This Day in Jewish History

1977: Renee Richards Wins Game, Set and Match for Transgender Rights

Richard was a sports star who by college, had invented himself a new persona – about whom a judge ruled 'this person is now female.'

Renee Richards preparing for a forearm shot in a match at the professional women’s tennis tournament in Seattle on Feb. 6, 1978. She defeated Sue Mappin of England, 7-6, 5-1 (tiebreaker), 6-1.
Kerry Coughlin, AP

On August 16, 1977, the New York State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Renee Richards, a transgender professional tennis player who had sued the U.S. Tennis Association over its requirement that women who wished to compete in the U.S. Open had to take a chromosome test to prove that they were genetically female.

The judge, Alfred M. Ascione, ruled that the test requirement was a violation of Richards’ rights and issued an injunction requiring the USTA and the U.S. Open Committee to allow her to compete in the tournament, which was scheduled to begin less than two weeks later.

A jock named Richard

Renee Richards began life as Richard Raskind, on August 19, 1934, in New York, and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens. Her father, David Raskind, was an orthopedic surgeon, and her mother, Sadie Muriel Baron, was a psychiatrist. Dick Raskind attended the private Horace Mann Day School, where he played football, tennis and baseball. At Yale, he was captain of the tennis team.

Raskind attended medical school at the University of Rochester, graduating in 1959 and specializing in ophthalmology. After internship and residency, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he continued playing tennis, winning the service’s singles and doubles championships.

During her childhood, she has written, Renee got mixed sexual messages from her family. Among other things, she describes her mother dressing her up in girls' clothes; she also describes being tormented by a sadistic sister raised to be "the man of the house". By the time Dick was a teenager, he was, on his own initiative, shaving his legs and cross-dressing.

By college, Raskind had invented a female alter ego for himself, whom he called “Renee.” But despite starting hormone treatments and traveling to a sexual reassignment clinic in Morocco, he couldn’t quite take the step, and returned home.

In 1970, he married a model, and became a father, but the marriage ended in 1975. That was the year that Renee Richards finally did undergo surgery to become a woman, and then legally changed his name. (“Renee” means “reborn” in French.) In the eyes of the law, she was now a woman.

Unfair advantage?

Richards moved to Newport Beach, California, where she opened an opthalmological practice, and became increasingly serious about her tennis, playing under the pseudonym Renee Clarke. When she won the La Jolla Championship in 1976, however, a spectator recognized her as the former Richard Raskind, and her story was picked up by the national press.

That August, when she entered a women’s tournament in New Jersey, 25 other competitors withdrew in protest, arguing that the 1.85-meter tall (6 feet, 2 inches) player had an unfair physical advantage.

Perhaps hoping to avoid having to parse what 'fair' means, shortly after that, the USTA announced that females wanting to participate in its tournaments would need to undergo testing for the “Barr body” – a second X chromosome, which is evidence of being genetically female.

In 1977, in anticipation of the U.S. Open, she took the test, with results that were predictable, though this is hardly the only agreed-upon way to determine gender. Richards thus found herself barred from competition. That’s when she sued, claiming sexual discrimination.

The tennis association brought medical doctors and other female players to testify that Richards still possessed the strength of a male player. Her lawyer, submitted an affidavit from Billie Jean King, who had once partnered with her on a doubles team, and who claimed that Richards did not “enjoy physical superiority or strength so as to have an advantage over women competitors.”

Judge Ascione was convinced that “this person is now female,” and that use of the Barr body test to try to prove otherwise was “grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable.” His ruling opened the way for Richards, 43, to compete in the U.S. Open that same month.

Richards was defeated in the first round of women’s singles competition by Virginia Wade, although in doubles competition, she and her partner made it as far as the final.

She remained involved in professional tennis for a few more years, some of that time as a coach for Martina Navratilova, when she won back-to-back Wimbledon titles (1978 and ’89). Richards then returned to her medical practice, becoming a national leader in eye-muscle surgery. She moved back to New York, and today, at nearly age 82, is retired, and lives upstate in the town of Carmel.