Compete Network Feature Stories

Renée Richards – #LGBTSportsHistory

Happy LGBTQ+ History Month! Every October is celebrated as LGBTQ+ History Month to recognize and educate about people, places and events that have had an impact on the LGBTQ+ Community. All month we are going to honor some influential athletes, companies, organizations and sports figures who have made a contribution toward LGBTQ+ History.

Renee Richards (B. 08/19/1934) lived 40 years as Richard Ranskins, a self-described “nice Jewish boy”. Having excelled in Football and Baseball during her youth that even led to an invitation to join the New York Yankees. Instead Richards decided to pursue tennis and quickly rose up in the sport, becoming captain of the men’s tennis team at Yale University. After college Richards joined the U.S. Navy where he continued to play and won the US Navy Tennis Championship in both singles and doubles. She also developed her unique left-hand serve that ultimately became a signature move for her throughout her career.

Working as a successful eye surgeon, Richards continued to pursue tennis and competed at the US Open several times as a man. However Richards always knew that there was something more within her. Ever since she was a child she would occasionally dress in women’s clothes. Leading up to the 1976 US Open she had been seeing Dr. Charles Ihlenfeld who specialized in transsexualism and gender reassignment, she had been taking hormones and living as a woman. Originally she didn’t have any intention to compete in the US Open as she was preparing to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. The United States Tennis Association – USTA (Official) required all female athletes to verify their gender and essentially barred Richard’s from competing.

Richard’s decided to apply as an athlete but refused to take the test and thus was not allowed to compete in the US Open or Wimbledon She sued the USTA in addition to the Women’s Tennis Association for discrimination on the basis of gender. The biggest argument against her case was that having lived and trained for 40 years as a male would give her an unfair advantage in the sport. The defense brought in countless witnesses to testify against her case. However Richard’s lawyers had brought in Billie Jean King, one of the greatest female tennis players in the world at the time to provide testimony in defense of Richards.

It worked. The courts ruled in favor of Richards and declared that she was legally a female and thus able to compete in professional women’s tennis tournaments. That the USTA intentionally discriminated against Richards and that requiring Richards to pass a gender verification test was “grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable, and a violation of her rights.” Richards competed in the 1977 US Open, while she didn’t make it past the first round in singles she did make it to the final in doubles, finishing second in the tournament.

While legally allowed to compete as a woman, Richards still faced a lot of pushback from the women’s tennis community. Several tournaments had top players who boycotted and refused to participate. Tournaments that Richards had registered for had their sanctions pulled as well. Over time however the community began to embrace and move on as Richard’s continued to compete as a woman.

Richard’s retired from professional Tennis in 1981 and became a successful ophthalmologist and ran her own practice. She also stayed with tennis working as a coach. Most notably coaching Martina Navratilova to 2 Wimbledon wins and 4 US Open titles. In 2000 Richards was inducted in the USTA Eastern Hall of Fame and has since published two autobiographies. Second Serve and No Way Renée: The Second Half of My Notorious Life.

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