- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- There was a time in the late 1970s when native New Yorker Renee Richards was, by her own admission, perhaps the most "notorious" woman in sports. And all because she had the audacity to think that being a transsexual shouldn't be grounds to ban her from playing women's tennis at places like the U.S. Open, or sentence her to a life spent living in the shadows. This was a radical opinion at the time. The passage of 35 years has sapped some of the shock value from Richards' story, but very few of the complexities.
What's achingly clear from the new documentary on her life is that some poignant, midnight-of-the-soul questions follow Richards to this day, even at the age of 76.
By the end of "Renee" -- the latest installment in the ESPN 30 for 30 series that will air beginning Tuesday night at 8 p.m. -- the central question posed about Richards isn't so much a contemporized LGBT twist on the old Borscht Belt joke that goes something like this: How did a nice Jewish kid from Queens named Richard Raskin, a Yale-educated doctor admired among his friends as a dashing alpha male, a Navy enlisted man, a champion tennis player and good enough baseball player to have once been scouted by the Yankees, but how did that guy end up getting to the point that by age 40 he felt he had only two options to escape a life of secret torment?
He could leave behind his Madison Avenue eye surgery practice and friends, his infant son and wife, and disappear overseas for months to have the gender re-assignment surgery he had "chickened out" of getting once before as he literally stood outside a hospital door in Casablanca.
Or, failing that, "Go jump off a roof" -- one of two references Richards makes in the film to contemplating suicide.
"There was just this other submerged entity that was in the background waiting to come out," Richards says. "I didn't have a choice. I couldn't not do it."
There was no road map for being one of the few transsexuals known to be walking the face of the earth at the time. There are a lot of easier places that you can try to navigate that kind of new life than sports, or the glare of public life, which Richards now expresses a few regrets about seeking.
Richards' first recollection of wanting to be a woman dates to when she was 9 years old, and many years of shame, hiding, embarrassment and secret cross-dressing or abrupt ends to relationships followed. Later, having gone through so much torment just to finally arrive at the point that she became Renee, Richards says there was something about being told "can't" that activated her determination to play in women's tennis events after a TV reporter outed her after she entered a local tournament in La Jolla, Calif.
Some friends had told her not to do it. You'll be recognized, they warned. "A tennis stroke is like a fingerprint," one said.
Richards had moved out west and changed her name to try to start a new, post-surgery life as Renee. Being a 6-foot-2 redhead with broad shoulders, size 12 or so feet and a sublime left-handed tennis stroke is not exactly a recipe for going unnoticed, even if you weren't the new female eye surgeon in town.
Anyone expecting the film to turn into a feel-good homage to Richards' courage of conviction once the choice is made will be surprised. Director Eric Drath's look at Richards is more brutally frank and unflinchingly melancholy than that.
There was an infant son, named Nicholas, to consider, and a soon-to-be-ex-wife named Barbara, who wanted nothing to do with the post-surgery Richards after their divorce. Some of the necessary surgeries and treatments Richards endured were extraordinarily difficult, not to mention risky. And while the film studiously avoids asking if she'd do it again, what the accumulation of stories and interviews and information makes clear is having the sex change solved some dilemmas and yearnings. But not everything. New heartaches sprung up. Other gnawing, nagging what-ifs remain.
The questions that Raskin's becoming Renee raised about gender and sex and human identity are profound ones. Like? If you don't believe that biology is the determinative marker of what you are, can you really choose what bundle of traits or behaviors or cast of mind make any of us a woman or a man? What would you pick, if you could? Then, once having made the irreversible leap of faith to have the surgery and fundamentally re-invent yourself, how much will friends and family and strangers around you be willing to make that leap with you?
Could the answer really be as trite -- or terrifying -- as you can't know till you try?
That's the story within the story of Richards' life. And it's what gives the film its gripping poignancy and heaviness. There is no overdone rah-rah talk about how "brave" Richards' choice was, because frankly, if you've gotta know, sometimes her life has been a bitch. And there is no lineup of cheerleading friends and converted skeptics all saying that they can all see now how "right" or "ahead of her time" she was.
As some of the still photographs of Raskin in his tennis whites and cable-knit tennis sweaters show, Raskin was an absolutely beautiful young man. Then he was gone.
Though Richards' friends are loyal and loving throughout the film, they also admit they mourned losing that man they knew for this woman they were about to meet. Some tried to talk their friend out of the surgery, or strived to negotiate conditions under which Dick Raskin could just remain a man ("Be gay ... Wear women's clothing ... We don't care!" they pled). One male friend admits crying when told Raskin had made up his mind, and another tells of getting a call from Richard saying, "I want you to meet me at The Plaza hotel. We're going to have a drink. And there's Dick, dressed as a woman, with a wig with a mink coat on.
"I had three Scotches, but fast."
A parade of tennis folks from Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova, Virginia Wade to John McEnroe, Mary Carillo to Bud Collins are among the sports people who give fine interviews in the film, too. And what McEnroe's take lacks in subtlety is overtaken by his honesty and, in the end, compassion.
Citing the "fog" of confusion around what to make of Richards at the start, McEnroe admits, "I was weirded out sort of watching her from a distance. I'm sure that I wouldn't wanted to have been part of it, anyway. I probably would've got angry, because that's what I did. ... [But then] you realize, 'There's a human being on the other end. ... This person is a human being.'"
That didn't stop the WTA from trying to ban her from pro tournaments until she sued, or 25 of the 32 women in the field from withdrawing from the first tournament she played at age 41. Crowds rooted against her. If Richards turned on a TV at the time, she could've found Johnny Carson and Bob Hope snickering on "The Tonight Show" that Richards was her own "mixed doubles team" and had "lost everything" by -- ha ha -- jumping a little too low over the net. Get it?
The documentary also shows Howard Cosell reporting from a tennis court and intoning that what made Richards the subject of international intrigue was, "Is she a man or is she a woman?"
Richards still may not have all the answers to life, but she is very, very clear on that one.
"I felt that once I had achieved becoming a woman I didn't want to be anything in the middle -- I didn't become a woman to be a trans 'something'," Richards firmly says in the film. "I wanted to be a man or a I wanted to be a woman. I didn't want to be a 'trans' in the middle of something, or a third sex, or something crazy and freakish and not real."
By that measure, Richards' life is a triumph.
As the narrator says near the conclusion of "Renee": "She wanted to play [tennis] to let people know she was a woman.
"Sure enough, the world never forgot it."
Renee Richards is hardly your typical NYC eye surgeon/women's tennis star.