Transgender Tennis Trailblazer Renée Richards Takes on the U.S. Open

In 1976, transgender athlete Renée Richards sued the United States Tennis Association in order to compete in the women's draw at the U.S. Open, a landmark case that still resonates.

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Aug 28 2016, 10:14pm

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Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

One month after Bruce Jenner became known as the world's greatest athlete for his performance in the 1976 Olympic decathlon, Renée Richards was banned from the U.S. Open. For the first time ever, the United States Tennis Association required female competitors to submit to a Barr body chromosome test to verify their gender. Richards refused, instead fighting and winning a landmark court case that allowed her to enter the next year's tournament – a case that also would blaze a trail for Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender individuals.

In 1975, Richards underwent sexual reassignment surgery following years of depression, suicidal thoughts, and therapy. She left behind her previous life as Richard Raskind, a New York ophthalmologist who had played several times in the men's draw at the U.S. Open before it began allowing professionals in 1968, and had been ranked as high as 13th nationally in the men's 35-and-over division.

Starting over in California, Richards caught on at an ophthalmology practice and resumed playing tennis. She stood over six feet tall, and was reputed to have a deadly left-handed serve. After Richards won the La Jolla Tennis Tournament in July 1976, it was reported that she previously had competed as a man.

All of which is to say: the new gender verification requirement at the Open was no coincidence.

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After La Jolla, a friend invited Richards to participate in the Mutual Benefit Life Open in New Jersey, held right before the Open. By then, Richards had become a full-blown news story. Twenty-five of the 32 women set to play in the tournament dropped out because Richards was involved, calling her presence "unfair." The USTA soon would build on this argument, both at the U.S. Open and in New York State court.

The basic contention? Fairness dictated that a person who was really a man – by the USTA's estimation, and just about everyone else's at the time, too – should not be allowed to compete against women because "his" biology and genetics provided "him" with a competitive advantage.

It's an argument that still lingers, alongside contemporary debates over transgender rights and – at least during the 2016 election cycle – public bathroom usage. In the 1970s, however, the cultural and legal fight for both equality and acceptance was less advanced. On one hand, 1979 saw anywhere from 75,000 to 125,000 people march on Washington in support of gay, lesbian, and transgender rights, which prompted keynote speaker Betty Santoro to marvel that "[a]lmost 30 years ago I thought I was the only gay person in the world"; on the other hand, an Oregon court in 1976 ruled against a transgender plaintiff who was suing the state to have the sex designation on her birth certificate changed from male to female.

Renée Richards. YouTube

While Richards was at Mutual Benefit Life Open, she spoke to reporters, touching on the larger debate over transgender rights and laying the groundwork for her coming battle with the USTA:

"I'm not a full-time major league tennis player. I'm here to make a point. It's a human rights issue. I want to show that someone who has a different lifestyle or medical condition, has a right to stand up for what they are."

In the subsequent case, Richards v. United States Tennis Association, Richards argued in New York Supreme Court that the USTA's requirement for a Barr body test – which determines the number of X chromosomes found in a cell; typically a woman will have two X chromosomes while men have one – violated both the New York State Human Rights Law and the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the latter of which prohibits states from enacting and enforcing discriminatory laws, and provides for equal protection for all citizens. She sought an injunction against the Barr test, which would allow her to enter the Open's women's singles draw as a woman.

Richards stressed the civil rights angle. She also argued that the Barr test was inaccurate and unreliable, and that due to the extensive medical and surgical treatment she had undergone, she was "anatomically similar to a biological woman." A host of doctors testified on Richards' behalf, detailing the extent to which she actually was a woman:

● Richards underwent endocrinological testing and received female hormone therapy;

● The removal of her testes resulted in decreased androgen production and muscle mass;

● Her surgery resulted in an internal sexual structure that was "anatomically similar" to a woman who had a hysterectomy and ovariectomy;

● Richards had the "psychological and social development of a female."

Much like the women who baulked at playing against Richards in New Jersey, the USTA insisted that its gender test requirement promoted fairness. Taking its argument one step further, the association claimed the Barr test was necessary to prevent greedy male gender "impostors" from entering women's tournaments and winning all of the cash prizes – and if you've paid any attention to the current uproar over who uses a public bathroom, this theory might sound familiar.

The judge hearing the case, Alfred Ascione, didn't buy the USTA's position, calling it "grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable." He also saw the Barr test requirement for what it was: a clear and explicit response to Richards attempting to enter the Open. Granting an injunction, Ascione wrote:

When an individual such as plaintiff, a successful physician, a husband and father, finds it necessary for his 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.

And so, on September 1, 1977, Renee Richards played Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade on center court at Forest Hills in the opening round of the U.S. Open. As you might expect, there was quite a bit of drama – in part because of the preceding high-profile legal battle, and in part because Richards and Wade engaged in a healthy bit of pre-match shit-talking.

Wade told reporters that she thought "everybody should do what he or she likes," but also said it "doesn't quite sit right with me that she's playing in this tournament." In comments before the match, she contemplated the possibility of actually losing to the 42-year old Richards. "I've practiced with a lot of 40-year-old men," Wade said. "If Renée beats me, she should be checked out."

In private comments that became public, Richards allegedly said, "Why should Virginia say something so bitchy? Well, she seems to have wasted a lot of her career putting her foot in her mouth."

Wade beat Richards in straight sets, 6-1, 6-4.

While Richards' story reflects the battles against bigotry and misunderstanding still being fought by transgender individuals today, it also sheds a light on how far society has come. News reports from the 1970s are littered with specific phrases and a general insensitivity that would elicit Twitter howls today. For example, here's the usually genteel Sports Illustrated, reporting on a South Orange tournament in which Richards had to play a 15-year-old named Caroline Stoll because most of the adult women had withdrawn in protest:

Later, after joining Richards at a press conference, the teen-ager voiced the one general sentiment that prevailed throughout the tournament. "Wow!" she exclaimed. "Did you see those forearms? That's where she gets all that power and spin on her serves. It's unfair." How unfair was obviously very much the issue (how many would have bothered to complain if Richards had been a transsexual midget with a gimpy backhand?)

The point being made is that Richards was: a) physically imposing and b) good. Still, it reads horribly, as if Richards is some sort of freak show attraction. Or take a New York Times article on the 1976 Open controversy, which referred to Richards as "an admitted transsexual," as if being herself was tantamount to an admission of guilt.

All of this helps explain the opposition that Richards faced from almost everyone, including the WTA. In her corner, however, was Tour founder and women's rights advocate Billie Jean King. King had remained silent on Richards for a while, but ultimately, she filed a key affidavit of support with Judge Ascione. King later said that during the lead up to the case, she went to Richards' apartment to hear her point of view:

"I just listened," recalled King. "I didn't know anything about transgender. I went back to the players and said, 'We have to let her play.' Everyone was up in arms. It was tumultuous." But King said she told women: "'All of you who are upset right now are going to end up thinking she's your best friend.' And many of them did."

King was correct. Sort of. Richards found a degree of acceptance in the WTA, one she believed was largely due to her specific circumstances. She was 20 years older than most of the women she was competing against; whatever physical advantage they assumed she had, Richards thought, was negated by her age. Over time, her competitors realized she didn't pose a serious threat.

After about four years on the tour, Richards became a coach. She was either lucky or good, or maybe a bit of both. While playing, she had developed a friendship with Martina Navratilova, one of the few women who wasn't initially hostile. After losing in the first round of the 1981 U.S. Open, Richards began aiding the young star, eventually coaching her to victories at each of the four Grand Slams.

For all Richards did to advance the cause of transgender rights, she has some conflicted views on the movement. She called the IOC's 2004 decision to allow transgender athletes to compete at the Athens Olympics "a particularly stupid decision" and pointed to the specifics of her own ordeal with the U.S. Open and women's tennis. The transgender athletes involved today are the same age as those they seek to join, while Richards was in her early-to-mid 40s when she sought inclusion. For Richards, it seems, age was the determining factor in her argument over competitive sports fairness – at least retrospectively.

And perhaps she's partially right. During a time when so little was known about transgender people, it may have made a significant difference that Richards was simply too old to dominate her younger opponents. Perhaps that's what Wade was getting at when she said Richards should get checked out if she beat her. She claimed it was an off-hand joke – no 40-year-old man had beaten her in practice – and she and Richards never spoke about it again. Nevertheless, they ended up becoming good friends. In fact, Wade would often go to Richards to get checked out herself. Richards became her ophthalmologist.

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