The first trans* person I ever knew about was Dr. Renee Richards. Dr. Richards was an ophthalmologist who transitioned from male to female in her early 40s in the mid-1970s. What made her famous was the fact that in the 1950s, prior to the transition, Richards had played professional tennis as a man named Richard Raskind. Following the transition she fought to play on the women’s circuit.
In her first tournament, a small regional competition, nearly 80 percent of the competitors withdrew rather than play against her. They argued that gender reassignment or not, they would unfairly be playing against someone with the strength of a man. When she refused to submit to a Barr body test, which the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) used to identify gender, she was banned from playing major tournaments like the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
She took the WTA to court, and won. In 1977, she made her major tournament debut in the U.S. Open. Spectators and the media were anything but kind. And an entire nation talked about trans* people for the first time.
I watched that match, and the subsequent discussion wasn’t very comfortable. Words like “freak” and “sick” were bandied about. People insisted that she was gay and therefore wanted to be a woman. That confused me: I was beginning to realize I was gay, but I didn’t want to be a woman.
As a society, we’ve made great progress on trans* issues — in spite of the truly bizarre public bathroom brouhaha. Celebrities like Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Chaz Bono have led to greater visibility for trans* people.
This had given my husband and I an opportunity to discuss trans* people with our boys. Not unlike the very public coming out of Renee Richards when I was a kid, my sons were introduced to the reality of trans* people when virtually every media outlet was talking about Caitlyn Jenner. At first the boys didn’t quite follow: what was the big deal about some woman on TV? Then they saw photos of Bruce Jenner.
That opened the door to a conversation about trans* people. We used words like “brave” and “courageous.” We talked about how incredibly difficult it must be to live in a body that simply is not what it should be. We admitted that we cannot understand what it is like to feel that way. Most of all, we talked about accepting people for who they are and respecting them. I’m incredibly proud that for our boys that part was a no-brainer.
It is who Jenner had been that caused such a stir — a gold medalist in the decathlon, an athlete’s athlete. Although a few right-wingers demanded the International Olympic Committee revoke Jenner’s medal because women don’t compete in the decathlon, no one accused her of trying to gain a sporting advantage.
The same wasn’t true of Richards. On the men’s circuit, as Raskind, she was never a threat compared to the greats of the time like Pancho Gonzalez, Jack Kramer and Ken Rosewall. Raskind’s best performance was a second round loss at the U.S. Open. Detractors reasoned playing against women, she would do better.
Actually, playing on the women’s circuit, Richards did do better. She was the 20th ranked player in the world in 1977, and was a Ladies’ Doubles finalist at the U.S. Open that year. Here’s the kicker: she started back on the tour at 43, long after most professionals hung up their rackets.
There will always be detractors who argue Renee Richards found tennis success as a woman because she was born a man. I think it had much more to do with finally playing with the right equipment.