IN HER DAY SHE WAS A TRAILBLAZER: A PHYSICIAN AND NATIONALLY ranked amateur tennis player who underwent a sex-change operation in 1975, then fought for—and won—the right to compete as a woman on the court. So does Renée Richards—née Richard Raskind—accept the requests she gets these days to speak to transgendered youth? At her home in Carmel, N.Y., a cozily appointed cottage she shares with her friend Arleen Larzelere, the self-described “most famous transsexual in the world” doesn’t need to ponder the question. “Never,” she says. “Arleen refers them to Web sites. It would be presumptuous of me to try to advise people.”
Read her new memoir, No Way Renée, and that reluctance becomes easier to understand. Subtitled The Second Half of My Notorious Life, the book discusses her unsuccessful search for love, her troubled relationship with her grown son, her sadness at being a female “facsimile,” her dismay at having been thrust into the spotlight. For all that, “when I look in the mirror, I am satisfied with what I see,” writes Richards, still a practicing eye surgeon at 72. She wrote the book, she says, because “no one has ever described what it’s like to live half their life as a man and nearly half as a woman. I felt it was important to tell that story.” But a road map? She doesn’t have one.
One thing she does know: she couldn’t have done things any other way. From the age of 9, Richards, the son of Queens, N.Y., doctors, felt an “unsettling urge” to dress as a girl, a predilection she traces in part to her mother and older sister Jo’s love of draping her in frills. Her mother, Richards remembers, “once forced me into a Halloween outfit so perfectly female that the parents who gave the party inquired discreetly why the pretty little girl was not in costume.”
Along with her feminine side, Dick developed a full complement of masculine credentials, excelling at tennis at Yale, joining the Navy and falling in love with both fast cars and women. Richards writes of one, Gwen, with whom she developed a connection so deep she believes it might have spared her the need to switch sexes, had not her therapist at the time nixed the match. (Asked about this love now, Richards grips the arms of her chair and says simply, “I don’t want to talk about it.”)
Instead, she wed Meriam (a pseudonym) with whom she had a son, Nick, now 35, before acting on her sense that she was in the wrong body and undergoing surgery. Like many transsexuals, she retained her heterosexuality after becoming female. “I didn’t have a sex change operation to date women,” she says. Divorced from Meriam in 1975, she went on to date men, including a “bland, Republican” Presbyterian elder she says made her feel “cherished,” but she never found a lasting relationship.
Yet it’s not the romantic challenges she has found toughest. “Everybody wants to know, ‘Did Renée Richards make a mistake?’ It wasn’t that I regretted my sex change,” she says. “I regretted pursuing the right to play tennis instead of just going back to medicine. I would have had a semblance of a private life.”
No matter what, her son would have suffered. It’s the pain she caused Nick, she says, that is her other big regret: “He still suffers from the loss of his father as he knew him. The confusion and shame I put him through have been awful. He will carry those scars for a lifetime.”
A New Yorker who has been a nightclub promoter, karate champion and real-estate broker, Nick has never stopped calling Richards “Dad.” (The word sometimes triggers double-takes in public.) As a child, says Nick, he had a “subconscious” sense that his father was anomalous. When his mother explained the sex change to him, “it made sense,” says Nick. “In my child’s mind it didn’t faze me.” It was later that resentment began to fester. Renée was often offstage, playing or, later, coaching players including Martina Navratilova. “When Dad would tell me I’d done something wrong, I’d look at him like, ‘And what have you done with your life?'” Nick says.
Today, the two have a “much more in-depth relationship,” according to Nick, who says he’s “not big on the blame game.” (“I see the torment that could cause my father to do something so radical to his body,” he explains.) Richards bunks at her son’s apartment in the city three days a week. There, after a day of surgery, “she likes to sit in a horrifically dirty leather easy chair, watch the Yankees and drink beer and eat a hot dog,” Nick says, “like a cantankerous old man.”
In the country, Renée communes with friends who, she says, see her not as a formerly famous transsexual but as a pleasantly eccentric golfing pal. “People in town don’t even know about it,” she say. “It’s ‘Hi, Doc’ at the store. The book will stir up a little bit of being in the public eye, but soon I will be the same private person again.”
In the end, it is ordinariness that suits her. Though Nick has not married, Richards hopes grandchildren are in her future. She has plenty to bequeath. “I would teach them,” she says, “to play tennis.”