I watched a fascinating and sad documentary on Renee Richards over the weekend. It is now playing at the LA Film Festival (after it played at Tribeca last month) with another screening this evening and will air on ESPN sometime this fall.
Renee Richards is a big name in the tennis world and in the transsexual community. She was born Richard Raskind was an amazing collegiate tennis player and became a world-class ophthalmologist surgeon. But she was incredibly unhappy as Richard and in the early 70s made the decision to undergo a sex change operation.
Transsexualism is still a very heated and relatively new public conversation in our culture and in the 70s it was never discussed. Renee Richard would probably have spent her life in anonymity had she not made the decision to try and play professional tennis. Once she became visible questions were unleashed and Richards had to deal with many issues that she never expected to. Her visibility caused a public conversation about issues that made people uncomfortable (they created a chromosomal test to kick her off the tour) but she clearly pushed the envelope and her standing up and talking about herself brought women’s tennis into the limelight.
The sad part is about the relationship between Richards and her son Nicholas who was born during her marriage in a last ditch attempt to fend off the overwhelming desire to become a woman. The marriage didn’t last and during Nicholas’ youth Richards was prevented from seeing him as much as she wanted. Richards seems to have spent her life trying to make up everything she can to Nick but he is a man (or around 40) who just can’t his act together and continuously struggles with addiction and has had a very difficult time.
While Richards made many sacrifices to play as a woman, her standing up made it easier for everyone who came after her. But let’s not pretend that the gender issue has been solved in athletics. The recent controversy and horrific treatment of runner Caster Semenya just shows how far we still have to go.