on this week edition of the Trans Sporter Room, Rio Pearlstein gave us a glimpse inside the intersections, questions, trials and joys of being a young trans male athlete in a time where inclusion in sports is hotly debated.
Pearlstein is more than a year into his social transition, but hasn’t started any medical interventions that would change his eligibility by NCAA regulations. With college golf as a prime focus, he’s decided to delay hormone replacement therapy, stay in girl’s golf, and contend with the courses and dysphoria.
“I’m choosing not to take testosterone because I’ve had the dream to play collegiately since I was 6 years old,” he said. “In this day and age of recruiting I could not transition and be competitive and restart my resume as a 16-year-old. It just wasn’t possible to be recruited while transitioning.”
“I’m pretty much in distress about how I look, how a sound all of that,” he continued. “Looking at everything and taking everything as a small victory has been a good way to cope.”
One of those has been surrounding support, beginning with a teacher in school who affirmed his name change, extending to parents, golf teammates and competitors on the tour. The support has also helped him find his own voice amid the occasional noise of transphobia during a tournament round.
“I’ve gotten the steroid accusation twice,” he said. “People saying, ‘It’s unfair that he gets the distance advantage’ and I’m ‘totally on roids because he hits it farther than I do’. I said ‘You think I’m roids, you should see my teammate. She hits further than I do’. How misogynistic that they think girls can’t be great athletes.”
Since coming out, Pearlstein’s game continues to grow. He earned a berth to play in the Girl’s National High School Invitational at Pinehurst, N.C. in June. The three-day event was his first 54-hole tournament.
“I played some solid golf,” Pearlstein stated. “I shot 76-78-75 for the weekend and I found that I could do that at the national level.”
The confidence from his outing down south paid a dividend up north two weeks later. Pearlstein won the New England Junior Open in a playoff. He sees a bright 2023 ahead on the links while also using the game he loves to speak up for other trans youth seeking their chance to play.
“I want to get back to nationals next year because I learned about preparing for a tournament,” Pearlstein said. “I want to keep shooting low scores and have fun.”
“I think my goal is also to humanize the trans experience,” he said. “I think I made a huge statement by just being out there this year. I realize that I’m in a position to where if there’s a kid who needs someone to connect to can look at me and say ‘if he can do it, I can do it’.”
In this week’s Trans Sporter Room, Rio Pearlstein spoke at length about being young, being trans, and being in the game. Now available Megaphone, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple podcasts, and many other platforms for Outsports podcasts as well.