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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.