For 12 years Jeff Rawlins played golf at least four times a week
with a group of friends in South Webster, Ohio, a town of about
800 near the Kentucky and West Virginia borders. Once a year they
would even take a road trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where, after
playing all day, they would hit the bars at night. "We'd all go
to the strip clubs," Rawlins says. "You had to go with the flow,
be one of the boys." Then one day, six years ago, he left town
without a word to his buddies.
At 34, Rawlins had finally come out of the closet, and he knew he
would no longer feel comfortable in South Webster. He was certain
his golfing friends wouldn't understand.
Not long before another golfer in town, a businessman, had
revealed that he was a homosexual. His group got rid of him.
"They found a reason," Rawlins says. "Just about ruined his
life." The businessman gave Rawlins some advice. "He said to me,
'Jeff, when you come out, you have to get out. Leave.' I knew
what would happen. My mom said, 'I wish you were dead.' It wasn't
a shock. I was packed and ready to go."
Today Rawlins is eyeing a delicate chip for birdie on the 2nd
hole at Cooks Creek Golf Club, a course that sits near the Scioto
River, in the flatlands south of Columbus, on land once farmed by
the family of PGA Tour veteran John Cook. Rawlins is a stocky
5'10", with a face that's usually creased by a smile, even when
he's reliving a miserable time in his life. "If one person says
something negative--'Did you see that queer?' stuff like
that--then everybody does," he says. "It was easier to keep my
doggone mouth shut and hope someday I could move."
June 15, 2003
In Columbus, which is a couple of hours north of South Webster,
Rawlins worked as a security guard. "I was talked about for a
while back home," he says, "but I still have some good friends
down there. I've been back a couple of times." Asked if he ever
sees his old golfing pals, he shakes his head, "Nah." His chip
tickles the cup and he taps in for par. Rawlins is off to a good
start in the first outing of the year of the Rainbow Golf League,
one of many such organizations in the U.S.
Gays are almost invisible in a sport noted for its conservative
politics and religious beliefs. There is not a single open
homosexual on the PGA Tour, and the issue of gays in golf has
scarcely been discussed in the eight years since CBS announcer
Ben Wright caused an uproar by claiming that lesbians hurt the
women's game. These days, the biggest debates over progressive
thinking in the game are between Hootie and Martha, and Annika
and Vijay, and they're limited to gender. Although more than 200
golfers competed at the 2002 Gay Games, in Australia, the
National Minority Golf Foundation is unaware of even one study on
gay participation in the sport. Gays are the great silent
minority in golf.
"You can't hide the fact that you're African-American or a woman,
but you can pretend to be straight," says David Ray, a Columbus
high school teacher who met his partner, Jay Huston, at a Rainbow
Golf League outing four years ago. "We look like anyone else, and
we don't advertise."
"Yeah," Huston says with a poker face, "David and I are so butch
that no one ever catches on to us."
Gay golf organizations are slowly growing in number and profile.
Stonewall Golfers was founded three years ago in Palm Springs,
Calif., home of the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco Championship, which has
long been known as Lesbian Spring Break. Stonewall's 50 members
play every week and the group was recently recognized, for
handicap purposes, by the Southern California Golf Association,
the first gay club to be so accredited in the state. Jan Stapel,
the Stonewall Golfers' president, also organized the Rainbow
Challenge, a pink-jacket Masters for gay golfers held at Tahquitz
Creek Golf Resort in Palm Springs over the Memorial Day weekend.
While the largest gay golf group in the U.S. is believed to be
Lambda Links, in Washington, D.C., there are similar
organizations in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts,
Michigan, New York, Texas and elsewhere in California and Ohio.
The Rainbow Golf League in Columbus was started in 1997 by Bryon
Speakman and has a membership of 30 as its seventh season begins.
"Columbus is a great town for gay sports," says Speakman, an
impeccably groomed 34-year-old lawyer. "There's gay volleyball,
even gay darts, so I figured a golf league could go well. I
enjoyed playing with my dad and my friends, but I wanted to play
with some gay people too." He was hanging out one day with his
friend Fred Rector, when Rector spotted Speakman's clubs in the
trunk of his car. "I thought, Oh, my God! Another fag who plays
golf!" Rector recalls. They placed an ad in a gay newspaper
seeking other golfers and got 28 responses. "Golf isn't a dirty
word among gays here," Rector says.
After this informal round at Cooks Creek, league members will
meet on Friday afternoons for nine holes at Mentel Memorial, a
public course in Columbus, under their newly elected director,
Jim Riedel. Riedel, 35, is a ringer for Phil Mickelson, down to
the polite aw-shucks demeanor, the Titleist driver and the thirst
for minutiae. (When Riedel took up pool, he read a physics book
to learn how spherical objects react against one another.)
As he takes a few practice swings on the 1st tee at Cooks, Riedel
cheerfully recites all of the predictable gibes about gay
golfers: comments about balls and shafts, weak wrists and ladies'
tees, Bendover Hogan. "We've heard 'em all," he says. League
regulars added a few of their own. "We had members of the
transgendered community in the league, so that spawned all sorts
of jokes about a new purple tee between the men's and the
ladies'," he says before ripping a drive 260 yards down the
Riedel protects the privacy of the Rainbow League's membership as
fiercely as Hootie Johnson does Augusta National's. "We publish
our scores in the local gay newspaper, but some people don't want
their names published for fear of losing their jobs," Riedel
says. Members must sign a release before their scores are made
public. Riedel says his cautious approach is about
self-preservation. Similarly, he sometimes wonders about e-mails
he gets through the league website (rainbowgolf.org) from
strangers hoping to tee it up when they visit town. Says Riedel,
"Is it a wacko or someone who only wants to play golf?"
Riedel and his partner of eight years, Stephen Weed, play more
than 100 rounds together annually, but one in Las Vegas sticks
out. "We never introduce ourselves as lovers when we're paired
with other golfers," says Weed, a soft-spoken, 39-year-old
business consultant, but their playing partners in Vegas caught
on that Riedel and Weed were not a casual weekend twosome. "The
conversation died, and we became separate twosomes," Riedel says.
As the awkward round ended, one of the strangers began singing,
"I just met a boy named Maria."
"Did you chime in?" Speakman asks.
"Nah," Riedel says, "but I was glad I beat him."
Sherrill Howard, a league member for three years, usually
encounters a more traditional prejudice--the notion that women
are slow and can't play well--when she steps onto the tee with
her partner, Janet Lucas. "We get more comments like, 'Oh, we're
playing with girls!' than the idea that we might be lesbians,"
she says. "So Janet lets me drive first." Riedel nods and says,
"Sherrill hits the ball a long way."
But as league regulars have discovered on at least two occasions,
hostility toward gay golfers can go beyond altered tunes from
West Side Story. Two years ago the Rainbow League played its
matches at Split Rock Golf Club, a public course in the Columbus
suburb of Orient. The season passed without incident until the
penultimate outing, when the last group on the course was jeered
by another foursome with taunts of "Speed it up, faggots!" and
"Play from the ladies' tees, fags!" Afterward, the offenders
followed league members into the clubhouse and made similar
comments. "They got more brave as the distance between us
increased in the parking lot, where 'f------fags!' was yelled as
we got into our cars," Riedel says. "We ignored them and left
The league played its last scheduled round at the course and
never returned, though Riedel insists that management was always
professional. Still, Weed says, "Everyone was uncomfortable after
More recently, the Rainbow League gathered at Thornapple Country
Club in nearby Galloway, until the discomfiting glares became too
much and members began overhearing the word fag. "The clubhouse
seemed to tighten up," says Weed. Again, there was no issue with
club officials and the league hoped to return this season, but
Thornapple was unable to accommodate Rainbow's large number of
golfers. "They weren't antagonistic," says Howard. "We were
extended the courtesies."
"They want dollars," says Speakman. "As long as they're full,
they don't care who it is."
While the Rainbow League does not announce itself as a gay
organization, it doesn't hide the fact either. It is certainly
not obvious, even if members do joke about playing in drag from
the ladies' tees with stage names like Sandy Trapp and Birdie
Four. "There's no one in our group who is, for want of a better
word, a flamer," says Speakman.
"We're pretty good about maintaining a serious attitude," Howard
says, pointing out that groups of heterosexual golfers can be far
more disruptive. "Alcohol isn't a factor with us. That isn't true
of some other leagues. Their consumption can be quite extensive."
"Hey, I have a beer out there!" Speakman says.
"Yeah, but six over four holes?" replies Riedel.
Howard gently pokes fun at Riedel's concerns about a hostile
environment: "Poor Jim, he wants to put on his Carmen Miranda
headdress and spikes!"
It's that kind of relaxed attitude that draws people to the
Rainbow League. "I wanted to play with like-minded people," says
Brian Chandler, an African-American with a 10 handicap who will
continue to make some league appearances this year despite having
moved to Cincinnati. For Rachael Buchanan, who took up golf only
three years ago and now shoots in the mid-90s, playing with gays
and lesbians means avoiding a situation that arises frequently
outside the league. "When I get to the 1st tee, I assess the
group I'm going to be playing with and if they look like
rednecks, I'll wait for another group," she says, drawing hard on
a cigarette. "I know it's a stereotype, but...."
Sometimes the players' intuition is put to less serious use, as
when members engage in gossipy speculation about the sexual
orientation of well-known pros. The chatter usually devolves into
mere wishful thinking. Topping the I-wish-he-were-gay list is
Adam Scott, the handsome young Australian. But even these
exchanges conclude with an acknowledgment of the less-rosy
reality. "Golf will be one of the last sports with an openly gay
person," Riedel says.
Members of the Rainbow League come from a whole range of
professions, but nearly all of the players share an interest
beyond sexual orientation and golf: a passion for Buckeyes
football. Weed's father, Tad, played for legendary Ohio State
coach Woody Hayes and still has nightmares about missing
practice. On the drive to Cooks Creek, Weed and Riedel show their
level of fanaticism by reliving the Buckeyes' upset win over
Miami in January's Fiesta Bowl. National championship fever
struck everyone, gay and straight, they say, adding that a
performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America
played to a crowd of only seven theatergoers in Columbus the
night of the game. "We breathe college football here," Riedel
says. "It brings the community together. We have something to
In fact, the talk during the round at Cooks is standard fare:
family, sports, work. The players are models of old-fashioned,
Buckeye-lovin', Midwestern gay family values. The four groups who
tee off--the entire league won't meet until the following week's
formal season opener--are not even divided by handicaps, which
run the gamut from nearly scratch to head-scratching. The most
gleeful participant is Chris O'Leary, a Happy Gilmore type with a
swing only a boyfriend could love. He once holed an improbable
four-iron shot for eagle, and they still talk about the squeal
heard 'round the course. "They convinced me I was good enough to
play, so here I am," he says.
"He wins Miss Congeniality every year," says Rector, whose own
patented hook is known as the Full AFLAC.
"We don't get too serious; golf's frustrating enough," says Ray
after almost driving the green at the 289-yard 11th hole. On the
back nine Ray scrambles for par from everywhere and shoots the
low round of the day, a seven-over 79. Playing in the same group,
Lucas breaks 100 for the first time at Cooks Creek and celebrates
with a Juli Inkster-inspired dance.
In this laid-back atmosphere Rawlins has again found himself
among friends on the golf course, even if he doesn't play nearly
as often as he did back in South Webster. "I really don't know
too many people in Columbus, so I joined the league," he says as
he lines up a lengthy putt for birdie on the 3rd hole. "My game
is getting worse, though." On cue, his putt comes up 10 feet
"Sissy," says one of his playing partners. Rawlins smiles, then
pours his par-saver into the heart of the cup.
As the awkward round ended, Riedel says one of the strangers
began singing, "I just met a boy named Maria."
The league isn't obviously gay. "There's no one in our group who
is, for want of a better word, a flamer," says Speakman.