Breaking barriers in sport, and love: the Simi Mehra story

“Okay, great. I have two daughters now.”

Simi Mehra’s father would respond in arithmetic summation when she told him she was gay. Then, like every other day, he shot off for a round of golf.

“That’s how much my father hated drama,” Simi, India’s first-ever female pro golfer, laughs. Her mother, Billy, a former national level golf player, wasn’t too pleased by the news at the start, suggesting that Simi choose between her and her partner. “I said, ‘I can’t pick between you two. It’s parents who choose to have a child, not the other way round.’ I left it to my mom to decide whether she wanted me as her daughter. She obviously came around.”

The 49-year-old came out publicly in 2013, six years before sprinter Dutee Chand. While the latter made the big headlines, Simi ascribes the absence of attendant controversy to her relatively lesser-known coming out story. Her run on the greens too – first Indian on the LPGA Tour, two top-ten finishes on the Tour – is somewhat overlooked in Indian sporting legend.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

Brave, funny and thoroughly irreverent, Simi, decided to chase a spot on the LPGA Tour – something no Indian had done before her – after being stirred by the legend of American golfer Nancy Lopez. When she hit her 20s and the pressure to get married mounted, the mission assumed urgency. “My mother had begun showing me pictures of prospective grooms. That’s when I knew I had to act fast. She was okay with me playing golf but she wanted me to prove that I was good enough. I did it by winning every amateur event I could, 25 of them all over Asia, breaking course records. I could hit farther than most male players. But I was getting a bit tired of the way women’s golf was being run in India and the favouritism at play. They didn’t appreciate my plain speaking either.”

In 1996, Simi moved to Orlando, U.S., and became the first Indian to enter the LPGA Tour. Homesick, in her early days away from the country, she’d drop quarters into payphones at street corners to call her mother and spend the first three minutes wailing into the receiver. Slowly, though, the hard-knock life in America toughened her.

She drove an average 20,000 miles a year (~32,000 km) to travel for tournaments and slept in her car in rest areas near highways to cut costs. “The rest areas had toilets, it’s where truckers would park too. I was this 20-something girl from Calcutta who slept with a gun by her side to feel safe. I didn’t want to ask my parents for money,” she says. “I remember one time I had just $7 in my account, my gas tank meter was at E and I was in Vermont for a tournament. I was like ‘how the hell am I even going to drive out of here’? My roommate went, ‘shoot 65 and win the event’. So I shot 65 and won the event and I had $1000 in my bank account by the end of it. I’ve learnt that when life pushes you to the wall, you’ve got to use the wall to push back.”

“I’m not propagating a relationship, or trying to be an inspiration. I’m just following my own path. What I have is right for me and I have the courage to deal with it”

Simi Mehra

Simi was stupefied when she found herself sharing the locker room with her idol Lopez, who walked up to her and introduced herself. The Indian was still finding her way around then. “I was a bit lost on Tour when I got there…you know this girl from a convent school in Calcutta who’d stuff cigarette butts into her jeans pocket because she was too scared to litter and thought ganja meant smoking a bald man. These legends, Lopez, Patty Sheehan, Pat Bradley and Dottie Pepper are the ladies who shaped me. I learnt how to be a human being in America.”

Simi married a teacher from Indianapolis while living in America, but they parted ways five years later. It was to be the inflection point of one of her life’s biggest choices. “My husband was cheating on me…I was pissed,” she says. “I wanted to get back at him. I thought I too should be with someone else. That’s how it started. But it ended in discovering something beautiful down the road.”

Simi had known Seema Sobti, a fellow Indian golfer, since she was 16. Their families were close too and they both met every time she visited India. When she walked out of her marriage, Seema was living with her husband and kids. “I thought she was happily married,” says Simi. “That’s what it looked like from the outside. We both don’t know how it happened but we kissed one time. She was the first woman I’d ever kissed. It felt perfect.”

When their relationship took flight, Seema’s husband threatened to call the cops on Simi. This was years before same-sex relationships were decriminalised by the Supreme Court of India in 2018. “My mother was a criminal lawyer and a toughie. She said, ‘let the cops come, jo bhi hoga dekha jayega‘ (we’ll see what happens). It was one mega Hindi movie with romance, drama and threats. The cops never came and we lived happily ever after.”

Simi’s public coming out was incidental. She and her family along with Seema were at the Tollygunge Club in Calcutta when the idea was proposed. “A journalist, who happened to know my brother well, was present at the club and wanted to interview me. I was surrounded by my dear ones, who already knew about Seema and myself and I thought maybe it’s a good time to tell the world too. The next morning’s paper carried the news.”

While she herself didn’t encounter grave challenges when coming out to her parents, Simi recognises that most others aren’t as fortunate.

“Someone like Dutee’s had it tough. We’re from such different demographics,” she says. “All I’d say is do it with love and understanding. Stand your ground and allow your parents to come to the realisation on their own. With social media, everyone is trying to be someone they are not. Whether it’s the LGBTQ community or cis people, it’s important to be true to yourself. I think parents recognise that in their kids. The mind can be easily influenced by what it sees so trust your gut. It’ll tell you who you are and what you really want. I’m not propagating a relationship, or trying to be an inspiration. I’m just following my own path. What I have is right for me and I have the courage to deal with it.”

Simi went through the wringer after her partner was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017. Seema underwent mastectomy, had to take weekly chemo sessions for six months and radiation every day for two months. She was cancer-free for nine months before slipping into a relapse in 2019. “Doctors told us that it had progressed to the fourth stage and Seema only had a handful of years left. We then decided to look outside conventional medicine for an answer,” Simi says. The couple overhauled their lifestyle, started growing their own food and began using jaddi buttis (roots and herbs with medicinal properties) to treat Seema’s condition. “Recently, she’s had three scans. She’s cancer free.”

Seema’s kids are married now and things are a lot more peaceful between families. “When we got together there was a moment of instability because the children were still young then. Everybody was anxious. But that’s life, you’ve got to face what it throws at you. Now, her ex-husband is happy in his life, we’re happy in ours. We’re not the kind you’ll bump into at social gatherings. Both of us like being away in the mountains. We just got back from six months in Himachal Pradesh,” Simi says.

During these trips, Simi carries footballs and any other sporting equipment she can manage to find donors for, in the trunk of their car. “In cities we usually first learn a sport and then build our core strength. The kids in pahaads (mountains) already have terrific strength and flexibility, they just need to play a sport. There’s a huge difference,” she says. “I’ve distributed soccer balls and other sports equipment in two schools so far. Perhaps the next time I visit, I can find out what came of it.”

Selfless giving is among the greatest lessons life in America taught her, she explains. Simi and South Korea’s Pak Se-ri were the first two Asians on the LPGA Tour. A couple of years after Pak arrived, a parade of fellow Koreans landed. “But there wasn’t a single Indian even sniffing the Tour. I had peers like Annika Sorenstam asking me, “Simi, what’s happening in India, man?” I realised that the sport has given me so much so it was my time to give back. I gave up my green card, got back to India and helped set up the Women’s Golf Association of India (WGAI) together with a fellow Indian golfer, Champika Sayal. I owe it to my fabulous friends and legends in the sport in America who took me under their wing and taught me how rewarding it is to give rather than receive. They encouraged me to get things moving in India for women’s golf. They were right. It made me viscerally happy.”

During her India visits, Mehra would ferry golf balls and equipment donated to her by LPGA peers to help grow the women’s game in the country. In 2005, she organised a game and invited international names Heather Daly-Donofrio, Hilary Lunke and Celeste Troche to play an exhibition at the DLF Golf & Country Club in New Delhi. Simi won it. The following year, WGAI launched a five-leg Tour and hosted the Women’s Indian Open, for a prize purse of $100000. The tournament is now sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour.

“The golfing community is a small one. Most within India knew that Seema and I were together. Trust me I faced a lot of backlash when I was building the Tour. Now apparently, I’m just an invitee. But it doesn’t matter. The important thing is there’s an organization in place and there are girls making a living out of it. That was my only objective. I don’t care about being remembered as a founding member.”

After Simi, it took two decades for a second Indian to break into the LPGA Tour. Aditi Ashok joined the elite female professional golfers’ club as a rookie in 2017. Simi wasn’t surprised. “When she was 12 or 13, Aditi had beaten me in a playoff. A few years after that, I remember at one of the tournaments in Bangalore, caddying for herself, pulling her own cart and still shooting a phenomenal round. That day I heard myself say, ‘Okay, this kid is going to make it big’. Watching her do what she did at the Olympics this year, I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t sleep on any of the four nights because I just couldn’t wait to see her play at dawn.”

In contrast to Aditi, Simi’s exploits never found their due in her time. “There was no support from the country. No media covering any of the events and no mention even when I made top-ten finishes on the Tour. But after a while you forget about it because you’re so focused on what you’re trying to do out there – surviving on the Tour and trying to pay your bills.”

Simi featured on the LPGA Tour till 2008 and now lives a quiet life with her partner in Noida. “When you’re young, you have to fight for everything,” she says, “It’s hard. When you hit your 40s and 50s, life’s a breeze. I have three beautiful dogs, a roof over my head, food on the table, and someone who loves me unconditionally. It’d be mighty ungrateful of me to ask for more.”