The Life & Times of Renée Richards

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renee richards

Renée Richards fought for transgender athletes to compete professionally, and this is the perfect time to acknowledge her contribution to transgender sports. With the Rio Olympics looming and multiple transgender athletes fighting for spots on their national teams, her fight for her right to play sports should be remembered.

Born Richard Raskin in New York City to doctor parents in 1934, she developed an interest in tennis throughout her childhood. She’d fetch tennis balls for her father when he’d hit the courts on the family’s weekend trips to Long Island. This grew into an immense passion and aptitude for sports in general, as Richards also swam and played football and baseball, but tennis was what she really loved. She even turned down a spot with the New York Yankees in favor of tennis. She became captain of the men’s tennis team at Yale and earned many accolades among the college sports circuit, being hailed as one of the best college tennis players at the time.

Following in her parents’ footsteps, Richards attended medical school to concentrate in ophthalmology then joined the Navy to continue her medical training. She crushed the All Navy Championship with her famed left handed serve.

Around the time Richards got really interested in tennis, she’d tried on her sister’s clothes and knew that her true gender wasn’t the one she had to present herself as but she didn’t start expressing her true identity until college then took on the name Renée since it means “reborn” in French. To make her desired rebirth a reality, she sought the help of a well-known endocrinologist who had performed gender transition surgery and underwent hormone therapy. Richards lived in Europe as Renée in the 1960s with the intent to go to North Africa and complete gender reassignment surgery but decided against it, so she returned to New York and married model Barbara Mole. Barbara gave birth to a son, Nicholas, in 1972. The marriage did not last as Richards decided to make her transition complete and had confirmation surgery in 1975. She then joined an ophthalmology practice in California.

Richards went back to her passion of playing tennis after relocating. She competed in regional tennis competitions as Renée Clark and won the La Jolla women’s tennis championship in 1976. Suddenly she was outed as transgender by a San Diego reporter, and headlines screamed: “Women’s Winner Was a Man”. Since she applied to play in the US Open as a woman, she was not allowed to compete there or in Wimbledon or the Italian Open. A majority of players withdrew from Tennis Week upon finding out she was transgender, and the discrimination continued to mount.

Once it was revealed that Richards was transgender, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and United States Open Committee (USOC) required female competitors to pass an invasive chromosome test in order to play tennis professionally. Richards’ results were ambiguous and she refused to take the test a second time, which forfeited her ability to compete.

Richards fought the USTA to be accepted as a woman, even though the USOC claimed she had an unfair competitive advantage since she was male at birth. She won her case and the court ruled that being required to pass the chromosome test was discriminatory and a violation of her rights, and that she was allowed to compete in the US Open. Her struggles opened up a dialog about transgender athletes and it is likely because of her that they can now compete in the Olympics. Even though she holds controversial views that the transgender sphere largely looks down upon, Renée Richards was instrumental in fighting for transgender rights and making social progress.

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