I’m a firm believer that the greatest advantage a veteran observer can bring to the issues of the day is perspective. So as the fallout from last week’ victory by transgender University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas in the 500 meter freestyle women’s competition at the NCAA swimming championships metastisized into a full fledged politically charged opportunity for Florida governor Ron DeSantis, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another sports world situation that somehow was more muted during a summer where the Bronx literally was on fire 45 years ago.
Renee Richards was a professional tennis player and a finalist in women’s doubles at the 1977 U.S. Open at Forest Hills–her “hometown”. Noteworthy was the fact that at the time Richards was 43 and had previously competed in five championships between 1953 and 1960, never advancing beyond the second round. More noteworthy was at that time she competed as a male named Richard Raskind.
Raskind was a practicing medical professional who began to dress as a woman in the early 1970s, eventually transitioning physically in 1975, three years after fathering a son. Richards sought a return to professional tennis competition a year later, but was outed by a San Diego TV reporter named Dick Carlson. If that surname seems familiar, surprise, surprise–look who he fathered.
Soon after that, the United States Tennis Association, among other entities supervising women’s tennis, ruled that all competitors were required to verify their sex with a Barr body test of their chromosomes. Richards was enjoined from competing in the U.S. Open. She then sued the USTA, alleging gender discrimination under New York State human rights laws. For the next year and a half Richards volleyed with the courts and the governing bodies, initially refusing to take the Barr test and then having inconclusive results when she did. Finally, on August 16, 1977 a New York State judge ruled that Richards was indeed a woman and earned the right to compete. While losing in the first round of singles competition to Virginia Wade, she indeed advanced to the women’s doubles finals along with Betty Ann Grubb Stuart, narrowly losing to a team that included Martina Navratilova. In retirement, she eventually was a coach of Navratilova’s, helping her win two Championships.
While there was tremendous courtroom debate during the tumultuous months where Richards fought for her rights, noticeably absent from that debate was the presence of a politician who seized upon the moment to make it a rallying cry for what he considered to be “fair”. While Emma Weyant has emerged as a poster child for Florida collegians as what DeSantis considers to be the “real winner” of her competition, she did not willingly enter this debate and from all accounts appeared content with the silver medal she initially received last week. She did consent to the photo opportunity given her on Tuesday as DeSantis bestowed his concept of gold upon his constituent.
I’d like to think that Thomas, an Ivy Leaguer who appears to be as resolute and determined as Richards was, is familiar with this history and may have even sought her counsel. Richards is indeed alive, quietly retired and living with a platonic companion in upstate New York as she approaches her 88th birthday. They both seem to have a firm grasp on the reality of their biologies and their rights. Perhaps Weyert may someday remind her fellow Floridians that despite losing this particular race she lost to someone who has not dramatically altered the sport as so many politicians and right wing provocateurs have screamed. Indeed, on an all-time basis Thomas’ time in the 2022 NCAAs was only 15th best.
Since DeSantis had not yet been conceived when RIchards made her improbable run at Forest Hills and appears largely incapable of perspective it’s likely he doesn’t know much about this precedent, or at least doesn’t care. But given this occurred in New York City in the 1970s a certain fellow Republican was likely in the stands at some point that summer, or at least attended a party where other players may have been. Maybe even Richards herself had an encounter with this fellow Republican–and, yes, like Thomas, a fellow U Penn Quaker.
Likely? Probably not. But in the immortal words of Dick Carlson’s seed, that could be true.
What is true is that certain states and societal segments appear to have regressed in our tolerance and acceptance of transgender athletes after all these years. How tragic.