Trans pioneer Renee Richards weighs in on how things are different for Bruce Jenner
Before Bruce Jenner, there was Renee Richards.
The same year Jenner won gold at the 1976 Olympics, Richards was waging a legal fight to compete in the US Open tennis tournament as a woman.
Her transition from Richard Raskind took place exactly 40 years ago and it was at a time when the world was far less understanding about such things. There certainly was no reality show or interview with Diane Sawyer.
‘You have to realize that somebody who is an entertainer, or even like with Bruce Jenner – a person like that can have a sex change and be just as accepted as an entertainer or a TV star or something like that afterwards,’ Richards, now 80, tells GQ in a rare interview.
Richards won the right to compete in the 1977 US Open and although she lost in the first round in singles, she made it to the finals of the women’s doubles. She later went on to coach Martina Navratilova in the early 1980s.
Then she returned to ophthalmology and practiced in New York City and it is in that kind of situation where she says being transgender is more difficult.
‘When I came back to practice after being so notorious, I couldn’t ever be a frivolous, entertainment-type, public kind of character,’ she says. ‘I mean, I had to be the same confidence-engendering… I’m operating on people’s eyes; I’m operating on their kid’s eyes. I mean, you better be some kind of a transsexual to do that! Otherwise you’re not gonna have much of a practice. It’s a whole different thing than being an entertainer.’
Jenner has benefited from not only public understanding but from better understanding within the medical community which initially turned Richards away.
‘I was not what people thought of when they thought of someone wanting to have this surgery. There was nothing “wrong” with me. It was too scary for them. They couldn’t fathom how someone who had been so supremely successful in everything – in medicine, in sports, in life, as a heterosexual man, as a husband, as a father—they couldn’t understand that. In this day and age, they would understand. The best example I know is somebody like Bruce Jenner. But in my time, I was turned away.’
In his interview with Sawyer and in a two-part episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, there has been speculation about Jenner’s sexuality.
Richards has some insight into that.
‘I never really felt oriented sexually to men,’ she says. ‘It was fun having sex with a man, especially the first few years as Renée. It was fun, and I enjoyed it, but there was never a love object. I just realized that my sexual orientation wasn’t gonna be changed by my sex change.
‘It’s interesting that people talk about Bruce Jenner: What’s his love life gonna be after he’s transitioned to a woman? He’s been married a couple of times – he’s basically a heterosexual man – and I find it hard to believe that he’s suddenly all of a sudden become oriented towards men. It’s conceivable, but it makes for a complicated life.’