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How Renee Richards Paved the Way for Transgender People

I'm a writer, a life coach, and a former pre-school and kindergarten teacher. I have a master's degree in special education.

Life Wasn't Easyfor 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 received widespread support for her courage and openness. Anyone who questions her decision to transition is 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.

Richard Raskind Becomes Renee Richards and the Media Creates a Villainess

Renee Richards was not 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

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 transsexualism. 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.

Renee Richards was highly successful as a man. He was a well-regarded ophthalmologist, a talented athlete in multiple sports, and a lady's 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.

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.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on April 24, 2015:

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

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 24, 2015:

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.