ESPN’s Emmy-nominated 30 for 30 documentary, now available for purchase as the nESPN Films Collection DVD gift set, may leave LGBT viewers conflicted over Renée, the sometimes-heartbreaking story of Renée Richards and her battle to compete in the 1977 U.S. Open as the first transsexual tennis player. Richards, an Ivy League–educated scholar and opthamologist (who prefers the term transsexual to transgender), is an unlikely trans hero, a woman who paved the way for trans athletes three decades ago but now insists that she shouldn’t have been allowed to play. It’s this Renée that is captured on-screen in the eponymous doc: slightly belligerent, proud, and often tragic, carrying the burden of having been a moving target, the first of her kind in the public eye.
As a child, director Eric Drath saw Richards play at the U.S. Open. “What made it strange was that four years earlier, my sister had gone to see Dr. Richard Raskind for an eye problem,” he says. “Now that same person was strutting onto the main court in a skirt as a woman named Renée Richards. However strange the incident appeared, the subject quickly disappeared from our family’s dinner table conversation. But I never forgot about it, and from time to time I would wonder about why Dr. Raskind became a woman.”
Drath later researched Richards’s life and found out she had a son around his age. He recalls thinking, “Wow. Having a father who had a sex change, what was that like? So began my journey into this story.”
The documentary tracks down Richards’s son and unpacks the family’s emotional baggage for the cameras. Drath’s talks with Richards — once a charismatic Navy vet who couldn’t cope with the desire to be a woman — are interwoven with interviews with tennis legends, family, friends, and transgender experts. All of it makes for an engaging, wrenching, and purely unflinching look at a mother, a trailblazer, an athlete, and a woman — regardless of how she got there.