This piece comes from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, and published this week by Twelve.
Before Renée Richards became a star of the professional women’s tennis circuit, she was a nice Jewish boy—the puritz, or prince, of her household. Richards was born in 1934 as Richard Raskind, known to everyone as Dick. The child of two doctors in Forest Hills, Queens, Dick spent weekends fetching tennis balls for his father on dirt courts by the Long Island Railroad tracks.
In public, Dick was a self-assured athlete, captain of the Yale tennis team and one of a small number of Jews picked for his fraternity. But he had begun surreptitiously dressing up in his sister’s clothes at age 9. In the privacy of his college dorm, he shaved his legs and disguised his genitals, urgently trying to give life to his female side. By this time he’d named her Renée, French for “reborn.”
Dick went to medical school and became an ophthalmologist specializing in highly skilled surgery on the muscles of the eye. He joined the Navy as a lieutenant and won all its tennis championships. But enlisting meant that Dick had to shave off the beard a psychoanalyst had encouraged him to grow to stanch fantasies of Renée. Depressed and lonely, near the end of his stint in the service Dick found a psychiatrist who treated transgender people. He started receiving injections of progesterone and estrogen. His body softened. He took pictures of himself as Renée, looking beautifully feminine, graceful, and long-limbed.
After living as a woman for months in a small pension in Paris, Dick traveled to Casablanca, Morocco, for sex reassignment surgery, which he could not get in the United States. He brought $4,000 in hundred-dollar bills to the clinic. But he’d heard stories about unhygienic conditions from people who’d had the surgery. As a doctor, this spooked him, and in the end Dick went home without it. He also stopped the hormone therapy.
Everyone who knew Renée was shocked that Dick had stuffed her back into the closet. At the apartment of a friend who often tried to introduce him to women, he met a fashion model he thought was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Dick was smitten. Maybe his friend was right, and all he needed was the right girl. He married her six months later, and their son, Nicholas, was born in 1972.
The marriage fell apart three years later. Dick went back to his psychiatrist, who told him that at 40 he’d been tormented long enough and it was time to let Renée live. Dick’s sister tried to talk him out of the surgery. His friends worried about the impact on Nicholas. But as Richards said, in Eric Drath’s excellent 2011 documentary Renée, “I didn’t have any choice.”
In becoming Renée, Richards left her home in New York, where her son remained. She restarted her ophthalmology practice in California—and began playing in amateur women’s tennis tournaments. She wore size 12 shoes with minidresses (later adding a mezuzah necklace when she saw many players wearing crosses around their necks). Her friends warned Richards that she’d be found out: A great 40-year-old tennis player doesn’t drop from nowhere. And indeed, when she won the La Jolla championship in 1976, a reporter started digging. The story broke nationally: Women’s winner was a man.
The United States Tennis Association responded with a preemptive strike: Richards would be barred from playing professionally. Furious at the implication that she wasn’t a real woman, Richards filed suit, demanding entry to the U.S. Open. “After 30 years of apologizing to myself and to the world in general, I was through apologizing,” she wrote in her memoir. “It was time for a savvy lawyer.”
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.”