When Rosie Jones turned pro in 1982 it was a very different world. Only those who attended Clyde’s Comedy Club in New Orleans had heard of Ellen DeGeneres. The first episode of Will & Grace was 16 years away. And Anderson Cooper would not publicly come out as gay for another 30 years. Being lesbian on the LPGA was an open secret, but a secret nonetheless. As Mel Reid has shown, that is no longer the case.
There was a time when players feared fan reaction, wondered what it might mean for endorsement deals and were told in worried whispers that tournaments might lose sponsors if players were openly gay. It was a time when tour officials quietly suggested to gay players that low-key was the way to go. As Mel Reid has shown, that is no longer the case.
Slowly, times changed. Television brought positive portrayals of gay people into America’s living rooms and millions found these to be people they liked. As more people came out, virtually everyone discovered they had a family member or friend who is gay. The closet door had been blown open and Mel Reid proudly walked through.
When Reid, 31, publicly came out in December and moved to Florida from England to focus on her LPGA career, a large part of the decision was to give back to the gay community in ways a previous generation couldn’t
“The reason I did it was I feel like I’m on a platform where I can have some sort of influence and I have a voice,” Reid says. “This is my way of giving back. It’s a serious subject. People kill themselves over it. I just wanted to say, ‘Look, this is who I am. I’m very proud of who I am.’ I feel like it’s 2019 and it should be normalized. It doesn’t make me a bad person just because of the gender of who I love.”
Reid tells her story with admirable bravery, using to the fullest the platform golf gives her. When Rosie Jones was playing professional golf, the platform was a place to be avoided.
“Back then, the LPGA had a habit of protecting the brand because of the ever-present stigma of lesbians on our tour,” says Jones, who won 13 times in 23 years. “And not to blame the LPGA, it was the sign of the times. The LPGA’s first priority was to its entire membership and sponsors.”
Jones, who played college golf at Ohio State and was on seven Solhiem Cup teams before being U.S. captain in 2011, said the struggles of the LPGA when she first joined made discretion the better part of valor. “Title sponsors and individual endorsements were hard to come by for women in general,” she says. “It was even more difficult for those players who were thought to be gay.”
Right about when Jones turned pro another cautionary tale splashed across the front pages. Martina Navratilova, who would go on to become one of the greatest tennis players ever, told a reporter she was bisexual and then later identified as a lesbian.
“There were rumors that she lost many endorsements from that,” Jones says. “We were scared to come out because of the fear of bringing negative attention to the tour. It was a difficult time because we were very approachable and working hard to build our fan base as a tour and individually, but we were also not expected to share our true identity to anyone.”
There was an odd don’t-ask-don’t-tell atmosphere on the LPGA then. Players didn’t hide being gay, but they weren’t open about it either. Partners traveled with players. Other players knew; caddies knew; many fans knew; and some media knew. But societal norms dictated that this open secret remain a secret, which placed gay players in the awkward position of obfuscating who they really are.
“I was asked every week by my pro-am players if I was married and or have kids, and I would have to say ‘No’ even though I was in a serious relationship and felt like I was a very balanced, normal loving person,” says Jones. “Kind of ridiculous because I was left with the feeling that that person looked at me as an unloving, career-driven professional golfer without the reality of love and family.”
Then, in 2004, as her LPGA career was winding down, Jones had a business opportunity that required her going public about her sexuality. Olivia, a travel agency that catered to lesbians, offered her an endorsement deal.
“It was a difficult decision because I had been living a secret publicly and was a little afraid to change that,” says Jones. “I didn’t want to tarnish the image of the LPGA or any of the relationships I had with sponsors, organizations or affiliates I had.”
Jones, an extremely short hitter whose strength on the golf course was thinking ahead and playing with courage, was once again thinking one step ahead.
“Before I made the Olivia announcement, I called the LPGA, all of my sponsors, my golf club affiliates in Atlanta, all the organizations that I was acting as a spokesperson, and few close fellow players, to let them know what I was about to do,” she says. “I told them that this was the time to bail or prepare for the questions they may get.”
What she found out was all those entities who loved her as a person and respected her as a professional did so unconditionally.
“I was not given one ounce of negative feedback from those calls,” Jones says. “It was no surprise to them and they did not care. I actually gained endorsements the following years. The LPGA helped orchestrate my media attention. Instead of sweeping the topic under the rug as in the past, they made the transition as easy as possible for me, our tournaments, sponsors and fans.”
Things had changed by the early 2000s, but still some in the media focused on her personal life. “It was hard to bare my soul to the questions asked of me after a round of great golf, but eventually the questions got back to golf and it was not the big topic any longer,” she says.
What Jones found was an opportunity with Olivia that, along with the support of her sponsors, friends and the LPGA, gave her a platform on which to finally be herself.
“I was tired of not authenticating who I was as a person,” Jones says. “It was a different time in the world of sports and life in our country [than when she first turned pro.] I felt that the tour was in a different place, sponsors were more performance-driven and the public was getting more use to the gay life style. More entertainers, actors, musicians, politicians were out. It was a perfect time for me, the LPGA and our fans.”
Looking back 15 years later, it’s difficult to fathom what an earth-shaking moment this was for Jones and for the LPGA, truly the turning of an important corner for both.
“The feedback I got from our fans was far more rewarding that the money I received from my new gay sponsor,” Jones says. “People came out of the woodwork going out of their way thanking me for coming out and being courageous for standing up and representing the LBGT community.”
At 59, Jones is semi-retired, doing woodworking, boating and living with her partner of 14 years, Carrie Sexton, on Hilton Head Island. “Our new addition is Berty, the puppy girl,” Jones says, “And I’m working hard on my game for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, Senior LPGA and the Legends Tour.”
Then, with a pause, Rosie places the perfect punctuation mark at the end of an emotional interview.
“It was very invigorating and cathartic for me to respond to your questions,” she said. “I feel really a sense of freedom and empowerment to finally share and reveal what it was like for me and many others during that time on tour. Thanks so much for thinking of me and reminding me of my voice.”
The thanks really goes the other direction. Nearly 30 years in the making, this was a story that needed to be told, both to acknowledge the sacrifices of the players back then and to encourage the players of today. Rosie Jones is a hero for telling her story. Mel Reid is a hero for making certain more gay voices are heard.
The LPGA has built its brand around diversity and inclusion and the LGBTQ community is an important part of our membership, staff, sponsorship and fan base. Throughout the month of June the LPGA will celebrate Pride month with stories that feature members with amazing stories and accomplishments. Follow LPGA.com and the official LPGA social channels to get the latest updates.