For many months in 1976 and '77 the country's sports pages and television screens and conversations in medical, psychiatric and purely social circles were awash with the names Dr. Richard Raskind and Dr. Renee Richards. Raskind, an eminent eye specialist and, to a much lesser extent, tournament tennis player, had undergone transsexual treatment and surgery and become Richards, and was seeking certification as a female tournament player. What should be done about this?
This is an article from the March 28, 1983 issue
Many of the answers to that question in print, on TV and even in medical circles at the time were ill-informed or emotionally intemperate or merely smart-alecky nonsense. Now Richards (with writer John Ames) offers her account of the events leading up to her transsexual experience, the treatment itself and its aftermath (Second Serve, Stein and Day, $16.95). It's a provocative book about a remarkable person—perhaps two remarkable people.
Dick Raskind was raised in Queens, N.Y., the second child of Dr. S. Muriel Bishop, a neurologist-turned-psychiatrist who kept her maiden name when she married, and Dr. David Raskind, an orthopedist. (Although the author doesn't say so in her book, she has changed the names of her mother and some other members of the family.) Five years before Dick's birth, Bishop had had a girl whom, in frustration over the fact that the child had not been a boy, she named Michael. Beginning almost in infancy, Dick would get up early, climb into his parents' bed and cling to his mother until she arose. He stayed with her while she bathed and dressed, fascinated by the transformation of the warm, feminine person with whom he slept into the severely tailored, aggressive person prepared to compete in her male-dominated profession. This daily routine persisted—astonishingly—until Dick was on the verge of adolescence. Not surprisingly, psychiatrists today believe that such childhood experiences can later cause sexual confusion.
Dick's father, devoted to a busy practice, left home early and came back late. But even when he was there, the household was thoroughly dominated by the presence, the commands and the loud and often querulous voice of his mother. Early on, his older sister and mother dressed Dick regularly in girls' clothing, while Michael was encouraged to dress and act like a tomboy. Apparently this didn't distress Dick too much, but once, when he was forced into a dress and lace underwear for a neighborhood children's party, he rebelled; he was overwhelmed and dragged off to the party and cringed at the memory of the experience for years. His father never interfered with any of this.
One wonders what was going through the minds of these two highly trained professionals that permitted—or, perhaps, impelled—them to establish such a psychologically nightmarish home environment. On the evidence of this book, they didn't think about it at all; years later, when Dick finally apprised them of his transsexuality, his mother was astonished. "But, Dick, you were such a normal boy!" she exclaimed. She never once discussed any aspect of his transsexuality with him before she died in the early '60s. David Raskind has not broached the subject to this day.
Whatever else happened to Dick as he grew up, he also developed into a fine athlete. He won his first of many tennis club championships at age 10. A quarterback and end in football, he also was good enough as a prep pitcher to attract the attention of major league scouts (after throwing a no-hitter and once striking out the side on nine pitches in relief). In his late teens he stood 6'1", weighed about 180, was strongly muscled and, while not exceptionally fast, was a dangerous tennis opponent for all but the top players in the game. He was captain of the Yale team; twice won the All-Navy championship while serving as a lieutenant commander at St. Albans Hospital; won the New York State clay-court title in 1964; and was still ranked sixth nationally in the men's 35-and-over division in 1972. If these successes sound kind of neat but hardly all that exceptional, they become extraordinary in the light of several considerations. In contrast to many of today's tennis champions, Raskind was a serious student, apprentice or practitioner in a demanding discipline even while he played serious tennis: through Ivy League pre-med, medical school at the University of Rochester, two years of seven-days-a-week internship at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, two years of residency at Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital and two more as chief eye surgeon at St. Albans, caring for Vietnam war victims.
For nine of those years he also was undergoing five-sessions-a-week psychoanalysis. From about the age of three until transsexual surgery at the age of 40, his inner life was a maelstrom of psychic warfare, threatening daily to tear him apart and expose him to friends and colleagues unaware of his plight.
Second Serve's thesis is that inside Richard Raskind there were always two people, Dick and Renee, battling for ascendancy. Life as a homosexual was no solution, though Richard tried it. Dick, the book claims, was a fully heterosexual male, and Renee is a fully heterosexual female. Dick's clear advantages were his well-developed masculine body and public recognition as a male. When he was in full command, Richard's sex life was a series of successful affairs with beautiful women, all covered in explicit detail in this book. He married in 1970 and fathered a child. Under Renee's sway, Richard acquired an extensive wardrobe of women's clothes and used them regularly in nighttime forays to transsexual hangouts wherever he lived and on vacation trips to Europe. Psychiatric help was unavailing; indeed, his last analyst (for three years) was no less a personage than the head of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, whose behavior, in the face of Richard's implacable problems, seems almost farcical. Eventually Richard sought transsexual treatment and surgery and, after many abortive attempts, got it at Physicians' Hospital in Queens. This process, too, is explicitly set forth in Second Serve.
Medical opinion on the causes and possible cures of cases of sexual confusion, which are far more widespread than many suppose, is highly fragmented. Nevertheless, most psychoanalysts don't accept the book's description of Richard's problem or the solution he submitted to. They think that sexual confusion stems largely from fantasizing, however induced, and should be treated as early as possible in childhood by traditional or innovative methods other than surgery. One highly respected institution specializing in the subject—the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic—suspended its own surgical procedures some years ago, did follow-up studies on its patients and hasn't resumed transsexual operations.
In 1977, after much flap, tennis officialdom accepted Richards as a woman; today, so do her eye patients and, she says, the men in her life. Except for the inability to bear children, she asserts, she's a whole woman. The book makes her case.