NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
If you ask Renee Richards to describe herself, she says first, a doctor. Second, a graduate of Yale, an Old Blue. Like everybody, she's many other things: an athlete, a Jew, a parent. She's also famous - or notorious - as a transsexual. Thirty years ago, when what's now known as gender dysphoria was almost unknown and sex change was spoken of in whispers, if at all, Renee Richards was front page news when she won the right to play professional tennis as a woman. She went on to play doubles with Billie Jean King and coached Martina Navratilova.
Renee Richards was born and lived the first 40 years of her life as Richard Raskind. In a new book, she describes the complicated realities of her transformative experience, the emotional toll of doing so in the public eye, and asks herself the question of whether or not it was a mistake.
Later in the hour, we'll take your questions about a new over-the-counter diet pill, a fat blocker called Alli.
But first, Renee Richards on her new memoir "No Way Renee: The Second Half of My Notorious Life." If you have questions for Dr. Richards, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. And Dr. Renee Richards joins us today from our bureau in New York. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Dr. RENEE RICHARDS (Author, "No Way Renee: The Second Half of My Notorious Life"): Well, thank you, Neal. I enjoyed listening to your entree to the program and a little bit taken aback at hearing my voice 30 years ago, and I am asking myself did I really sound like that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: A lot of us would be puzzled to hear ourselves 30 years ago. I wanted to ask you, after your sex change, you changed your name and moved to New York - from New York to California to restart your life, I think, basically. And as you describe it, you might have had a private life as an eye surgeon in Southern California, and only became known as a transsexual because you couldn't stop playing tennis.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, essentially, that's right. My gynecologist in New York, who is a very close friend of mine, gave me some advice that would come to hit home years later when he said you're a perfectly normal woman now, except that you look like you've had a hysterectomy. But don't try to play tennis out there when you move to California, because nobody is going to not notice that windup on the forehand that you have.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RICHARDS: And I didn't really believe Don - it's Don Rubell - and I did play as an amateur in California, trying to remain quiet about it. But I played at a very wonderful club, The John Wayne Tennis Club in New Port Beach, and I made lots of new friends. And gradually, they got me to play in club matches, and then they made me play in this tournament in La Jolla. And when I won it, my whole life came apart.
CONAN: There was a - you were eventually recognized, and I guess it was a report in one of the newspapers there that you were a transsexual. And then, as you said, your life fell apart.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, see, I moved to California originally to try to lead a new life, a private life as Renee Richards. I understand now the term for that is called woodworking, merging into the woodwork. And so I tried to do that, and I did. Essentially, I was doing that until I was uncovered in this tournament. And after that, I had to make a fateful decision, because even though I had become suddenly notorious and infamous, it would have died down. And after a period of time, even though I couldn't be woodworking anymore, I could go back to a semblance of the new private life that I had tried to live.
But all of a sudden, I was reading in the paper, well, she can play in a tournament as an amateur in La Jolla, but she could never play in the U.S. Open. She can't join the Women's Tennis Association. She can't go on the tour. And so all of a sudden, I was told I couldn't do something that I'd thought if I had wanted to, I should certainly be allowed to, even though it wasn't on my list.
Dr. RICHARDS: So I made that decision to fight for my right to do it, mostly because I'd been told that I wouldn't have been allowed to do it.
CONAN: In a way, the same competitive spirit that made you a good tennis player made you take that course of action.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, I guess that's right. I mean, I've always been competitive, and I've always been unafraid of taking on new challenges. But it was a very difficult decision, and when people talk about, oh, well, Renee Richards has all these regrets, they only think that it's the regrets about the sex change, and that's really not what the regrets are about. The regrets are about that decision to try to take the battle to the courts to be allowed to play and then actually playing as a professional.
My closest friends and my father told me not to do it. They said the notoriety will wind down, you can go back to your nice new practice in Orange, California, with your new friends and your new life, and you'll be able to do it. And I didn't take their advice. You know, I'm a little bit, I don't know, I accept challenges, I guess.
And the other reason was because I was getting a lot of calls from people who were downtrodden, who were part of sexual minorities, who were part of ethnic minorities. And they said, Renee, you've got to go and do this. You've got to take up this fight. You can't just take what they say and go back and lead a private life. And I remember one in particular. It was a woman who had been one of the umpires in the tournament out there in La Jolla who had known me in my former life in New York.
And she said you've got to do this, because, you know, I'm part Filipino and my husband is black and the two sons I have that are tennis players are black, and we're always fighting to be accepted. And you've got to show that if it's your right to be accepted, to do what you are entitled to do, you've got to do it. So it was remarks from people like her - Virginia Glass(ph), I'll never forget her - in La Jolla at that time that spurred me on to do it.
CONAN: Our guest is Renee Richards. Her new book is "No Way Renee: The Second Half of My Notorious Life." If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's turn to Michelle. Michelle's calling us from Scottsdale, Arizona.
MICHELLE (Caller): Hi there, Rene.
Dr. RICHARDS: Hello, Michelle.
MICHELLE: How are you?
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, you're probably better off there in Scottsdale than we are here in New York. It's very, very cold.
MICHELLE: I used to live in New York. I moved away from there a long time ago. Just going to tell you, you are my inspiration. I transitioned three years ago, and...
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, that's wonderful...
Dr. RICHARDS: ...and how is your life now?
MICHELLE: Well, life is doing pretty good. I'm a city official out here in Scottsdale
Dr. RICHARDS: Great.
MICHELLE: And I'm an activist for the community. I'm actually fighting an issue right now at a nightclub here in Scottsdale that threw our community out. They told us that our community can no longer come in here because we're trans-women.
Dr. RICHARDS: Ooh.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MICHELLE: And - oh, it's been real interesting. It's been in the paper locally, in the New Times and a couple of other periodicals. So it's been very discouraging, and I'm almost like at my wit's end. But after listening to you today and what you went through, I'm going to continue the battle.
Dr. RICHARDS: Good for you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MICHELLE: Yeah, it's kind of discouraging going with what we've gone through, but you have given me the strength over the - you and Christine Jorgensen, who my parents knew, incidentally.
Dr. RICHARDS: Wow.
MICHELLE: They lived in Massapequa, and they knew her when she transitioned back in the '50s.
Dr. RICHARDS: Right, she came from Long Island, right.
MICHELLE: You just make my day, just hearing you on the radio. I'm a school bus driver part-time, and I'm sitting here in a parking lot waiting for kids to come out. I just had to talk to you.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well...
MICHELLE: You're like my idol.
Dr. RICHARDS: Thank you for calling in, and good luck to you.
MICHELLE: Thank you, and I'll get your book and read it.
Dr. RICHARDS: Good.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Michelle.
CONAN: I wonder, one of the things that - tennis was an important part of your life, in a way, when you were struggling with the issues that eventually led you to your decision to have the surgery. Tennis was a refuge for you.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, tennis was always a refuge because it's something that I love to do, and it was something that I was good at and I could have success at doing. And it was so clear cut, you know, the geometry of a tennis court and you against your opponent, and you doing the things that you had practiced a long time to know how to do. So it was a very clear, unambiguous, not strange world for me. And so maybe I retreated into the tennis world at times when everything else was a confusion to me.
Dr. RICHARDS: And, of course, sports have always been kind of my forte. When I was a kid, I played everything, and some of those things competitively, too, until I finished with high school, and then I concentrated more on tennis. But tennis has been a thread, it's been a constant for me. Like if I had practiced my violin more...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RICHARDS: ...maybe the violin would have been my constant, but tennis became it and continued for the rest of my life, too.
CONAN: Another of the regrets that you confess to in your last chapter is that you never got to pitch for the New York Yankees in baseball, and some scouts had told you that maybe you were good enough to take that road as well. I also wanted to ask you, though - before we go to the first break - you say that, you know, this campaign, your life as a professional tennis player, really took away a lot of your professional life as an eye surgeon, too.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, I stopped practicing medicine for a five-year period when I was given the right by the New York State Supreme Court to play in the U.S. Open. In 1977, I undertook to join the women's tour, the Women's Tennis Association, and I played all over the United States. And then I coached Martina, and I coached a few other players and some juniors. And I did all that for five years.
So, yes. I left medicine for that five-year period. And then when I felt that I had done enough, and I was also getting a little bit too old chase the ball as well as the young players were able to do, it was time - like there's time for everything - and there was time for me now to return to medicine. So that's when I came back to practice in 1982, after being out for five years.
CONAN: We're talking with Dr. Renee Richards about her new memoir. And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or send us e-mail: email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We're talking with physician and former professional tennis player Renee Richards this hour about her memoir about her turbulent years going through a sex reassignment in the public eye. You can read an excerpt of her book at our Web site, npr.org/talk. And, of course, you're welcome to join the conversation, too. If you have questions for Renee Richards, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's go to John, and John is calling us from St. Louis.
JOHN (Caller): Renee, nice to quote, unquote, "meet you by phone." I've read about you for a long time. My question is what would it like - what would it be like to transition now, given your experience of several years ago - and I'm not sure I know how many years ago it was. And what do you think the differences would be if you were transitioning now?
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, that's a very good question, John. It would be very different. First of all, there was no word when I did it called transition. That would be a strange word for my time. It was Christine Jorgensen had a sex change, and then Dr. Renee Richards had a sex change. The world was very unfamiliar with someone who was transgendered, or of a transsexual bent. Even the word transgendered wasn't coined when I went through all this.
The public knew very little about the whole process or the problem to begin with. Psychiatrists hardly knew anything about it. There were no support groups. There were only a few people in the world who were doing the surgery. There was a study group at Johns Hopkins, which eventually gave up advising surgery. There was a doctor in Casablanca who was doing most of the cases throughout the world, and especially on Americans, too. So it was a world in the dark about the problem of gender dysphoria.
And now, as I read when I went back to my alma mater, to Yale, to give a master's tea a couple of years ago, I read in the program of a Yale syllabus for the month: Trans Week at Yale.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RICHARDS: Trans Week at Yale would have been like somebody in the Middle Ages thinking of going to an airport and flying to St. Louis from New York. It was totally unheard of. So things would have been a lot different for me. It would have been a lot easier. I would have had access to a lot of information and counseling and good treatment.
I was very fortunate, actually. I sought out Dr. Harry Benjamin, who was Christine Jorgensen's doctor, who coined the term transsexualism. And Harry took care of me and counseled me through those turbulent years and got me started on my hormonal treatment with estrogen. And I was very lucky when he referred me to Dr. Roberto Granato in New York, who was the surgeon who performed the surgery on me. So I, actually, was very fortunate. I wasn't so fortunate in the public's acceptance and the...
CONAN: Well, I was going to as you about that. As I think you know, there's a transgendered player who is going to be playing, I think, in the Australian Open: Mianne Bagger. I think - I hope I'm pronouncing her name correctly.
Dr. RICHARDS: OK, that's an interesting thing you bring up. Mianne Bagger is a golfer.
CONAN: Oh, yes.
Dr. RICHARDS: She came from Denmark, I think, and she is - was in Australia during the past six months trying to play on the Australian professional women's circuit and having difficulty to some degree - not as much as I did - but having some difficulty in being accepted. And I think her case hasn't been fully resolved yet. I think she's allowed to play in some tournaments, but hasn't been given the green light by the LPGA, which is the Ladies Professional Golf Association, because they have a rule that says that their players have to be born female.
And I think they put the rule in specifically to rule out somebody who had a sex change and then became a woman. So this whole subject of acceptance in sports by transsexual and transgendered people is not perfectly clear-cut even at this time, and I know she's still fighting her battle to be allowed to play.
CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is John. John's with us from New Bern, in North Carolina.
JOHN (Caller): Hello, Renee.
Dr. RICHARDS: Hello, John.
JOHN: I love your show, Neal. And Renee, I was one of your patients in New York just for a very short time.
Dr. RICHARDS: Oh.
JOHN: And I was told about you from a mutual dentist friend of ours, a Norwegian fellow. And I just had the best time with you, and I was the - oh, you probably don't remember - I had a teregem(ph), a real bad teregem on my right eye. And I just thought it was great - hearing you on the phone - on the radio today, it brought back some great memories and...
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, did I take the teregem off your eye or not?
JOHN: No, you didn't. In fact, I still have it, but you told me that if didn't go any further, I wouldn't need to do anything with it. And I've been very lucky, I haven't had to have it...
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, I guess I gave you good advice then, because a teregem has a tendency to re-grow if it's assaulted by surgery. And we tend to be very conservative with them and not take them off unless they begin that steady march across the cornea to...
JOHN: Right, that's exactly what you told me. And, you know, I've - it's so funny. I think about you often, and I really appreciate - I really appreciated meeting you, and I just wanted to call and say thank you.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, thank you so much, John, for that call. I hear so often when I do some of the television and the radio programs of people that have been a patient of mine or knew somebody that was a patient of mine. The Norwegian dentist that you refer to was my dentist, too. That was Odvin Locken(ph).
JOHN: That's correct. That's correct.
Dr. RICHARDS: He's a wonderful, wonderful man. He just retired this year. He actually would have...
JOHN: I'm so glad you said that. I haven't heard from him for 20 years.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well...
JOHN: I moved back to California. Now I'm living in North Carolina.
Dr. RICHARDS: Oh, well, that's great. Well, Dr. Locken had his office around the corner from mine, and I would take care of his eyes, and he would take care of my teeth.
JOHN: Yes, yep.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Professional courtesy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOHN: All right, I thank you so much. And I'll get off. You take care.
CONAN: OK, John.
Dr. RICHARDS: Thanks for calling. You, too.
CONAN: Appreciate the call, John. Let's go now to - this is Andre. Andre's with us from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
ANDRE (Caller): Hi, Rene. This is an amazing thing to hear you on the radio. My voice is shaking because I remember reading your biography standing up in a bookstore decades ago, unable to bring myself to come and buy it. And it wasn't - I'm 47 years old, and it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I realized I, too, would have to make the transition from female to male, a different direction than you went.
Dr. RICHARDS: Right.
ANDRE: But your example - I'm so moved to hear you talk about not - that people misread your regrets. And I want to say that I know that the choice to be out and fight for our rights does have a terrible cost those of us in our community. We don't get to just live the lives unremarked that we really want. I'm following in your footsteps, Renee, because I'm out there fighting as an out transsexual person for our lives. That means I don't get to be just some other guy out there, but I think the cost is worth it. Maybe it doesn't feel that way to you, but I want to thank you for what you did, because it meant so much to all of us.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, thank you for your remarks. Yes...
ANDRE: I think you're so right that the issue here really is one about acceptance. And what I want people to know from my experience is I lived in terrible fear for decades of my life, and it - I had paid a terribly high cost in depression and migraines that were so debilitating. You know, the first couple of days of my hormonal transition, the first couple of days of testosterone, were the first un-depressed days of my life.
I don't have migraines anymore. I'm productive. I cost my insurance company far less. I'm a fraction of what I used to cost them. And now I have transition services that they're paying for, but they pay so much less for me. I want to say this is about saving lives when we're allowed to transition. I - that's what I got from your book, and I hope that's what others are hearing today.
Dr. RICHARDS: Well, thank you for expressing those sentiments. I've heard this at times before, that the first experiences with getting the testosterone if you're a female to male or getting estrogen treatment if you're the other way are so - made the person feel so good and so relieving that the process was being started. And I know what you're going through in terms of the acceptance. The answer is that it is worth it and that you have to fight through all of that acceptance. And gradually it does come.
Just one comment on your saying you read my biography standing up in the bookstore or library or wherever it was and being afraid really to read it elsewhere. That was my first half of my life, "Second Serve."
And I had the same experience when I was about 16 or maybe 18. I was playing in a tennis tournament at West Point, and I saw a book in the hotel fair book stationary store downstairs in the lobby of the hotel called "Man Into Woman," and I did a double take when I saw the title of the book and I surreptitiously bought it and took it up in my room and hid it from my roommate and read it quietly. And it was the story of a Danish painter who maybe had been very first one to undergo not one but several operations that eventually changed the Danish painter, a male into a Lily Elm(ph), the woman painter.
CONAN: Andre, thanks very much for the call.
ANDRE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye bye. We're going to take a - we're talking with Renee Richards. Her new book is "No Way, Renee: My Notorious Second Life." She mentioned her first autobiography. It was called "Second Serve." She's with us from our bureau in New York.
If you'd like to join the conversation, it's 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com. And this is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
Let's go to Joanna. Joanna's with us from Ann Arbor.
JOANNA: Hi, Renee.
Dr. RICHARDS: Hello, Joanna.
JOANNA: Well, I am a 16-year-old transsexual, male to female, and I have struggled a lot with the choice to sort of assimilate into society as a normal just everyday girl or to be active in the transgender community and be out.
So I was wondering if you had the choice to be able to just be a normal everyday female in society or be active in the transgender community, which would you choose?
Dr. RICHARDS: I think this is a very difficult subject. I think the younger one is the easier it is to assimilate and to, as we've said, woodwork and become a member of the mainstream community. But there is always that fear that you might be found out. However, you could still do that and be found out and be a member of the mainstream community, as opposed to joining the transgender community and getting the support and the confidence of being in a community and a group of people with the same issues, the same problems, and get some comfort from that.
But your question to me was what would I prefer, and I think I kind of answered that by what I tried to do, and I was 40 years old when I did it. I tried to be in the mainstream. I didn't want to be a different person. If I wasn't a man, I wanted to be a woman. I didn't want to be transgendered.
And I think I still feel that way deep down, and when I hear you talking as a 16-year-old, I would probably have hopes for you that you could lead your life as a woman and not being encumbered by having to be part of the so-called community, but if that ended up being your lot in life, I think that you could make a go of it way to.
CONAN: Joanna, good luck to you.
JOANNA: Thank you so much.
Dr. RICHARDS: Yes, good luck.
JOANNA: You're such an inspiration to me. Just being able to read your stories and a lot of other transgendered women, it's giving me the courage to come out about my own situation. So thank you so much.
Dr. RICHARDS: That's wonderful. Good luck.
JOANNA: Thank you.
CONAN: And let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Jim, and Jim is with us from Grand Haven in Michigan.
JIM: Hi, Renee, Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
JIM: I have a transgendered cousin, male to female. She has not been around our family recently because she went out to Seattle for a gender reassignment - or I'm sorry, for transgender surgery.
JIM: And she hasn't been home in a long time to see the rest of her family, partly because she's feeling very self-conscious now. I'm wondering, how can we help her feel more at home when she comes back home finally?
CONAN: And I would have to ask you to answer this in 30 or 40 seconds. I apologize.
JIM: I'm sorry.
Dr. RICHARDS: Okay. Well, one thing you have to be sure that there is to say she and her, and get your pronouns right, and call her by the name that she wants to be referred to. And try to make everything else seem like it's pretty normal and that you love her and you want her back with the family and with her friends, and that whatever she does, she's part of your family.
JIM: All right.
CONAN: Jim, we wish -
JIM: Thank you very much.
CONAN: We wish you the best of luck too. Thanks very much for the call. And Renee Richards, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Dr. RICHARDS: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Dr. Renee Richards' new memoir is "No Way, Renee: The Second Half of My Notorious Life." And again, you can read an excerpt at our Web site, npr.org/talk. And she joined us today from our bureau in New York.
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