Trans Tennis Star Renée Richards Had More Balls Than McEnroe

As a kid I remember my utter confusion over the newsmaking presence of champion tennis player Renée Richards, formerly opthamologist Dr. Richard Raskin, who was repeatedly referred to as a “transsexual.” But no adult would ever answer my questions beyond, “He became a woman.”

“But how did he become a woman?” I’d ask. And then the subject would change to, “Go wash your hands, it’s almost dinner time.”

For quite some time after, I figured that all those times my little brother and I had wrapped our heads with towels after bath time and swayed them back and forth like that tall lady on The Sonny and Cher Show, that we, too, had briefly been turned into transsexuals.

After the initial burst of media frenzy, Richards stopped making headlines. Some years later Boys Don’t Cry hit the big screen, Candis Cayne was on a prime-time soap, there’s that FTM character on Degrassi, and we’re all experts on every variation of gender. And there’s nothing more to be learned, right?

Not quite.

Eric Drath’s very cool documentary, Renée, premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, played NYC’s NewFest last week and now (screw you, movie theaters) is available in about 40 million homes via Tribeca On Demand. The film covers events that took place nearly 35 years ago, yet you easily can imagine how explosive and controversial a figure Richards (here, with Drath) was when she entered the 1977 US Open after taking the USTA to court and winning the right to play professional tennis as a woman without being subjected to chromosomal testing.

But Renée is not a musty time capsule: you get interviews with fellow tennis legends Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova (whom Richards coached) and John McEnroe—but you also meet Renée as she lives today, dealing with all the challenges of life as an older trans woman. It’s another fascinating piece of LGBT history they don’t teach in schools (yet) and you don’t even have to live near an arthouse theater to experience it. So go do that.

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  • Fitz

    I am very interested in learning more about older trans people. It’s a population that I know almost nothing about. How have the years treated them psychologically? Economically? Medically?

  • Mike in Asheville

    I remember all the hoopla; and quietly thought, “she is the bravest person in the world!”

  • Irish-boy

    I have a lot of respect for trans people it must be so hard! a lot harder than being gay imo

  • Ginasf

    For those who don’t know about Ms. Richards the documentary is a good basic introduction about an amazing period in American sports. But there’s a LOT about her history which it doesn’t cover… such as how she used her medical license to get around guidelines for transitioning, and her very fetishistic views on transition. Nor does it cover her truly offensive attitudes towards other trans athletes and the nasty comments she’s made about them. Yes, she’s a pioneer and deserves great props for that… but there are a lot of brave pioneers I don’t necessarily respect… Columbus and Richards being two of them.

    And to Dave White… your headline is NOT funny and altogether offensive. If you meant meant to write a halfway respectful piece about her and the film, that headline is a huge fail. :(

  • jack e. jett

    wow…theatres will show a movie about bible spice bitch sarah palin but will not play a flick about a historical figure. go figure

  • Jaqueline S.

    Richards came to regret her successful lawsuit which allowed her to play female professional tennis. She came to realize how unfair it was with her testosteroned musculature and male arm length. Renee feared male athletes would come to dominate female sports in which the elongated arm length caused by testosterone was an unfair advantage. Which is just what we’re seeing now as male transgender athletes move into female golf and fencing. The recent women’s golf champion in long-driving is a male who began his professional sports career in his fifties!
    If you care about women, and women’s sports (as Renee does) you simply cannot support male-bodied people playing in female sports leagues. Renee truly has “balls” for recognizing that belatedly, even as trans activists pillory her for her feminist views.

  • Alex

    Mr. Renee shouldn’t have been allowed to play ladies tennis. It’s unfair. He had a sex change but still had the testosterone influenced strength and speed and power. He had men’s power in women tennis. He was like a Williams sister without all the extra training…. And he still didn’t win a title… I feel bad for the women he beat.. They were not used to playing a “woman” that looks like a man and plays like a man. This isn’t about LBTG or whatever. This is about unfair advantages in sports when men play women sports.

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