Kendra Little goes public as intersex athlete

Sports

She says she decided to quit professional golf -- and estrogen treatments -- in 2015

Kendra Little credits the support of her sister and brother for helping her deal with her evolvement as an intersex athlete and person. (Jaime Valdez/PMG)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — She never expected any of this.

The attention. The outpouring of support from family, friends and even strangers, who were touched by the release of the 13-minute, 38-second video, “Becoming More,” which went viral on YouTube and other social media outlets last month. USA Today newspaper and Golfweek magazine followed with an article on the subject.

Kendra Little was blown away.

“It’s been incredible,” said Little, sipping coffee in Lake Oswego as she discussed the reaction to the video released by “Uninterrupted,” LeBron James’ digital media company. “The initial response from everyone on social media was surreal. After that, it’s been people I’ve known for a long time, or who are in my life the last couple of years, reaching out and saying things and going into detail about memories they have with me. It’s been heartwarming for me.”

Little, who turns 31 on Aug. 15, has lived with a secret until now: She was born with partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). Little has the physical appearance of a female, but much of her genetic makeup is of a male.

The Wilsonville resident, Sheldon High grad and youngest of three offspring of former University of Oregon basketball star Doug “Cowboy” Little felt it was time to come out with her story for two reasons. One, she didn’t want to hide anything any longer. Two, she wanted to help other people born “intersex” — an umbrella term for characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies — understand that it’s not something of which to be ashamed.

“It’s for my personal development,” Little said. “But also for kids, or anyone out there, who has never had the outlet to make it known that it’s OK that you’re born this way.”

There have been a few snide comments through social media.

“I’ve taken a peek at comments on Twitter or YouTube — places where you shouldn’t be looking at comments, anyway,” Little said with a smile.

But the revelation that has rocked her world also has helped enact a shift in her being.

“Some of the things written there would have been extremely hurtful to me before this thing took place,” Little said. “But this has been a period of time where I’ve owned who I am, and that has allowed me to just not care what people say or think if it’s negative.”

Little — an outstanding golfer at Oregon who went on to play two years professionally — paused for a moment of reflection, then continued.

“I consider myself introverted and sensitive, but it doesn’t affect me anymore,” she said. “My entire life, I’ve been sensitive to what others say about me. Since this thing has happened, I’ve truly accepted myself.

“Everyone deserves that. If I can get to a point where I can feel like that, anybody can. Even if they can’t relate to being intersex, everyone can relate to wanting to live their truth and be their authentic self.”

In the video, Little calls the process “liberating” and “therapeutic.”

“I never thought I’d be talking to anyone about this,” she said. “Let alone, the whole world.”

Little has tried to respond to all of those who reached out to her.

“I want to be an open book,” she said. “I want people to feel like they can ask me questions. Growing up, I don’t remember a time in school when the subject was even touched on — maybe one time in biology class in high school. I like the idea of sharing something that needs to be talked about and to be given awareness.”

Little said she always felt different from other children.

“We moved to Eugene when I was 7,” she said. “My earliest memory was looking around at the boys and girls on the first day of school. I didn’t feel like I belonged to either group.

“Growing up, I didn’t feel overwhelmingly lonely or secluded. I had a lot of friends. But to my core, I couldn’t fully relate to one or the other. I knew deep down something was different. I could feel it. And as I began to grow and develop, it became more apparent there was a difference.”

At age 12, Little underwent a physical exam that was required in order to play a sport, “and there was a request to take a deeper look” at her biological makeup. Her mother, Carla, drove her to Portland, where she underwent tests at Oregon Health & Science University.

“I’ll never forget what the doctor said,” Little said. “She was really sweet and did her best, in a difficult situation, to tell a child, ‘You’re actually both a boy and a girl.'”

Former University of Oregon golfer Kendra Little says she has ‘truly accepted myself’ since recently revealing she was born intersex. (Jaime Valdez/PMG)

People born intersex are rare. According to Human Rights Watch, it’s one of every 2,000 people, which would be about 165,000 people in the United States. People born with AIS are exceedingly rare. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimate it’s two to five per 100,000 people. That would mean between 6,000 and 15,000 in this country. And in Little’s case, she doesn’t have the full reproductive system of what is typically male.

“Few people in the world have been born exactly the way my body is,” she said.

When Kendra and her mother arrived home, they delivered the news to Kendra’s father.

“I was heartbroken for her,” he says today. “It was a shocker, to be honest.”

Kendra recalls spending that day in shock, too. The drive home with her mother, mostly in silence. Soccer practice that evening. In a sense, it was business as usual. But of course, it wasn’t.

“Hearing that at such a young age was so confusing,” Little said. “Your idea of life and how the world works is so basic and elementary. To hear that, it just doesn’t make sense. And something prevented me from wanting to explore it myself, or to find out if there were other people born the same way.”

From that day, Little never discussed AIS with her parents, or with anyone else.

“My mom and I have a strong connection,” she said. “She knows me extremely well. There have been times in my life where I think she can read my mind. (My parents) handled it in a way that they felt like I would respond to best.”

In a protective way?

“Yes, 100 percent,” Little said. “In not talking about it, they were trying to create a sense of normalcy for me. And I was the youngest kid, so it was a natural protective role.

“Over the last year, I’ve thought about my parents having to deal with this. In trying to raise a child who was born in a unique way, they knew I was faced with challenges, but they were, too. I have a lot of compassion for them as well.”

Doug Little said he and his wife weren’t sure how to handle it, but that he doesn’t regret the way they did.

“We decided to leave the decision up to her on what she wanted to do as far as to tell or not tell people,” he said. “But it was tough.”

Kendra, who told almost no one, didn’t languish through her teenage years, or her 20s. Athletically, at least, she flourished. She was a fine basketball player at Sheldon, then focused on golf at Oregon, where she finished sixth at the Pac-10 championships as a senior in 2011. An extremely long hitter, the 5-11 Little was good enough to play the Symetra Tour — the auxiliary circuit just below the LPGA Tour — in 2013 and ’14.

From the time Kendra learned she was intersex at 12, she had taken estrogen injections — at first monthly, then once every three months — to keep the male hormones at bay.

“Because of puberty and growth, at first it was important from the doctor’s standpoint that I get put on estrogen treatment,” Little said. “We were doing it with the idea that we would be doing surgery to remove the male reproductive parts inside my body.”

In February 2015, at the time she decided to quit pro golf, she quit the estrogen treatments. Part of it was she was concerned that drug testing on the tour would reveal her to have excessive levels of testosterone. But also, she got tired of what felt like, in essence, living a lie.

“I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” Little said. “It didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t feel like I needed to change anything. I firmly believe I was born this way for a reason. My thinking was, until I’m put in a place where I feel like it’s what I need to do, I’m just going to be me.”

Little worked as an assistant coach at North Texas for a couple of years, then moved to Wilsonville, where she has been doing freelance work in what she calls “creative content space — digital video editing, photography, branding and illustrating.”

The wheels came into motion last year for her video, at a time when she began dating a woman she prefers not to name. They are no longer romantically involved, but “we’re still very close,” Little said. “She’s still basically my best friend. She was the one who inspired me to share my story.”

Little was put into touch with representatives of “Uninterrupted,” who shot video twice in their Los Angeles studio and once in Oregon, in which her family — including brother Scott, 35, and sister Kelly, 33 — participated. It was originally scheduled for release in May but got delayed. “The creative flow made it come out in July,” Little said.

Little said the self-discovery has been enlightening for her.

“All of my masculine features — including my deep voice — for so much of my life I tried to mask them into this feminine female box,” she said. “I was self-conscious about those. My friend really helped. Sometimes it takes another person or an event to spur you on. That was her for me, helping me to embrace myself.”

Last fall, she wrote a letter explaining her sexuality to each of her siblings.

“I’d never talked about it with them,” Little said. “My sister knew something was up. Certain things sisters bond over, we didn’t. That was lacking. I was a tomboy growing up. She’s a very intuitive person. My brother and I are like kindred spirits. We’re basically the same person.

“They’ve both been incredibly supportive. A big reason I’m the person I am today is because of those two.”

Little admits she isn’t sure how to digest all she has learned about her lot in life. She recognizes “parallels” between her life and that of Caster Semenya, the great South African runner who has been subject to drug testing and estrogen treatments. Little isn’t sure what to think about transgender athletes such as Renee Richards, who played the Women’s Tennis Association circuit in the late 1970s after sex reassignment surgery.

“It’s a complex issue,” Little said. “I’m of the opinion that someone like Caster shouldn’t have to take estrogen to compete as a woman in track and field. She was born with a unique genetic makeup, and she should be able to compete as she was born.

“A transgender golfer who went fully male to female reached out to me recently, and we’ve exchanged emails. It’s a difficult situation. There is going to have to be compromise on both sides to move this thing forward.”

Little seemed happy to be doing an interview with a reporter who asked questions similar to what she has been asking herself through the years. And to feel free to offer her responses.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have thought I’d be having this conversation with you even a year ago,” she said. “You just never know how your perspective will change or your paradigm will flip.”

Her father is pleased that the change in his daughter’s life has expanded her horizons.

“Kendra has always been to herself,” he said. “She’s not out there. This has brought her out of her shell quite a bit.”

I asked Kendra what she hopes to have in her future. A marriage? Children?

“I’m open to anything and everything,” Little said. “This whole experience has reinforced my beliefs in that. I’m very much of the opinion that the things that happen to you shape your perspective. When you have very specific needs and wants, it limits you. It’s good to have an open mind and listen to yourself and your intuition.”

Changes seem in the offing for Little. She is pursuing various job opportunities in the golf industry.

Does Kendra wish more resources had been made available regarding her sexuality when she first learned she was both male and female at age 12? Counseling, perhaps?

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said convincingly. “I wouldn’t change how all this played out, how I have this platform now. I do think that for anyone else, it’s something that should be talked about. It should be widely accepted. You’re born this way. Not to say anything against going through transgender identity. We’re all pulling in the same direction. Anyone born a certain way biologically should be able to live free and open about it. My whole thing is inclusion.”

Does Little feel she accomplished what she wanted to in making her situation public?

“Totally,” she said, nodding. “Almost in every aspect, it has exceeded anything I could have hoped it would be.

“I’m grateful for all the response, but so far the coolest thing is that people who are intersex have reached out and said, ‘I can’t tell you how much this means to me. I don’t have anyone to talk to. I don’t have a support system.'”

Now, thanks to Kendra Little, they do.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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