Wednesday, February 4, 2015

EXCLUSIVE: Renee Richards, the Former Tennis Pro Who Changed Genders in 1975, Talks About Life, Tennis and Bruce Jenner

The second of two autobiographies by Dr. Renee Richards
As just about anyone who was alive in the 1970's recalls, Renee Richards' courageous fight for her rights as an athlete and a woman made her instantly famous, admired, and controversial. Richards, the eye surgeon and former professional tennis player, famously changed from a man to a woman in 1975. 

Two years later, after a tough legal battle in the New York Supreme Court, she was allowed to play in the 1977 US Open tennis tournament as a woman. While the court decision generated bold headlines and was groundbreaking for transsexuals, and professional sports, clearly this country still has a ways to go in terms of tolerance and understanding for those who seek to change genders. 

Case in point: all the careless whispers and bad journalism this week surrounding Richards' alleged advisory role with Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic Decathlon champion who is now also apparently pursuing a new life as a woman.

Star magazine and others reported this week that Richards is Jenner's current sex-change adviser and longtime friend. Citing an unnamed source, the tabloid said Richards, who's now 80 but still healthy and sharp, told Jenner, who’s best known to millennials as the reality TV star and patriarch of the Kardashian family, that a sex change is "a serious, life-altering procedure and it not something to do unless you absolutely have no other choice." 

Renee Richards meeting the press
Star also reported that Richards, who was born Richard Raskind, told Jenner that he should "consider antidepressants first, because life could become an irreversible train wreck if you're not completely certain about having the surgery."

The story of Richards' so-called role in Jenner's life has gone viral. It's all over Facebook and Twitter. But there's just one problem: not a word of it is true. 

"Rumors that I gave Bruce Jenner some advice is like Mark Twain's comment, 'Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated'," Richards told me today in her typically dry-witted fashion. When we chatted via email, she hadn't spoken to any other reporters.

"I have heard the rumors too that I have 'advised' Bruce Jenner," she said. "But I can tell you now, and which you can publish if you like, I have spoken not one word to Bruce Jenner since one evening in 1981 when I was introduced to him at a Women's Sports Foundation Dinner in New York City."

Richards said several sports figures of that era were present at the dinner, including Martina Navratilova (who Richards once coached), Billie Jean King, Mary Carillo, and Robin Roberts. "I only know of Jenner's present path from the newspapers, same as you I guess," Richards said.

Renee Richards the Person

I've interviewed Richards before, for and other publications, and I've always found her to be refreshingly honest and without pretense. I admire her kindness, strength, outspokenness and sense of humor. And yes, she's got guts. Her path has not been an easy one. But she seems very happy now, at peace.

The author of two autobiographies and a new book, Spy Night and Other Memories: A Collection of Stories from Dick and Renee, which is a compelling collection of stories from her life, including her younger years when she was a man, Richards shared some insight with me today into how much things have changed since her highly publicized sex change and legal efforts to play on the women's tennis tour 40 years ago -- and how some things remain the same.

"As I think about all this, it would seem to me presumptuous if I were to advise anyone today on the subject of sex change, or 'transition' - a new word not in existence in my day," Richards said. "I am expert in tennis and ophthalmology, reasonably knowledgeable in golf, and hardly a personal life advisor. Besides, what I went through occurred in the 1970s. Much has happened in the field of gender identity since - from the medical, societal, legal and psychiatric standpoint. When I became a woman I did what was the usual at the time: informed a few friends and family members, changed my name, moved 3,000 miles away, and started a new life."

Richards, who to this day is the most famous transgender athlete in the world and the one who took so much abuse for just being who she was, said that in those days people who did not want their personal choices revealed did what they called "woodworking." It simply means merging into the woodwork. They disappeared. But her efforts to stay out of the limelight didn't last long.

"I was 'uncovered' a year after my move because I played in that infamous amateur women's tournament at La Jolla [San Diego] and when I won it the world found out who I had been," Richards said. "Being 'private' was no longer ever possible for me again."

Richards said she "pleaded" with reporter Dick Carlson, who is Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson's father, not to expose her on national television when he called her office in Orange, California to say he was going to reveal her past.

"I said, 'You cant do this. I am a private person'," Richards recalled. "His reply? 'Dr. Richards, you were a private person until you won that tournament yesterday.' And that is the way it was. It would seem that Bruce Jenner would find it impossible to to keep even a shred of privacy about his life in this era of media exposure."

Richards said that being many years removed from being Olympic Decathlon champion does not diminish Jenner's accomplishment and celebration: "And with rumors about his personal life quest running rampant, he has little choice but to live with its public disclosure. It is a difficult journey. I admire him and wish him the best."

Out of the Limelight

Richards, who played professional women’s tennis from 1977 to 1981 and was ranked as high as 20th overall, has led a life largely out of the limelight since she retired from women’s tennis. She said that while society has made great strides since she came out, making the transition from one gender to another is “still a big problem, it can still cause families grief, it’s not a simple condition to have, you have to live with it.”

At times, Richards has been criticized by some transgender activists for walking away from her alleged responsibility to speak out for the rights of transgender people. But Richards doesn’t see it that way.

“I was an unwitting role model, an unwitting pioneer,” she said. “I didn’t do it for doing good, I did it for selfish reasons. I did it because it was my right to do it. The fact that it helped other people was secondary. The primary impetus to do it was that I thought I was entitled. But if it’s helped others, that’s wonderful.”

When her story first broke, Richards was called ungodly and immoral, among other things. “My reaction of course was, ‘Who are you to tell me these things? You don’t know me, you don’t know what’s in my mind?'" she said. “My hope is for all trans people to live a normal life. For some it’s very hard, for others it’s a picnic. But I can’t complain, I’ve had a wonderful life, as a man, woman, doctor, athlete, parent. I’ve had a wonderful life."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Jamie. A great read. Too many, when dealing with the subject of trans, come across as self righteous and pompous. You present Renee as very matter of fact and centered. Unlike others, she is indeed very comfortable in her skin.