Every day this month, we’re looking back at our pioneers, the mark they left on our community and on the sports world, plus landmark events and stories that show Courage Is Contagious.
Today, a look at the day in 1977, when transgender sports pioneer Dr. Renee Richards made LGBTQ sports history by winning the right to compete as a woman in the greatest tennis competition in the nation.
By Cyd Zeigler
In 1976 the United States Tennis Association barred female transgender tennis player Renee Richards from playing as a woman in the U.S. Open. The issue at hand was a born-female rule, and the USTA said Richards would have to submit herself to a chromosomal test (which she would fail). Like any good athlete fighting for the victory, Richards sued the USTA for the right to play. A year later, the New York Supreme Court ordered the USTA grant Richards the right to play. It was a landmark ruling for transgender rights.
Richards had previously played in the U.S. Open as a male five times from 1953-’60. In 1977 she became the first person to play as a male and then as a female. She played all five years from 1977-’81. Her best singles finish was a third-round loss in 1979; Though she made it to the finals of the women’s doubles competition in 1977 (losing to Martina Navratilova and Betty Stove in the finals with partner Betty-Ann Stuart). She never competed in another Grand Slam tournament as a male or female.
Earlier in 1976 she had entered and won an amateur tournament in La Jolla, Calif. She didn’t tell anyone she was transgender, but rumor swirled around this 6-foot-3 female tennis player. It was soon after that that she was barred from the U.S. Open and the legal battles began.
Once granted the right to play, Richards made it to the finals of the U.S. Open in women’s doubles.
The argument against her inclusion in the late 1970s was that men everywhere would have gender-reassignment surgery so they could win women’s tennis tournaments. The slippery slope argument never panned out, as precious few elite transgender athletes have shown up in women’s sports.
After her playing career was over, Richards went on to coach Navratilova.
She wrote two books about her experience and is the focus of an ESPN Films documentary about her life. — Cyd Zeigler
One month after Navratilova published her controversial 2019 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. Richards told the British newspaper 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.”
Despite her so-called “advantage” as a transgender woman, she never once beat her friend Navratilova in tennis.
Richards confirmed to the newspaper that Navratilova contacted her for “research” in 2019, as the lesbian tennis icon formed her opinion against transgender inclusion in sports. And Richards 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 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.” — Dawn Ennis
Look for another story celebrating LGBTQ sports history tomorrow and every day this month.