The tennis world split over Richards v. USTA. Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, both in the closet at the time, supported Richards’ right to play. “Being gay, I felt like an outsider already,” King said, looking back. “Maybe that was the empathy I felt for Renée, because I knew what it felt like to not be welcomed by everybody.” Richards also had supporters among the fans. At one early tournament, a blind transgender woman asked to say hello. “I broke down and cried,” Richards remembers. The crowd ardently rooted for her at the finals of a 1977 tournament at a country club in Santiago, Chile. “My opponent said, ‘I never saw so many people cheering for you,’ ” Richards told me. “I said, ‘You don’t understand—this is a Jewish country club.’ ”
Still, the tour wasn’t an easy place to be. Some top players, like Chris Evert and Virginia Wade, expressed reservations about Richards’s right to play. At a moment when women’s tennis was just coming into its own, players worried that more men would follow in Dick Raskind’s path. “If we could be sure it was only Renée, then I think we could all just let it ride,” one player told the Washington Post. “But there’s always the nagging feeling that there will be another transsexual, younger and stronger, in a better position to dominate the tour.” Two players came to a tournament wearing T-shirts that read: I am a real woman. Others refused to shake Richards’s hand after defeats.
Did Richards have an unfair advantage? Size can’t determine the answer. Other women players—Pam Shriver at the time, Lindsey Davenport and Venus Williams later—have been just as tall. (Renée was six foot two.) Because of the hormones she took, she lost 30 percent of her muscle mass and 40 pounds, taking her down to a weight of 142. She cannily emphasized that, at 43, she was hardly a threat to dominate the tour. But that shouldn’t really have mattered either. Women further down the ladder, whom Richards beat, had the same right to fair competition as Chris Evert.
In a case that paved the way for other legal victories by transgender people, the New York Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that Richards was a female. The judge said she was persuaded by the testimony of doctors who said that Richards’s muscle development, weight, height, and physique “fit within the female norm.”
As Richards predicted, she did not dominate the women’s tour, though she did make it to the doubles final of the 1977 U.S. Open and to the international ranking of 19th in 1979. She went on to coach Navratilova to two Wimbledon singles victories before returning to ophthalmology.
Despite all this, Richards has expressed ambivalence about her legacy. She continues to take pride in being “the first one who stood up for the rights of transsexuals.” But she also mused, “Maybe in the last analysis, maybe not even I should have been allowed to play on the women’s tour. Maybe I should have knuckled under and said, ‘That’s one thing I can’t have as my newfound right in being a woman.’ I think transsexuals have every right to play, but maybe not at the professional level, because it’s not a level playing field.” She opposes the International Olympic Committee’s ruling in 2004 that transgender people can compete after they’ve had surgery and two years of hormonal therapy.
The science of distinguishing men from women in sports remains unsettled. And Richards has come to believe that her past as a man did provide her advantages over competitors. “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.” She adds, “There is one thing that a transsexual woman unfortunately cannot expect to be allowed to do, and that is to play professional sports in her chosen field. She can get married, live as woman, do all of those other things, and no one should ever be allowed to take them away from her. But this limitation—that’s just life. I know because I lived it.”