August 19, 1934– Renée Richards:
“I was a reluctant pioneer. I was not an activist. It was a private act for my own self-betterment, for what I wanted to do. I wanted to go and play tennis, you know? And I wanted to stand up and say what I was. That, too. But it was private. I wear the mantle of being one of the pioneers for the sexually disenfranchised, in particular the transgendered group. The gay world considers me a pioneer, and I’m proud that they do. But do I lie in bed thinking that I was a pioneer? No, I don’t.”
It’s easy to forget that a full four decades before Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, long before a television show like Pose would be Emmy-nominated, this self-assured and companionable doctor, Renée Richards, is believed to have been the first transgender woman to play a pro sport.
Richards made history when she walked out on to the court of the Forest Hills stadium to play in the 1977 US Open. She was the first transgender woman to play in a professional tennis tournament.
“I had no idea what I was doing. People often do things that are considered very heroic without the faintest idea of what they’ve gotten themselves into. And that was true with me. I mean, when I stepped out on that tennis court, with 4,000 screaming people there to just get a glimpse of me, and we had to go down the back-door dressing room in the fire escape to get to the court because the front entrance was so mobbed with people, and Howard Cosell on Wide World of Sports interviewed me there, and he said: ‘Renée! How can you sit here so calm in front of this multitude of people clamoring to get a piece of you?!’ I said: ‘Howard, I don’t know. I’m just doing it’. And that’s how I was doing it. I didn’t know when there were death threats. They had to be pointed out to me. I didn’t know when people were writing horrible things about me, how immoral I was, and how terrible I was, and how awful I was, and what am I doing? And it’s like a blissful, not indifference, but a blissful ignorance, in a way. Ever since I was a kid, I did that. If I was hell-bent on doing something, I was going do it, and I didn’t think too much of the consequences.”
Richards has now lived half of her life as a woman and half of her years as a man. It was a warm August day in 1975 when Dr. Richard Raskind walked into a New York City hospital for surgery. Three days later she left the hospital, no longer Richard Raskind but as Renée Richards, her new name a statement: Renée, French for “reborn”.
“I was all alone. I had just gotten out of the Navy. My mother had died three years before. I didn’t have a support group. I didn’t have anything. I remember the circumstances, the nurse and the doctor and all that, but I don’t remember the thoughts that I had when I became a woman, feeling different. I don’t remember any of that. I couldn’t begin to try to remember what that was like.”
AS Richard, she was captain of the men’s tennis team at Yale University and later, while serving in the US Navy, she won the All Navy Tennis Championship.
She became a successful Manhattan eye surgeon, and at a time when the major tennis tournaments were only open to amateurs, professionals were only allowed to compete after 1968, she played in the US Open several times as a man.
Richards had her gender reassignment surgery in 1975 when she was 40 years old and she moved to California to start a new life. But, when she started competing in tennis tournaments her 6-foot 2-inch frame and trademark left-hand serve began to attract attention, and after she won a tournament in 1976, a journalist reported that she had previously competed as a man.
“My world kind of blew up on me when people found out who I was.”
Controversy raged over whether Richards should be allowed to play. The US Open was just a few weeks away, but for the first time in its 95-year history a chromosome test was made a prerequisite for female players.
Richards was invited by a friend to compete in the South Orange Open in New Jersey, which took place just before the US Open, but more than 20 women players boycotted the event in protest. She reached the semi-final. Then she sued the United States Tennis Association for gender discrimination.
Billie Jean King, one of the greatest players in the history of the women’s tennis, a former number one player in the world, became her ally and gave testimony on her behalf.
My lawyer from Houston Texas law firm handed over an affidavit from Billie Jean King that said she had met me, that I was a woman, that I was entitled to play, and that I couldn’t be denied. And that was it. We won.
The court victory prompted her to turn professional, but she then faced a struggle to get other players to accept her.
“I had people that hated me. There were some players who would walk off the court when I played them.”
“I was 43 years old and embarking on a professional career playing against Chrissie Evert, Tracy Austin, and Andrea Jaeger, and they’re all 19 and 20 years old. So, I had a pretty good disadvantage in terms of age, but I said, ‘I’m going to do it for a little while and see how I like it”.”
Richards continued to play until retiring in 1981. Despite being banned from tournaments in Europe she briefly reached 20th position in the Women’s Tennis Association world rankings.
After retiring, Richards remained in tennis and coached Martina Navratilova. Afterwards. she resumed her career as an eye surgeon. Richards:
“You have to realize that somebody who is an entertainer, like with Bruce Jenner, a person like that can have a sex change and be just as accepted as an entertainer or a television star or something like that afterwards. But if you’re talking about someone who’s a surgeon or a physician and bringing your child to see that person, it’s a whole different matter. When I came back to practice after being so notorious, I couldn’t ever be an entertainment-type, public kind of character. I mean, I had to be the same confidence-engendering. I’m operating on people’s eyes; I’m operating on their kid’s eyes. I mean, you better be some kind of a trans person to do that! Otherwise you’re not going have much of a practice. It’s a whole different thing than being an entertainer.”
She is the only player in history to play top-level tennis in both the men’s and women’s competitions. Richards claims she was overwhelmed by the thousands of people who would try to catch a glimpse of her at tournaments:
“I did not set out for that. I mean I wouldn’t say I was reclusive, because I wasn’t. I was captain of every team I was on, but I was a quiet person and I lived a private life and now all of a sudden everybody in the world knows who I am. I became a public figure, a reluctant pioneer, for all of the disenfranchised groups in the world, no matter whether they were transgender, gay or lesbian.”
Richards published a memoir, Second Serve (1983), and another, No Way Renée: The Second Half Of My Notorious Life (2007). Second Serve was made into a very good television film in 1986, with an astonishingly convincing Vanessa Redgrave playing Richards. Redgrave was nominated for an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe for her portrayal.
She is also the subject of Renée, (2011), that debuted at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and shown on ESPN.
Richards lives in Upstate NY with her girlfriend. There’s a tennis court in the backyard of Richards’s home. where she lives, but she no longer plays. It’s not that at 85, she can’t play the sport in which she made her name, twice. It is because of a knee injury. Richards:
“Wheels, wheels, wheels. Tennis is all about wheels.”
She follows tennis on television and social media. She’s a member of two on The Facebook, one for her WTA contemporaries from the 1970s; the other of men against whom she competed before that.
There have been only a few transgender professional athletes, from golf to mixed martial arts, but none who have competed at Richards’s level. As an Olympic sport, tennis adopts the IOC standard that transgender athletes can play as long as they’ve been living for a minimum of 12 months as a woman, with no more than five nanomoles per liter of testosterone.
On questions about gender and the use of pronouns, she writes:
“I think of my father being bewildered when the telephone didn’t have a cord attached to it—I am almost as bewildered by some of this stuff. I stay out of it. I know what I am. And I know what I was, and how I became what I am.”
Richards writes that she uneasy with the idea that she’s a pioneer:
“Years ago I was the pioneer, no question about it. They all quoted me and my court case. But I am not anymore.”
“I have no doubt that when I die, the obituary headline is going be ‘Transgender Tennis Player Renée Richards Dies’. I realize that being the pioneer for other trans people or for other downtrodden, disenfranchised people of any type is very important, but it’s really a very small part of my life.”