Karen Ocamb

Renée Richards' Racquet Enters Smithsonian LGBT Collection

Filed By Karen Ocamb | August 24, 2014 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: American history, LGBT athletes, LGBT history, Renee Richards, Smithsonian Institution, tennis

"There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it's now okay to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly until it's simply the way things are," out lesbian U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin once said. It is also important to remember how we got there. And while there are a number of books and films that document LGBT history (such as the documentary film Before Stonewall and Jeanne Cordova's memoir When We Were Outlaws) it is also extremely important to have a center open to the public, a museum whose mission it is to take on the task of remembering for America, and to curate political and pop culture artifacts to provide a sense of place and time and breadth of experience.

On Tuesday, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History officially accepted objects deemed to be of LGBT historical significance from, among others, Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick and transgender pride flag designer Monica Helms, as well as the diplomatic passports of Los Angeles-based former U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa David Huebner and his spouse, Dr. Duane McWaine. The Smithsonian will also accept the tennis racquet of transgender tennis star and doctor Renée Richards.

"The pursuit of civil rights in America is woven throughout our history," museum director John Gray said in a statement. "It is a tale of struggle and accomplishment as the nation strives to fulfill its ideals. We are grateful to our donors for assisting us to fulfill our mission to help the public understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future."

Imagine, for instance, Renée Richards grasping that tennis racquet - the one she used to win the 1963 All-Navy Championship and the 1964 New York State Men's Championship - when she played as Richard Raskin.

Richards, a well-known ophthalmologist, challenged the definition of gender in the mid-1970s at the same time Anita Bryant and Rev. Jerry Falwell were ginning up their long religious campaign against gay people. In 1975, after transitioning from Richard to Renée, Richards moved from New York to Newport Beach, California where she started an ophthalmology practice with another doctor.

But she still wanted to play competitive tennis. She applied to play in the 1976 U.S. Open and was denied entry by the United States Tennis Association (USTA). The USTA and other female tennis associations required that all women competitors undergo a Barr body test of their chromosomes to affirm that they were "women-born-women." Richards refused to take the test and was denied the right to play applied to play in USTA tournaments or Wimbledon or the Italian Open.

Richards sued the USTA for gender discrimination in violation of the New York Human Rights Law, asserting that being allowed to play in the U.S. Open constituted "an acceptance of her right to be a women." The United States Open Committee said that "there is competitive advantage for a male who has undergone a sex change surgery as a result of physical training and development as a male." Richards eventually took the Barr body test but the results were inconclusive. When she refused to re-take the test, she was prohibited from playing.

But on August 16, 1977 -- two months after the successful launch of Anita Bryant's infamously anti-gay "Save Our Children" crusade -- Judge Alfred M. Ascione ruled in favor of Renée Richards: "This person is now a female." The judge also said that forcing Richards to pass the Barr body test was "grossly unfair, discriminatory and inequitable, and a violation of her rights" and that the USTA intentionally discriminated against her.

Richards went on to play in the U.S. Open and eventually play with and teach Martina Navratilova and others.

In 2011, a documentary was made of the life and struggles of Renée Richards -- one that did not shy away from controversy. "I think that transsexuals have every right to play, but not at the professional level because it's not a level playing field," she said in the film. "I didn't become a woman to be a trans-something."

"I thought I was going to have the Gloria Steinem for transgender rights," filmmaker Eric Drath told the Huffington Post about his film, Renée. "But the truth is that she's so incredibly brilliant and if anyone's thought it through, it's Renée. She hasn't championed the cause, but what she did with her actions is more powerful than what she's said."

Imagine grasping that tennis racquet and walking through the day, the tennis match, the life Renée Richards fought to have. That is the power of that racquet in the Smithsonian.

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