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Renée Richards’ life goes beyond tennis

Renée Richards would prefer you didn’t call her an activist.

Thirty-five years ago, Richards became an unofficial spokeswoman for the transgender movement when her legal battle to play as a woman in the U.S. Open garnered headlines across the globe. After nearly three decades of relative obscurity, Richards is now the subject of “Renée,” a documentary premiering Tuesday on ESPN.

When filmmaker Eric Drath initially approached Richards about the possibility of making a film about her life, she was reluctant. “She didn’t want to be the spokesperson for the transgendered world,” Drath explained. “She doesn’t want to be known as the ‘T’ in LGBT.”

Now 77, Richards maintains a busy ophthalmology practice with offices in Manhattan and Westchester County, N.Y.

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“That’s what I lay awake at night worrying about. I don’t lay awake at night worrying about transgendered people, or my tennis legacy, or anything of the sort,” she said during a rare interview at ESPN’s sprawling headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

In person, Richards has an intimidating presence, and not just because she’s a towering 6 feet 2. Dressed in a chic, pale yellow cardigan and blue-gray blouse, she remained almost perfectly still throughout the conversation. Yet there’s a precision to each of her small gestures; it is not difficult to imagine Richards performing delicate eye surgery, or lobbing a deadly serve on the tennis court.

“Renée” arrives at a fortuitous moment: Chaz Bono’s stint on “Dancing With the Stars” has brought transgender issues into the mainstream in a way perhaps not seen since Richards. “There is a whole generation of young people who are confronting the same kind of issues and problems that I went through in the ‘60s and ‘70s, who don’t know anything about Renée Richards,” she said.

Through archival footage and interviews with her family, friends and colleagues, the film tells the story of Richards’ remarkably protean life. Born Richard Raskind, she was raised in an upper-middle class Jewish family in Forest Hills, Queens. “Dick,” as she was then known, was popular, athletic and distinctly masculine: In the documentary, friends describe him as “a wonderful make-out artist” and “an alpha male.” Captain of the tennis team at Yale, Richards went on to medical school, served in the Navy and set up an ophthalmology practice.

Despite the outward appearance of success, Richards was in turmoil. Another entity, dubbed “Renée,” was gradually conquering Dick and, in the late ‘60s, he began taking female hormones. Richards was “halfway to becoming Renée” when he met and fell in love with a young model. The couple married in 1970, and had a son, Nick. It was Richards’ last attempt to lead a “normal” life, but it was doomed: In 1975, the couple divorced. Richards underwent gender reassignment surgery and moved to Southern California.

Richards hoped to live a quiet, anonymous life as a woman, but her competitive streak quickly got in the way. After Richards won a local tennis tournament, rumors began to swirl about her. The United States Tennis Assn. deemed that all female players had to submit to a chromosomal gender test to compete in sanctioned tournaments. Richards refused, and took her case to the New York Supreme Court.

Unwittingly, she had become a champion for the transgender cause. The media glare was intense and unforgiving; even Bob Hope cracked jokes about her on “The Tonight Show.”

Though Richards describes herself as a “private person” and a reluctant activist, Drath says, “There’s a duality that exists with Renée. There a desire to just be like any other woman, and then there’s this need to be known and be a worldwide exhibitionist.”

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After five years as a coach and player, Richards returned to medicine in the early ‘80s. But her post-tennis personal life has not been without complications. She and her son Nick, now pushing 40, share a loving, though complicated, relationship. Nick still refers to Richards as “dad,” and he is unsparingly critical of her “selfish” decision to pursue a tennis career. Yet he is also acutely sensitive to Richards’ plight. In what may be the film’s most incisive moment, Nick observes that his father is “at a place in between torment and happiness now.”

Richards remains, at best, ambivalent about her status as a transgender pioneer. On the one hand, she doesn’t regret her decision to undergo surgery any more than one might regret an emergency blood transfusion. “I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t not do it,” she says in “Renée.”

Yet Richards also recognizes how her decision to pursue tennis forever altered the course of her life.

“It was a crossroads. I could have gone back to my office in California, and the hullabaloo would have died down. But I didn’t,” she said, shrugging ever so slightly.

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These days, Richards does not think transsexual athletes should be allowed to compete professionally. “I don’t think it’s a level playing field, even though the International Olympic Committee, in its utter wisdom, has declared that it is,” she explained. (Richards argues that, because she was significantly older than many of her opponents, any advantage she might have had was effectively nullified.)

Richards also bristles at the notion that, as a transgender person, she is somehow obligated to carry the torch. As she put it, “You can be Jewish without being a rabbi.”

When asked about Bono and Caster Semenya, the elite South African runner who was forced to take a gender test after her unexpected victory at the 2009 World Championships, Richards speaks in dispassionate, clinical terms. “I think that Caster Semenya is a different story [from me]. She appears to have ambiguous genitalia. Chaz Bono is a transgender, but he’s a kind of unique case, too, because he hasn’t had sex reassignment surgery, so that’s not exactly the same thing.”

Given such mixed feelings about her legacy, how will Richards respond to renewed media scrutiny? Drath said that Richards, who saw the film for the first time when it premiered at this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival, was pleased with the finished results — for the most part. “I asked her, ‘Did you like it?’ She said, ‘Very much. But one thing: I can’t believe my friends called me an alpha male.’”

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