ESPN Films: Renee (2011)

Directed by Eric Drath

In today’s swirling world of “alternative” lifestyles it seems we have made leaps and bounds from where we were just decades previously. With television series like the extremely popular Modern Family showcasing the acceptance of ways of living that don’t come out of a Sears-Roebuck ad from the 50s, I think I am proud to say I live in a fairly accepting world. Now, that statement doesn’t come without the realization that we still have far to come. Augusta National Golf Club just this year began admitting women into their club, so there is still injustice and unfair discrimination going on in this country today. But what if I posed this question to you: If there were a transgender woman who wanted to play professional women’s tennis, could she? That is the exact question posed by the life of Renee Richards, who was once Richard Raskind.

Richards was a strapping young man full of great potential in the great state of New York. He was described as having an “alpha male” type personality. Easily attracted by girls, exceedingly brilliant in the classroom, and comptetively dominant on a baseball field (where he was scouted by the New York Yankees) and even more so on the tennis court, Richard’s sport of choice. But unbeknownst to all his family and friends, Richard wanted to be a woman. And so, after a failed marriage and the birth of his son, Richard Raskind moved to California where he became a woman, Renee Richards. It was in California that s/he began once again to compete in tennis tournaments, which soon led to an undesired public, and ultimately judicial, trial over whether a transgender woman should be allowed to play comptetive tennis.

This is a fascinating documentary if only for its unique and throught provoking subject matter. Having been born in the late 1980s, I had never heard of Renee Richards before, so as her story, which took place in the 1970s, began to unfold before my eyes, I was amazed. How could such a socially significant conversation such as this have gone unnoticed, untalked about for me, such a sports fan? I began to ask myself the question of whether something like this could happen today. Even given the climate of today, I doubted to myself that a transgender woman would be permitted to compete in 2012. There is no way. It would cause one hell of a stir, for sure, but no way would that happen. And yet, it already had, and 30 years ago! I was amazed! And the story of Renee Richards is even more fascinating given her circumstances.

She is a woman. He is a man. He is a father. She is a parent. Ultimately I think it can easily be seen that he actions were that of a selfish person when she fled her marriage and son to live this life. At the same time she wasn’t. How could she be, given her natual desire to be a woman? It is a sticky issue, but because of it her life is both a success and a failure, just as anyone else. He had her highs, she had her lows. Did her decision emotionally and psychologically affect her son in a negative manner. Absolutely. But I don’t think it is her fault for how he turned out. She tried her best to be a great parent while staying true to herself as well.

The film really hit some emotional chords here and there and did at the very least a fair job of  chronically this strange and unique path of Renee Richards. She is an accomplished opthimologist, a strong amatuer tennis player, but at the end of the day she is also just a human being, as noted by John McEnroe. The players reactions to her was what amazed me most.

For Mary Carillo and especially Martina Navritalova, she was a woman, and just another player on the tour. Eric Drath assembles plenty of subjects to interview, though I did happen to notice that they were almost all pro-Renee, noted as friends more often than not. But even these “friends” express doubts of her decision, and the acceptance of it. Her own sister still calls her “he”, saying her brother will always be her brother. But the comment that stuck with me the most from the whole film was a friend, who, when describing Richard Raskind, added the phrase “with no apparent weaknesses”. It was meant to be harmless, but says so much more as to how some people in our society, and even our society itself, thinks of such desires and decisions.

*** – Very Good

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