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Television review: 'Renée' on ESPN

The documentary on transgender former tennis player Renée Richards is a fascinating glimpse into shifting social norms, gender, public opinion and the difficulty of being held up as a symbol.

October 04, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Renee Richard serves in this 1979 photo. Richard is the subject of an ESPN "30 for 30" documentary on the transgender tennis player, who shook up the tennis world in the 1970s.
Renee Richard serves in this 1979 photo. Richard is the subject of an ESPN… (June Harrison )

Those shocked by the inclusion of Chaz Bono on this season's "Dancing With the Stars" would do well to check out the ESPN documentary "Renée" — there is nothing new under the sun, not even transgender individuals taking center stage in a national competition of athletic prowess.

From childhood, Dr. Renée Richards, born Richard Raskind, seemed destined for an extraordinary life, though none could guess it would include competing on the women's professional tennis circuit after having gender reassignment surgery at age 40. Raskind was an accomplished athlete all his life, playing tennis throughout his college career at Yale and while serving in the Navy. But Raskind saw something quite different when he looked in the mirror — a woman he called Renée. After an early attempt to live as a woman failed, Raskind married and fathered a son before realizing, in 1974, that he could not continue living as a man.

After surgery, and a nasty divorce, Raskind, now Renée Richards, left her son and a thriving New York practice for the West Coast. She began playing tennis again, quickly winning an amateur competition. The revelation of Richards' past caused a public uproar, with some women players refusing to meet "a man" on the court and tennis watchers worrying that gender reassignment would be the next step in performance-enhancement. The United States Tennis Assn. banned Richards from play, and she became a cause célèbre, fighting the ban until it was declared illegal by the New York State Supreme Court.

Richards went on to play at the U.S. Open and on the women's tennis circuit for years, and despite the fears of many at the time, transgender women tennis players did not become epidemic. Indeed, if the outrage over Bono's participation in "Dancing With the Stars" is any indication, Richards is all but forgotten.

Not, fortunately, by "Renée" director Eric Rath. A former journalist turned sports agent, he tells not so much her story as the story of those around her: the loving but irascible sister who still thinks the surgery was a mistake; the college friends who stuck with Richards throughout her life (including several who told her not to start playing competitive tennis as a woman because her big left-handed serve was so unique any tennis fan would know it was Raskind's); the women, including Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, who faced Richards across the net; Richards' surgeon and, finally, her very troubled son.

Although uneven and at times unsatisfying — Richards never even tries to explain why, when she said she wanted anonymity and to protect her son, she began playing competitive tennis — "Renée" is a fascinating glimpse into many things: shifting social norms, the essence of gender, the history of women's tennis, the fickleness of public opinion and the difficulty of being seen as a symbol of anything.

Richards remains a practicing eye surgeon who has written two autobiographies and still plays tennis, but even a life extraordinary eventually gives way at the knees. During the interviews, she acknowledges guilt over her son's travails; wonders if she should have been allowed to play tennis as a woman and confesses that after her surgery, she was never able to generate the same sexual passion she had before. Her life did not turn out the way she wanted it to, or supposed it would, but she does not regret choosing Renée over Richard. Because there was no choice involved.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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