A reluctant icon, Renée Richards was a tennis player who opened the doors and sparked the debate to allow transgender athletes to compete in professional sports.
“I realize that being the pioneer for other transsexual people or for other downtrodden, disenfranchised people of any type is very important, but it’s really a very small part of my life.” – Renée Richards to GQ Magazine in 2015
Renée Richards was born Richard Raskind on August 19th 1934 in New York City. Both of her parents were in the field of medicine, her father an orthopedic surgeon and her mother was one of the first female psychiatrists in the United States. Her mother was also a professor at Columbia University. Tennis became a part of her life at an early age when she would fetch tennis balls while her dad played on weekends in Long Island. It was also at the early age of 9 when she would start dressing in her sister’s clothes, aware of her reality at an early age.
Richards would excel at sports. She was a wide receiver for her high school football team, a baseball pitcher, swimmer and tennis player. She would turn down an offer to play baseball for the New York Yankees so she could focus on tennis. She went to Yale University and became the captain of the men’s tennis team. She was considered one of the best college tennis players in the country at the time.
After Yale, Richards went to medical school to study ophthalmology. She would later join the Navy to continue her medical training and play tennis. Armed with her signature left handed serve, she would go on to win the singles and doubles tournaments in the All Navy Championship.
It was in college when Richards would begin to express her gender identity. She would go by the name Renée, which was French for “reborn”. She would do so in a time when being transgender was still looked at as a mental illness and a perversion. She was treated by Dr. Charles Ihlenfeld, who specialized in endocrinology and gender transition. She began hormone treatments and spent a year in Europe living as Renée in the mid 1960’s. She then decided to stop her transition and moved back to the United States. She married model Barbara Mole in June 1970 and in 1972, they had their son Nicholas. The marriage would not last, as Richards decided to go though with her transition. They were divorced in 1975, the same year she had her confirmation surgery. She moved to Newport Beach, California and started practicing medicine as an ophthalmologist.
In California, Richards would compete in regional competitions at the John Wayne Tennis Club under the name Renée Clark. She won the La Jolla Tennis Tournament Championships in 1976. After winning the tournament, a San Diego reporter outed her as transgender in a national headline reading “Women’s Winner Was a Man”. Richards began to experience discrimination when 25 out of 32 players would withdraw from the Tennis Week Open because she was transgender. After Richard’s disclosed the fact that she was transgender, the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and the United States Open Committee (USOC) would require female competitors to pass a Barr Body chromosome test to be allowed to compete in women’s professional tennis.
“I was a quiet person. I mean, I’m not a shrinking violet, but I was a very private person. I was very well-liked, and I was very well-respected. And a lot of that was thrown away because I became a caricature, a public notorious figure. I was undressed in front of the world.” – Richards to Grantland in 2011
Richard’s applied to compete in the US Open in 1976. After refusing to take the Barr Chromosome Test, she was not allowed to compete in the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Italian Open. She would sue the USTA in New York state court, citing gender discrimination. She would fight for her right to be accepted as a woman. The USOC would claim that Richards had an unfair advantage in the women’s bracket because she was assigned male at birth. She ultimately took the Barr Test and the results were ambiguous. She was again not allowed to compete because she refused to take the test a second time.
In 1977, the courts would rule in Richards’ favor ruling “This person is now a female” and that requiring Richards to pass the Barr body test was “grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable, and a violation of her rights.” The courts also ruled that the USTA and the USOC violated her rights and she was allowed to compete in the US Open. Amidst a media frenzy, Richards would go on to lose to Virgina Wade in the first round of the singles competition; however she made it all the way to the finals in the doubles competition. In 1979, she defeated Nancy Richey for the 35 and over singles title at the U.S. Open. She would later go on to coach tennis legend Navratilova to two Wimbledon titles. Richards was inducted into the USTA Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000 and was among the first inductees to the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. Her wooden racket is now on display at the American Museum of National History. Richards later returned to New York and resumed her medical practice. She became the surgeon director of ophthalmology and head of the eye-muscle clinic at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. She now resides in New York with her companion Arleen Larzelere.
“Having lived for the past 30 years, I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve reconsidered my opinion.”
What Renée Richards did would start the conversation regarding transgender athletes being able to compete in professional sports. In the end she was just a girl who wanted to play tennis and was not looking for the national spotlight. Today transgender athletes are allowed to compete in the Olympics. Much of the groundwork dates back to a 40 year struggle that was started by Richards. She has been controversial in the transgender community at times by embracing conservative social views and expressing her appreciation of the gender binary. She would later reconsider her own opinion as she now feels had she would have had a competitive advantage had she been able to compete in her 20’s. Science has since disagreed with her, proving that transgender women are actually at a disadvantage after years of hormone therapy due to muscular differences.
Renée Richards may be a reluctant hero, but a hero none the less. She has since moved out of the spotlight and does not consider herself an advocate, but is proud of the advocacy her life accomplished. Though some applaud her and some disagree, no one can deny the impact she had on our culture and how she advanced the fight for transgender equality.