Changed the Game: Renée Richards fought for the right to compete as a transgender athlete

Liz Roscher
·6 min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

WHM
WHM

There is no athlete whose fight for equal treatment is more relevant right now than Renée Richards. Assigned male at birth in 1934, Richards became the first — and thus far only — transgender athlete to compete in both the men's and women's U.S. Open.

Richards was fighting for the right to compete as her true gender in the 1970s, a time when knowledge of trans people wasn’t common. When the WTA barred her from competing as a woman unless she submitted to a chromosome test to confirm her gender, Richards could have retreated and lived a private life as an ophthalmologist. Instead, she bravely took her fight to play all the way to the New York State Supreme Court.

Becoming her true self

Richards' tennis career was unusual before her transition. She won an interscholastic tennis tournament at age 15 and went on to become the tennis captain at Yale in 1954. But she didn't pursue a professional tennis career. Instead, she went to medical school and became an ophthalmologist while paying professional tennis on the side. She appeared in the men’s U.S. Open several times and even made the semifinals in 1972.

If things looked fine on the outside, they weren't on the inside. She underwent daily psychotherapy to deal with her feelings of isolation, and told Sports Illustrated in 2018 that she would dress in heels and a skirt to walk her dog. She traveled overseas several times to learn about gender reassignment surgery, once bringing $4,000 in cash to actually get it done.

Richards didn't get the surgery then, deciding instead to return to Manhattan to get married. She was a devoted spouse and parent, and even became one of the best 35-and-over tennis players in the country. But she had reached the point where she couldn’t go on as she was.

"It wasn't that I felt I had to do something about this," Richards told Sports Illustrated. "I didn't have a choice."

After years of inner turmoil, she decided to divorce her wife and transition so she could live as her true self. In 1975, she underwent several surgeries and began living as Dr. Renée Richards. Appropriately, the name Renée means "reborn."

NEW YORK - CIRCA 1977: Renee Richards hits a return during the Women's 1977 US Open Tennis Championships circa 1977 at Forest Hills in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Renee Richards hits a return during the Women's 1977 US Open Tennis Championships at Forest Hills in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Her fight to play tennis

To assist in her transition, Richards moved across the country to Newport Beach, Calif. and continued practicing ophthalmology. She continued playing tennis as a refuge, but she still had the competitive itch. She played in local tournaments under the name Renée Clark, but things started getting complicated after Richard Carlson, the father of Tucker Carlson, outed her as trans on a local TV program.

When she attempted to play in the Tennis Week Open in 1976, the USTA and WTA withdrew their support and 25 of 32 players withdrew. When Richards attempted to apply for the 1976 U.S. Open, the USTA refused to let her compete unless she took a chromosome test that affirmed her gender. Richards refused to take the test and sued for the right to play, alleging that she was being discriminated against based on her gender (which is illegal in New York).

To defend their decision to require Richards to take a chromosome test, the USTA deployed some arguments that sound very familiar today, but with a dash of anti-Russia, Cold War paranoia.

"We have reason to believe that there are as many as 10,000 [trans people] in the United States and many more female impersonators or imposters. The total number of such persons throughout the world is not known. Because of the millions of dollars of prize money available to competitors, because of nationalistic desires to excel in athletics, and because of world-wide experiments, especially in the iron curtain countries, to produce athletic stars by means undreamed of a few years ago, the USTA has been especially sensitive to its obligation to assure fairness of competition among the athletes competing in the U.S. Open, the leading international tennis tournament in the United States."

The USTA argued that they employed the chromosome test out of "fairness” due to the perceived threat to both the competition and the prize money — especially since countries behind the "iron curtain" had ostensibly been doing "experiments" to "produce athletic stars."

Richards, on the other hand, submitted just two affidavits in support of her case, both which stated that she was a woman and therefore should play as a woman. One was from Dr. Robert Granato, the doctor who performed Richards' surgeries. The other was from her friend and doubles partner Billie Jean King, who said "she does not enjoy physical superiority or strength so as to have an advantage over women competitors in the sport of tennis."

Two affidavits was enough. Judge Alfred Ascione ruled in Richards' favor, saying that requiring her to take a test to confirm her gender was "grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable, and violative of her rights under the Human Rights Law of this State." His decision displays an understanding of gender discrimination that is extraordinary for 1977, and still applies today.

"When an individual such as plaintiff, a successful physician, a husband and father, finds it necessary for [her] own mental sanity to undergo a sex reassignment, the unfounded fears and misconceptions of defendants must give way to the overwhelming medical evidence that this person is now female."

Richards played in the 1977 U.S. Open, losing to Virginia Wade in the first round, but her appearance itself was a victory.

Richards continued to compete until 1981 when she retired at 47. While she did have some post-retirement involvement with tennis — she coached Martina Navratilova to two Wimbledon wins — she focused on her career as an ophthalmologist. She became one of the world’s leading strabismus surgeons, correcting the eye muscles in cross-eyed children, and became surgeon director of ophthalmology and head of the eye-muscle clinic at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital.

Richards, who lives platonically with her longtime assistant Arleen Larzelere, told Sports Illustrated in 2019 that while she's fallen in love with golf — at one point she had a handicap in the single digits — she still follows tennis on TV and communicates with tennis players from her era. She's part of two Facebook groups: one with her fellow WTA players from the 1970s, and one with the men she competed against before her transition.

Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.
Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.