Renée Richards (née Richard Raskind) is an American ophthalmologist and former tennis player who had some success on the professional circuit in the 1970s, and became widely known following male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, when she fought to compete as a woman in the 1976 US Open.
The United States Tennis Association began that year requiring genetic screening for female players. She challenged that policy, and the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, a landmark case in transgender rights. As one of the first professional athletes to identify as transgender, she became a spokesperson for transgender people in sports. After retiring as a player, she coached Martina Navratilova to two Wimbledon titles.
Richards was born on August 19, 1934, in New York City, named "Richard Raskind", and raised, as she put it, as "a nice Jewish boy" in Forest Hills, Queens. Her father David Raskind was an orthopedic surgeon, and her mother was one of the first female psychiatrists in the United States, in addition to being a professor at Columbia University.
Richards attended Horace Mann School and excelled as the wide receiver for the football team, the pitcher for the baseball team, and on the tennis and swim teams. Her baseball skills even led to an invitation to join the New York Yankees, but she decided to focus on tennis. After high school Richards attended Yale University and was captain of the men's tennis team, and was considered by some to be one of the best college tennis players in the country. After graduating from Yale, she went to the University of Rochester Medical Center and specialized in ophthalmology, graduating in 1959 and serving a two-year internship at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. After an internship, she served two years of residency at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital in New York. She played competitive tennis for a while and was ranked sixth out of the top 20 males over 35. After an internship and residency, she joined the United States Navy to continue medical training and played tennis in the Navy. While serving in the Navy, she won both the singles and doubles at the All Navy Championship, with a very effective left-hand serve. During this time she was ranked as high as fourth in the region.
During college Richards began dressing as a woman, which at the time was considered to be a perversion, with transsexualism classified as a form of insanity. Richards named her female persona "Renée", which is French for "reborn". Her struggle with gender identity created sexual confusion, depression, and suicidal tendencies. She began seeing Dr. Charles Ihlenfeld, a disciple of Harry Benjamin who specialized in endocrinology, transsexualism, and sexual reassignment. Upon seeing Ihlenfeld she began getting hormone injections with the long-term hope for a life change. In the mid-1960s she traveled in Europe dressed as a woman, intending to go to North Africa to see Georges Burou, a famous gynecological surgeon at Clinique Parc in Casablanca, Morocco, regarding sex reassignment surgery; however, she ultimately decided against it and returned to New York. Richards married model Barbara Mole in June 1970, and together they had a son Nicholas in 1972. They were divorced in 1975.
In the early 1970s, Richards resolved to undergo sex reassignment and was referred to surgeon Roberto C. Granato Sr. by Harry Benjamin, successfully transitioning in 1975. After surgery, Richards went to Newport Beach, California and started working as an ophthalmologist in practice with another doctor.
Following Richards' disclosure of her gender reassignment, the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), and the United States Open Committee (USOC) required all female competitors to verify their sex with a Barr body test of their chromosomes. Richards applied to play in the US Open in 1976 as a woman, but refused to take the test, and thus was not allowed to compete in the Open, Wimbledon, or the Italian Open in the summer of 1976.
After moving to California, Richards played in regional competitions for her local club, the John Wayne Tennis Club, under the name Renée Clark. In the summer of 1976 she entered the La Jolla Tennis Tournament Championships, where she crushed the competition, and her unique left hand serve was recognized by Bob Perry, a tour player from UCLA. Her long-time friend Gene Scott then invited her to play in his professional tennis tournament, the Tennis Week Open in South Orange, New Jersey. The USTA and the WTA then withdrew their sanction for the Tennis Week Open, and organized another tournament; 25 of the 32 participants withdrew from the Tennis Week Open. This was just the beginning of the issues Richards would encounter in trying to play professional women's tennis, which eventually led to her suing the USTA and winning.
Richards played professionally from 1977 to 1981 when she retired at age 47. She was ranked as high as 20th overall (in February 1979), and her highest ranking at the end of a year was 22nd (in 1977). Her first professional event as a female was the 1977 U.S. Open. Her greatest successes on court were reaching the doubles final at her first U.S. Open in 1977, with Betty Ann Grubb Stuart – the pair lost a close match to Martina Navratilova and Betty Stöve – and winning the 35-and-over women's singles. Richards was twice a semifinalist in mixed doubles, with Ilie Năstase, at the U.S. Open. In 1979, she defeated Nancy Richey for the 35-and-over singles title at the Open. Richards posted wins over Hana Mandlíková, Sylvia Hanika, Virginia Ruzici, and Pam Shriver. She later coached Navratilova to two Wimbledon wins.
Richards was inducted into the USTA Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000. On August 2, 2013, Richards was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.
Richards has since expressed ambivalence about her legacy, and came to believe her past as a man provided her with advantages over her competitors, saying "Having lived for the past 30 years, I know if I'd had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I've reconsidered my opinion.
After four years of playing tennis, she decided to return to her medical practice, which she moved to Park Avenue in New York. She then became the surgeon director of ophthalmology and head of the eye-muscle clinic at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. In addition she served on the editorial board of the Journal of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. She now lives in a small town north of New York City with her platonic companion Arleen Larzelere.
In 2014 a wooden racket used by her was donated to the National Museum of American History, which is part of the Smithsonian.
She was denied entry into the 1976 US Open by the United States Tennis Association, citing an unprecedented women-born-women policy. She disputed the ban, and the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 1977. This was a landmark decision in favor of transsexual rights. Through her fight to play tennis as a woman, she challenged gender roles and became a role model and spokesperson for the transgender community. More about her:
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