Transgender sports pioneer Renee Richards has ‘Stonewall Spirit’

In commemoration of Pride Month and the 50th year since the Stonewall Inn riots in New York, Outsports is profiling one out athlete daily who embodies the “Stonewall Spirit,” reflecting the courage of those who launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Dr. Renee Richards is 84, working part-time as an ophthalmologist in a northern suburb of New York City, and to put it simply, could be called the Caitlyn Jenner of the late 1970s… if Jenner had decided to compete in pro sports as a woman.

As Cyd Zeigler wrote in 2018, Richards had competed in the men’s U.S. Open about 15 years before transitioning. After completing her transition, she wanted to take to the court in the women’s U.S. Open. When various forces in tennis colluded to stop her, she moved her fight from the tennis court to the courtroom.

Richards sued the United States Tennis Association and won the right to compete as a woman.

Richards’s stunning victory in court was the biggest of her career. While she made it to the finals of the U.S. Open in women’s doubles, her participation thanks to the New York State Supreme Court set in motion conversations about inclusion of trans athletes that are still reverberating today.

In 2013, Richards was inducted into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame — along with Outsports and 24 other outstanding individuals and organizations.

Cyd has more details about her place in history in this video, below. Scroll down to read how Richards has recently taken the unexpected step of joining her friend Martina Navratilova in opposing transgender inclusion in sports. Find out why she is a fervent advocate against allowing trans women to compete, unless they’ve undergone what people once called a “sex change.”

One month after Navratilova published her controversial op-ed in the Sunday Times of London, titled “The rules on trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent,” Richards stunned some observers by revealing in an interview with the Telegraph newspaper that she agreed with Navratilova, that transgender athletes who have not had gender confirmation surgery have an unfair advantage.

“The notion that one can take hormones and be considered a woman without sex reassignment surgery is nuts in my opinion,” Richards told the British newspaper. And she went on to say that if she had transitioned in her 20s, rather than 40s, she would never have competed as a woman, because in her words, she “would have beaten the women to a pulp.”

Although many reports deadname Richards, her birth-name is irrelevant to this report. It is of more significance that she was born to privilege, the child of a surgeon and a psychiatrist. Her family counted themselves among New York’s Jewish intellectual elite, according to the Telegraph.

Prior to her transition, she attended Yale, earned her living as an eye doctor, married a model and they raised a son, Nick. Tennis was just a sideline, but her prowess in those days before she came out earned the 6-foot-2 Yale tennis team captain a victory in the All Navy Championships and a New York State title, plus qualification for the U.S. Open five times.

But it was not enough, and so she began hormone treatments toward her goal of living an authentic life. In 1975, Richards was 40 when she underwent a procedure now commonly called gender reassignment surgery, then a rare and risky operation. She told the paper she chose “Renee” because her name means “reborn” in French.

Richards relocated to California, hoping to start a new life, but was outed as transgender while playing a tournament there in 1976. The U.S. Open refused to allow her to compete, even instituting a chromosome test to keep Richards out of the competition.

Richards told the Telegraph she fought her exclusion because, “I don’t like to be told I can’t do something.”

The rest is history, and she went on to achieve a world ranking of 20, acceptance by the players on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, and to coach Navratilova to multiple grand-slam titles. But despite her so-called “advantage” as a transgender woman, she never once beat her friend in tennis.

Richards confirmed to the newspaper that Navratilova contacted her for “research” in forming her opinion against transgender inclusion in sports. And she makes it very clear in her March interview with the Telegraph that sports should be off-limits to non-binary, gender fluid and gender nonconforming competitors, as well as any transgender woman athlete who does not undergo what is commonly referred to as “bottom surgery.”

“If someone isn’t a true transgender transsexual and doesn’t live their life as a woman then it is unfair for them to compete.”

”I know various certifying boards in their infinite wisdom are saying that surgery is unnecessary and that only hormonal treatment is, but I’m not sure that’s appropriate because a big part of a person’s sexual identity is their sexual parts.”

”I think it being compulsory to have had the operation would certainly be a part of it. I don’t think your identity is quite bona fide or certified unless you have had the surgery.”

The journalist conducting the interview did not include the fact that not only do some trans people decline to have surgery for their own personal reasons, there are financial, insurance and healthcare obstacles for many that too often cannot be overcome.

As Vox reported in 2018, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 2011 found 61% of trans and gender nonconforming respondents reported having medically transitioned, and 33% said they had surgically transitioned. About 14% of trans women and 72% of trans men said they don’t ever want full genital construction surgery.

As for Richards, she looked back at her legacy as a transgender pioneer, and said she is proud of what she accomplished both on the tennis court and in the courthouse, but she remains most proud of what she has done as Dr. Renee Richards.

“My biggest achievements are as an eye surgeon – I’ve operated on more than 20,000 children’s eyes,” she told the Telegraph. “But my legacy is probably going to be more my career in human rights. I never really did much actively. I just did something that served as an example.”

Our “Stonewall Spirit” series continues tomorrow and every day during Pride.


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