A mid-afternoon mist descended on a disc golf course among woodlands in Leicester, Mass., and added to the tension of the moment. The Disc Golf Pro Tour’s MVP Open had come down to a two-person playoff.
Both had something to play for. Tattar wanted to add a 10th win to a dominating season where the victories included her game’s world championship. Ryan, who became the first trans woman to win at the elite level of the sport with a victory at the Great Lakes Open in July, eyed her second win of a breakout season.
Behind the ropes as the 28-year-old Ryan prepared her shot, a fellow disc golfer and trans woman twice her age watched nervously.
“My heart was pounding so loud that I’m sure everybody was hearing it,” Kelly Jenkins said. “I was holding my breath every single throw because it is nearly impossible to beat the world champion in a playoff.”
Ryan was standing in the moment to do the impossible because Jenkins marked the path in 2014. That year, she stepped to a first tee at a tournament in Kentucky and became the first publicly out transgender competitor in Professional Disc Golf Association history.
‘I was playing disc golf in the wrong body and my game was horrible’
For over 30 years Kelly Jenkins has lived for disc golf as a player and cheerleader for the growth of the game on the courses, and on the sound set of her television show, Kelly’s Quest, that profiles transgender athletes.
Her life in the game has seen her up close with the figures of its “outsider” history right up to the game’s creator.
“I knew Ed Headrick personally,” she notes with prideful smile when speaking of the the man best-known for inventing the Frisbee as we know it and the game Jenkins loves. “I sat down with the inventor of disc golf and talked him for hours. That was back at the beginning of my disc-golf journey.”
Natalie Ryan wasn’t even a twinkle in a parent’s eye when Jenkins first grew into this sport in the 1990s. At the same time, Jenkins was also growing into her truth. While still living and working in Tennessee in 1995, she pursued her gender transition. It cost her a job and a family. She detransitioned and moved to the United Kingdom to pursue a teaching degree she earned in 2000.
By 2005, she was back in Tennessee, teaching in a school and restarting her transition — in stealth.
The one thing that helped her keep things together was the game.
“Disc golf saved my life,” she stated emphatically. “From 1991 to 2005, I was playing disc golf in the wrong body and my game was horrible in the wrong body.
“My brain was not into it. My body and my brain did not want to work together and the community I was with wasn’t able to be there for me.”
The game also helped her restart her life as she made a move from Tennessee to Massachusetts in 2014, where she lives and works as an educator today.
Being in a safer place to exist lead to her trying to play disc golf at her higher, sanctioned level. She joined the PDGA and entered The Amateur Championship at Bowling Green, Ky., in the highest women’s division in the amateur ranks.
The road to competitive play was rough due to the rules regarding eligibility of transgender players at the time.
“The PDGA reached out to me and had this list of criterion I had to do qualify for the women’s division” she remembered. “I had to tell about my body. I had to openly discuss my genitals with a stranger on a phone call from the PDGA. I had to prove that I had surgery that was the only way they’d let trans women compete in 2014. It was embarrassing.”
She was deemed eligible for play, and that tournament weekend she took out her frustration on the course in the first round.
“It was a course I had played before,” Jenkins remembered. “I threw lights out.”
Jenkins fired an opening round 55 to start the weekend. She ended the weekend with a win in her first PDGA event. It was the first of 18 career wins at the amateur and lower-tier pro levels, while also becoming an ambassador for what she calls “a quirky sport.”
“My goal is to make it the most diverse and inclusive sport on the panel,” she stated passionately. “Anything about you doesn’t matter as long as you’re kind, you like throwing Frisbees, and you enjoy talking to people.”
Pride over Prejudice
Jenkins estimates that there are maybe 10 out transgender women playing at various levels of PDGA competition worldwide. One of those 10, Laura Nagtegaal, is a member of the PDGA Board of Directors.
The community of trans participants is small, but supportive of each other. They have gotten a lot of cisgender people within the disc golf community to come along as allies.
Such was evident last Sunday as Ryan’s forehand second shot caromed off of a rock wall and landed in striking distance on the green. Her following birdie putt sealed the MVP Open to roars and applause that continued as she accepted the winner’s trophy.
“The trans people who support me, you are exactly why I do it,” Ryan told Outsports. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have the drive to make everyone’s lives better.”
Jenkins beams when looking at the impact of young players like Ryan, Chloe Alice and Kylie Rotolo. She believes Ryan’s winning way in 2022 will help grow the sport as a whole.
A piece of that impact was seen in a young trans woman Jenkins met at the final round.
“She’s a newbie to the sport, just starting her journey, and she said she drove three hours to be there just to cheer Natalie on,” Jenkins said. “When I introduced her to Natalie you could just see how starstruck she was. She’ll have this memory of meeting Natalie Ryan on a disc golf course, and Natalie having taken the time to talk to her.”
The pride and happiness over Ryan was met with transphobia in some quarters of social media, and from some anti-trans media sources. One such source had an article Wednesday trumpeting the win derisively as “Disc Golf’s Lia Thomas Moment”.
Ryan, speaking to Outsports last week, took the comparison to the NCAA champion swimmer in stride.
“I don’t feel too bad about that,” she said. “Lia Thomas is a great athlete.”
Jenkins feels the general tone from the outlets, including anonymous tour players saying most resent Ryan, and from a vocal social media minority, is a sign of how little detractors know about the sport and the people who care about it.
“They don’t understand disc golf, don’t understand the community, and don’t understand the work we’ve done,” she emphasized in regard to anti-trans fans and media. “These anonymous people are saying this know what they are saying is not representative of disc golfers.
“This is not a one-off that there is now support for trans women in disc golf. I’ve been working hard since 2014. We all have been working hard to make disc golf safe.”
A symbol of that work were the cheers of fans celebrating Ryan’s triumph in a stirring playoff.
It also strikes a deeper cord with the pioneering Jenkins in terms of the value of the game itself.
“Being an athlete and getting to participate in a sport you love? It’s affirming.”