Taking a quick break from my usual historical novels to read a tennis-related book – the story of Renee Richards, born Richard Raskind in a family of New York doctors, who, after transitioning from male to female, won a legal battle against the US Tennis Association to be able to compete in women’s events, reached the final of the ladies’ doubles and (partnering Ilie Nastase) the mixed doubles at the US Open, and later coached Martina Navratilova. It’s not particularly well-written, and says disappointingly little about actual tennis history, but it makes some interesting points, including about the way in which sports players from minority groups attract a lot of press attention which other players don’t have to deal with.
There isn’t actually that much tennis in the book. A lot of it details Richard (Dick)’s female conquests and Renee’s male conquests, which the reader probably doesn’t really want to know about, especially not in quite as much detail as it gives. It also gives the impression of someone who was rather confused, rather than that of a transgender person who knew that they were a woman in a man’s body. Young Dick seems to have had unhealthy relationships with both his mother and his sister, and in fact all the relationships within the family seem to have been strained.
They (I’m initially using gender-neutral pronouns because they write about Dick and Renee living inside the same body and vying with each other to get out) were a top student, who went to Yale, captained the tennis team there, qualified as a doctor and became a leading ophthalmologist, and also spent time in the US Navy, and had a lot of girlfriends. They at one point made the decision to transition, and went as far as having hormone treatment and developing female characteristics, but then decided to go back to being a man, stopped the treatment, had surgery, and married a woman and fathered a child. It’s very unusual to hear of someone going backwards and forwards like that. It’s very sad: they said that they suffered periods of depression and contemplated suicide, and weren’t really able to find help despite seeing a number of very prominent psychiatrists.
Eventually, they came to the decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and moved from New York to California to begin a new life as a woman. A lot of good points are made about the practical problems of passports, driving licences, certificates showing professional qualifications, etc, being in the name of a man when the person is now a woman. These days, people would just explain, but, in the 1970s, Renee felt unable to acknowledge her previous identity as Dick in her working life, and had to try to establish her professional reputation all over again. She was told that, as Dick had been quite well-known in the tennis world, she would probably be recognised if she took up playing tennis again, but she did so anyway – and was indeed recognised.
She was in her forties by this time, which is very late for someone to try to begin a professional tennis career, but she felt that she was playing well and had a chance of success in the big events, but was refused permission to play because of being transgender. After various legal battles, and with the support of some big names, notably Billie Jean King and Gladys Heldman, she was allowed to compete in women’s events – although only in the US and South America, because there wasn’t a unified tour in those days and she didn’t feel that she wanted to fight any more legal battles in order to try to win the right to compete in Britain, France, etc.
The issue of transgender athletes is very much in the news now, thirty years later. Several leading athletes have called for medical research to be done to establish whether or not a transgender woman has an advantage over a cisgender woman, but it all seems to be up in the air at the moment, and has been complicated by the separate issue of cisgender women who have naturally high testosterone levels … which seems rather an odd thing to penalise people for, as a lot of athletes have a natural advantage due to height or build, and no-one suggests that they shouldn’t be allowed to compete.
This book really isn’t very good, but, as I said, it does raise some good points. One that’s very relevant at the moment, with the ongoing issues of a) racism in sport, very much in the news this week following the disgraceful scenes during England’s match in Montenegro, and b) why there are still no openly gay top level male footballers, is the amount of attention which players from any minority group attract, and how they’re expected to be spokespeople for the community concerned. Hopefully most of that attention is positive and supportive, but many people may neither want nor be able to deal with that. It would have been better to have heard more about that, and more about Dick/Renee’s personal issues and feelings, and less about all of Dick’s women and Renee’s men, but, hey, the book is what it is. I wouldn’t spend too much money on it, but, if you happen to stumble across a cheap copy, it might be worth a read.