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    LPGA LGBT Heroine Muffin Spencer-Devlin

    muffinBy Jamie Leno Zimron

    Muffin Spencer-Devlin is one brave and talented woman. A 3-time winner and 21-year veteran on the LPGA Tour (1979-2000), Muffin became the first professional golfer to come out – in Sports Illustrated magazine, in 1996! Before taking that historic step, she broke taboos around mental illness when she let the world know of her struggles with manic depression/bipolar disorder. Today she has become a master glass artist, living in Laguna, CA, and is happy with who she is, what she does, and how she is living her life.

    As colorful as she may be complicated, it doesn’t take long to get a sense of what a warm, witty, life-loving, giving and charismatic person Muffin is. Like her or not, most would agree with former LPGA player Kris Tschetter who said: “There’s no one like Muffin. That’s the bottom line. She is so open and honest, thinks outside the box and has such a real heart.”

    I’ve known Muffin since 1971, when we were roommates at her godmother’s home while competing in the national junior girls’ championship at Pinehurst #2. It’s always a treat when our paths cross, and she generously took time recently to talk with me for this SF Bay Times Pride issue.

    Jamie Leno Zimron: When did you realize you were gay?

    Muffin Spencer-Devlin: In college. Before getting serious about golf or playing professionally.

    Jamie Leno Zimron: When you were on the LPGA Tour, what percentage of players would you say were gay?

    Muffin Spencer-Devlin: I think about a third. There’s always been this idea that a majority of professional golfers, and probably pro women athletes, are lesbians. But that’s really a myth. Most were out amongst ourselves, if they even knew themselves. I don’t know about management or LPGA Headquarters, how much they knew or cared. I don’t remember thinking of being gay or closeted as stressful then, since it was stressful enough just being on Tour and playing golf for a living. But the bouts of depression and mania really affected my career, and for me being gay was another aspect of that. So coming out was cathartic for me, like opening different doors of the closet. It was a relief, and almost a non-event in hindsight. I thought it would be a big deal to my golf, but it wasn’t. It was all tied up with ‘Truth, Justice and The American Way!’

    (In the landmark March 18, 1996, Sport Illustrated article entitled “No More Disguises,” Muffin stated: “I think that keeping the secret may have contributed to my illness. Whatever the consequences, being honest should be less stressful, not more…Coming out is like an incredibly huge weight being lifted from my shoulders. No more living in the shadows. No more lies. I truly believe that keeping a secret is an energy-consuming act. If every day when you wake up you have 100 units of energy for the day, and you have secrets, they might take up 10 units of that energy. After a time you might not even be aware of it anymore, but you have that much less energy to apply in your life. And that’s unhealthy.”

    Quite incredibly in 1996, and still today looking back, then LPGA Commissioner Jim Ritts welcomed Muffin’s revelation: “I don’t think I’m naive, but I don’t have any concerns about this. I know there are still individuals who have problems with diversity, but we’ve come so far as a society that I don’t see this as a topic that really moves people.” He continued: “When you label someone with a single word, a stereotype gets attached, and the individual’s real qualities get clouded. Muffin is dramatic, she’s warm, she’s funny, and she’s a truly gifted athlete who has had to contend with great travails in life. If someone tags her as gay and never experiences the rich colors of her life – well, it’s a lost opportunity for them.”

    The president of Callaway, one of Muffin’s sponsors at the time, went so far as to say: “As far as we’re concerned, if it doesn’t interfere with her ability to hit a golf ball and she continues to show the kind of integrity that she clearly does, she’s our kind of spokesperson.”

    muffin2Jamie Leno Zimron: Were lesbian love affairs/relationships common amongst Tour players, or with fans?

    Muffin Spencer-Devlin: Sure, we weren’t nuns!

    Jamie Leno Zimron: Given that other players, and LPGA officials, knew there were many lesbians on Tour, did they tell you outright or try in other ways to keep you quiet?

    Muffin Spencer-Devlin: Let’s say we knew not to rock the boat. That was the rule I lived by. I guess it was a little, or maybe a lot, like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Everyone knows. There are gay people on Tour, and at LPGA Headquarters… Just don’t talk about it!

    The day after the article came out, one lesbian player, now in the Hall of Fame, was upset and said to me, “Why Sports Illustrated? Why not at least The Advocate?” The people whom I thought were my friends didn’t talk to me; only a few did. On the other hand, my straight player friends were supportive. No one knew what to expect, so we went back into our little turtle shells and waited to see what would happen.

    Jamie Leno Zimron: Yes, it’s not like the article or positive responses you received opened any floodgates. Since 1996, only Rosie Jones has officially come out, ten years ago, and that was at the end of her playing career when she was contracting with Olivia to move on into the lesbian travel business. Why do you think it has remained so hard and even taboo to say publicly that you’re gay in the LPGA?

    Muffin Spencer-Devlin:  I don’t know why there aren’t more players coming out. It is such a personal thing, with motivations all over the spectrum. Like I said, sponsors knew and were supportive, ditto the LPGA, friends and family. Straight tour players were supportive. But my gay compadres shunned me. Those players involved in creating what would become the Senior Legends Tour shunned me, left me out of the program.

    Prior to one of the first senior events that was to take place in Utah, the players were fearful of having a gay player come to Mormonville. So I didn’t get invited to the event, or to join the Legends Tour. One of my best friends while we played on tour actually took me aside and said, “Sorry, Muffin. It’s a business decision.”

    That all pissed me off, then and now, and left a bad taste. I just put it on a handful of players, who are still personally worried and holding back. But I would never have gone on to become a glass artist. So what ya gonna do?  Roll with it!

    Postscript from Jamie: It was very interesting for me to read back through the 1996 Sports Illustrated cover story on Muffin. The authors, Amy Nutt and John Garrity, wrote these still too-true words: “ … the issue of lesbians in golf has usually been framed in terms of their perceived impact on the LPGA. When network TV audiences are smaller than desired, critics claim it’s because the players are ‘too butch.’ When the commissioner can’t fill open dates in the tournament schedule, outsiders whisper that sponsors don’t want their products associated with ‘deviant’ behavior… The perception was that a lot of sponsors weren’t backing events because they didn’t feel it was promoting the so-called ‘wholesome family image’ and they didn’t want their brand names associated with that.”

    To its credit, the LPGA has done much to offer athletic opportunities and to empower young girls and women through golf. Yet, like any business entity, it is primarily concerned with survival and being profitable, and operates within our economic culture dominated by male values and homophobia. In that context, it is not surprising to see professional sports organizations preferring to keep LGBT athletes quiet; or to see the prevalence of  ’sex-sells’ marketing strategies, replete with hetero-based images of manly-macho men and cute-pretty feminine women.

    If the definition of courage involves acting in the presence of fear, Muffin Spencer-Devlin is clearly a courageous woman. Two decades ago, she chose authenticity, inner peace and pride over the perils of coming out. Through the years, she has been a Grand Marshal at numbers of Pride parades, and continues to be an inspiration for full freedom of self-expression for every human being. Today, Muffin absolutely loves focusing and developing her rich, body-mind gifts on the art of glass-blowing. She exhibits and sells her magnificent pieces, and is now being commissioned by the LPGA to create special trophies for Tour events. This is something I doubt she ever dreamed of, while she was envisioning publicly hugging and kissing her partner on the 18th green like any other winner celebrating with their spouse!

    As we celebrate 2014 Pride in San Francisco, let’s hope that the recent tide of LGBT athletes coming out continues to rise. Let’s hope that there is less and less for them to lose, and that we can all help everyone know how much individuals, teams and society have to gain when we’re allout there playing.

    And let’s celebrate a true heroine, Muffin Spencer-Devlin!

    To read more about Muffin, please see:

    Sports Illustrated Vault online: “No More Disguises” //sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1007854/1/index.htm and:

    • May 17, 2012, Orange County Weekly: “Muffin Spencer-Devlin Is the Best Lesbian, Manic-Depressive, Glass-Blowing Golfer of Them All”

    www.ocweekly.com/2012-05-17/news/muffin-spencer-devlin-ladies-professional-golf-association-glass-blowing-laguna-beach/2/

    Jamie Leno Zimron is an LPGA Pro, Aikido 5th Degree Black Belt, and Corporate Speaker-Trainer. For more information about Jamie Leno Zimron and her work, visit http://www.thekiaiway.com/