Before Caitlyn Jenner, There Was Renee Richards: How She Paved the Way for Transgenders

Updated on July 9, 2018
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I'm fascinated by celebrities and their impact on culture. Whether it's fashion, politics, sexuality, or religion, stars influence society.

Caitlyn Jenner Makes It Look Easy, But It Wasn't for Renee Richards

Caitlyn Jenner is the toast of the town -- winning an ESPY award, appearing on the cover of Vogue, and starring in her own reality show about her transition from man to woman. She's the darling of the transgender community, receiving widespread support for her courage and openness. Anyone who questioned her decision to transition was quickly labeled "transphobic" and "hateful." Yet, it was a different story in the 1970s when a man named Richard Raskind became a woman named Renee Richards. To fully understand how the transgender movement has evolved, one must know her dramatic and moving story in all its shades of gray.

Caitlyn Jenner Received Lots of Public Support. Renee Richards Was Criticized and Scrutinized.

Caitlyn Jenner received greater acceptance than Renee Richards did. Many thought Richards transitioned to become a tennis champion but that wasn't the case.
Caitlyn Jenner received greater acceptance than Renee Richards did. Many thought Richards transitioned to become a tennis champion but that wasn't the case. | Source

Bruce Jenner's Transition to Caitlyn Jenner: The Times They Are a-Changin'

Before Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, actor Jamie Foxx had joked at an awards show that Bruce would take to the stage “doing a his-and-her duet all by himself.” The next day critics hammered Foxx for his “transphobic” remark, calling it insensitive and hurtful to not only Jenner but the entire LGBT community. With that innocuous quip receiving so much disapproval, I realized how far we've traveled since the 1970s when another sports figure transitioned from man to woman. Her name was Dr. Renee Richards. She battled the US Tennis Association and won the right to compete on the women's tour. The media placed Renee under a microscope as if she were a freakish specimen. She took the hard hits back then so transgender celebrities such as Caityln Jenner, Chaz Bono, and Laverne Cox can thrive today.

In the current climate of political correctness, reporters are bending over backwards to use proper pronouns when referring to Caitlyn Jenner (masculine pronouns were utilized until she announced she was living as a female). Commentators have lauded her transition from man to woman as “brave” and “heroic.” After four decades as a public figure, the 60-something-year-old Jenner is more famous now than ever – still appearing on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, sitting down for a tell-all interview with Dianne Sawyer, and starring in a docu-series about her journey. Top designers want Caityln to wear their dresses, clutch their handbags, and stroll in their pumps. She has received a lot of public support and is poised for a big pay day.

Caitlyn Jenner Received More Criticism for Being Republican than Transgender

Although her privileged life in no way reflects that of a typical transgender person, Caitlyn now speaks for the community.
Although her privileged life in no way reflects that of a typical transgender person, Caitlyn now speaks for the community. | Source

Richard Raskind Becomes Renee Richards and the Media Creates a Villainess

Renee Richards was not so warmly received when she played on the women's professional tennis tour in the 1970s. It was a time of tremendous social change – the sexual revolution, anti-war protests, feminism, the Black Panther Party, gay pride – but transgender issues remained taboo and wouldn't be dealt with for decades to come. Ours was still a largely Christian nation. The tumult in society created a push back from the Religious Right, who fought to uphold the traditional values they felt were under attack. Their standard response to gay couples was: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." To individuals such as Renee Richards, who claimed to be born the wrong gender, they'd adamantly proclaimed: “God doesn't make mistakes!”

While watching ESPN's, Renee (available on Amazon), a 2011 documentary that's both inspiring and heartbreaking, I realized how little we knew about the real Renee Richards. When I was a child in the 70s, I heard her name all over the airwaves. An unflattering one-dimensional portrait emerged of a man so driven to become a top tennis player that he transformed into a woman. In the media theatre of good versus evil, Renee was cast as the villainess – a 6'2” forty-something powerhouse that towered over the sweet heroines of the sport such as the petite and pony-tailed, Chris Evert. The media presented Renee as a serious threat to tennis and athletics in general. They asked in all earnestness: “Is she kicking off an epidemic of men becoming women so they can play professional sports?”

This Is the Real Story of Renee Richards - the Woman, Not Just the Athlete

What It Means to Be Transgender: Can't Fight the Urges

Watching the documentary, we realize that while Renee Richards did love the game of tennis, it was not a factor in her decision to switch genders. She went to great lengths to avoid that extreme step, even getting married and having a son before transitioning. Yet, she remained tortured by a compulsion to become female, suffering from loneliness and depression. It finally came down to a choice between suicide or gender reassignment.

In the 70s the public knew little about transexualism. The media would speak of a “sex change operation” as if it were a one-time event; a person enters the operating room as a male and leaves a female or vice versa. Having watched Caitlyn Jenner slowly transition before our eyes, we learned the process takes months or even years. It may include intensive counseling sessions, hormone replacement therapy, voice training, and a series of surgical procedures.

Much like Bruce Jenner, Renee Richards was a highly successful man. He was a well-regarded ophthalmologist, a talented athlete in multiple sports, and a ladies man who had many satisfying relationships. Looking at the lives of both Jenner and Richards, one can't help but wonder: Why take the risk when you already have such rich and fulfilling lives? Why journey into the unknown where you may lose everything? Renee Richards answers those questions in the documentary by saying simply: “I had no choice.”

Unlike Caitlyn Jenner who controls her image with a team of talented publicists, Renee Richards was at the mercy of the media. They made her into a ridiculous character who cared only about tennis. The real Renee is so much more than that – brilliant, fascinating, complex, and very human. She most touched me in her role as a mother, worrying about her troubled adult son. She became an unwitting spokesperson for the transgender community by living her life in the only manner she could.

As They're Apt to Do, the Media Simplified and Sensationalized the Story of Renee Richards, but the Documentary Tells Her True Story in all its Complexities

Final Thoughts

Since transitioning, Renee Richards has struggled -- financially and emotionally. She hasn't been involved in a romantic relationship since. She worries about her troubled adult son who felt abandoned by her. She lives a simple and private life, still working long hours as an ophthalmologist. Her transition was certainly not a miraculous cure for her problems...nor did she ever think it would be.

Her life – in all its shades of gray – is a much more realistic and complete portrait of what many transgender people experience. Unlike Caitlyn Jenner, they don't receive awards, free designer clothes, and extravagant fees for giving speeches. Yet, Renee Richards has shown so much more courage and dignity than Caitlyn Jenner and is so much more honest about her journey. Her true beauty gets revealed in her truth.

Caitlyn Is Described as Courageous, Open, and Stunning. Renee Richards Received No Such Praise.

Caitlyn Jenner's future looks bright. Renee Richards faced a bumpy road.
Caitlyn Jenner's future looks bright. Renee Richards faced a bumpy road. | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 McKenna Meyers

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      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        3 years ago from Bend, OR

        The ESPN documentary about Renee is superb. Thanks for reading my hub!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I was going to read one of your education articles since I was a teacher, but I was just thinking of Richards last night so you caught my eye with this one. I remember her well, and all the controversy....we've come a long way but we still have a long way to go.

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