Renée Richards (foto Twitter) 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 in New York City, named Richard Raskind. 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 sexual identity created sexual confusion, depression, and suicidal tendencies.
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 Dr.Harry Benjamin, who specialized in endocrinology, transsexualism, and sexual reassignment, successfully transitioning in 1975. After surgery, Richards went to Newport Beach, California, and started working as an ophthalmologist.
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.
Richards then sued the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which runs the US Open, in New York state court, alleging discrimination by gender in violation of the New York Human Rights Law. She asserted that participating in the tournament would constitute “an acceptance of her right to be a woman.” Some USTA members felt that others would undergo sex change to enter women’s tennis. The USOC stated “there is competitive advantage for a male who has undergone a sex change surgery as a result of physical training and development as a male.” Richards finally agreed to take the Barr body test. The test results were ambiguous. She refused to take it again and was barred from play.
On August 16, 1977, Judge Alfred M. Ascione found in Richards’ favor. He ruled: “This person is now a female” and that requiring Richards to pass the Barr body test was “grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable, and a violation of her rights.” He further ruled that the USTA intentionally discriminated against Richards, and granted Richards an injunction against the USTA and the USOC, allowing her to play in the US Open. Richards lost to Virginia Wade in the first round of the singles competition, but made it to the finals in doubles with Betty Ann Grubb Stuart – the pair lost a close match to Martina Navratilova and Betty Stöve.
After moving to California, Richards played in regional competitions for her local club, the John Wayne Tennis Club, under the name Renée Clark. 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: 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). 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.” [Wikipedia]