Put in the most basic of terms, it was a tennis match.
Dr. Renée Richards, a long, lean unseeded southpaw, vs. Virginia Wade, the prim-and-proper Wimbledon champion from England and third seed at the U.S. Open.
When the two women stepped onto centre court at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, on Sept. 1, 1977, a gathering of 12,021 patrons awaited, many of them there for the tennis but an undetermined number of curiosity-seekers anxious to see a Barnum & Bailey sideshow.
Richards described it as "a zoo-like atmosphere."
As it happened, Wade required just one hour and one minute to dispatch her much-ballyhooed foe, 6-1, 6-4. Game, set and match. No muss, no fuss. (Richards likely spent more time removing her tennis togs, showering and changing into street clothes afterwards.)
But to call it just a tennis match is to say Neil Armstrong went for a short stroll around the block.
There were numerous layers to the events of that day 46 years ago, and they can't be measured merely in the reciting of a scoreline and the time Wade and Richards spent shuffling to and fro on a clay tennis court.
"Predictably, the match became a media event," is how Barry Lorge described it in the Washington Post the next day. "A swarm of photographers, broadcasters and reporters were on hand to record the details of what was purposed to be a grand gesture for human rights by some, and a freak show by others.
"But the public and the players treated it as exactly what it was—a first-round match that turned out to be less interesting than it might have been because Richards was too tentative in her shotmaking and too slow afoot to offer much resistance to Wade's barrage of attacking strokes and drop shots."
The Association Press delivered this review:
"Staid old Forest Hills had weathered its circus match, a centre court duel between a 43-year-old transsexual and the reigning Wimbledon titleholder, Britain's Virginia Wade, and the eagles atop the famous concrete horseshoe didn't come tumbling down.
"It was historic. It was largely uneventful. It was sad."
Notably, the AP devoted a paragraph to Richards' attire and adornments, writing: "She accentuated the feminine touches. Long gold rings dangled from each ear. Her dress was smart white with black trim, a black and red band around the waist. Lace panties peaked from beneath her ballerina skirt. A stylish white hat, with a bow in back, made her look even taller."
There was no such commentary on Wade's fashion awareness. Just remarks on her tennis prowess.
"There was something depressing about what should have been a pleasant sports frolic in the sun," the AP article continued.
Sad? Depressing? Circus act? Freak show?
Like I said, layers.
Richards, or course, had spent the first 41 years of her life as a boy and man, Richard Raskind, one-time captain of the Yale men's tennis team, prominent eye specialist, husband and father. Richard became Renée in 1975 and, post-gender affirmation surgery, petitioned for entry into the U.S. Open women's draw the following year. She was rejected.
Persistent, Richards took her crusade to the New York Supreme Court and, two weeks in advance of the 1977 Open, Judge Alfred M. Ascione ruled in her favor.
"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," Judge Ascione wrote in a 13-page decision.
I was a young sports writer at the time, in my mid-20s and working the tennis beat at the Winnipeg Tribune, and I recall a natter I had one night with two colleagues who suggested the Richards ruling would sound a doomsday alarm for the Women's Tennis Association.
"It'll be the end of women's tennis,"one of them predicted.
"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "There won't be swarms of 200-pound guys putting on skirts just to win a tennis tournament. I'll be shocked if there's one guy. There's a lot more to changing sex than a tube of lipstick and nail polish. That's not how it's done."
"How would you know what's involved?"
"I just know."
I didn't clue them into the gender dysphoria that had been gnawing at me, like a dog with a chew toy, since age 8 (that would be my secret for 50 years). Nor did I mention that I'd studied Christine Jorgensen, the American GI who skirted the globe in pursuit of gender affirmation procedures. I simply allowed the natter to dissolve itself.
But I was intrigued by Renée Richards' story.
Perhaps the Associated Press and Washington Post were accurate in describing the Richards-Wade match as a circus act and freak show on Sept. 1, 1977. But sad and depressing? On what grounds?
If anything, it was cause for celebration, at least from my perch.
Richards was female and had arrived at the pinnacle of women's tennis, exchanging ground strokes with Wade and Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King et al. She played the U.S. Open five times—the Wade match 46 years ago being her first and a 4-6, 6-2, 5-7 loss to Andrea Leand in 1981 her last—and she achieved a world No. 20 ranking in February 1979.
Most important, she won a landmark human rights court case that gave rise to hope and possibility for those battling the beast that is gender dysphoria.
The sports landscape has shifted, of course, and right-wing politicos have turned the transgender issue into a battle ground, most notably targeting athletes from the grassroots to the elite levels. Their weapon of choice is the same tired, old anti-trans tropes that forecast cataclysmic consequences for humanity.
But they can't take away the signature moment in time that Dr. Renée Richards gave the transgender community 46 years ago.