Did you know that Fallon Fox WASN’T the first transgender athlete to participate in professional sports?
Most of us know who Fallon Fox is.
For those of you who don’t (and have seemingly been living under a rock), Fox is a professional Mixed-Martial Arts fighter.
She has garnered a significant following of admirers and fans, and she was recently inducted into the 2014 National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame for her visibility and activism as a transgender athlete. Fox has continually had to break down barriers since she began her career as a fighter, and along the way she’s had to fight just as hard outside of the ring as she does inside of it.
But she’s not the first one to take on the fight. Long before Fallon Fox, there was Renee Richards.
Renee Richards was a well-known doctor and a professional male tennis player for many years. She transitioned fully in 1975 and began playing tennis against other women. Her personal story is filled with a heavy mixture of discrimination, heartache, determination and triumph. It’s so compelling, in fact, that it was featured in a 2011 ESPN documentary called simply, Renee. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.)
In 1976, Richards took a courageous step forward and brazenly entered the U.S. Open to compete in the women’s bracket. But the United States Tennis Association denied her entry because of a discriminatory “women-born-women” policy. Richards fought the policy, and the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor. She was able to compete. It was a groundbreaking decision and one that initiated the beginning of a long, hard fight for transgender rights and policies that is still going on today.
“I didn’t do it to become a role model or a pioneer for transgender rights or the disenfranchised,” Richards said in an ESPN interview with Outside The Lines. “I did it because I wanted to play tennis. I wanted not to be denied the right to play if I felt like it.”
Richards continued to play professionally from 1977 to 1981. Her greatest accomplishment on the tennis court was reaching the doubles final in her first appearance in the U.S. Open—the one that she was initially banned from playing in. Richards retired at the age of 47 and went on to coach Martina Navratilova to two Wimbledon championships. But the most amazing thing about Richards’accomplishments is that she did it all at a time when the language regarding transgender rights in sports—and transgender rights in general—didn’t even exist.
Richards was rightfully inducted in the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2013 and her legacy lives on in all of us.