Thinking about Caitlyn Jenner, Remembering Renee Richards

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It’s been fascinating to watch the rapid cultural change regarding trans people. As much as the transformation of American attitudes toward gay marriage have swept across the country like a prairie fire over the past decade, the emergence of transsexual and transgender identities in mainstream culture in recent years has been no less breathtaking. This isn’t merely a matter of idle curiosity, of course. Lives are at stake, particularly given the extraordinarily high reported suicide and attempted suicide rates among transgender individuals, and the countless lives and families submerged and broken by fear of living out what has, until recently, been a profoundly stigmatized way of being. Of course, many, many people still find uncomfortable or unacceptable the reality of gender identity as anything apart from the physiological sex characteristics with which one is born. But a sphere of acceptability has been carved out that has changed dramatically the possibilities for trans people to live self-determined lives. One manifestation of that change has been that we’re now hearing from transgender people and others with gender fluid identities speaking openly about their experiences in high-profile venues.

One small, but telling example of this was a conversation yesterday on ESPN radio. When I tuned into Dan LeBatard on the drive home, there was a discussion in progress with a writer who was discussing his Vanity Fair profile of Caitlyn Jenner. I haven’t yet read the piece and the writer’s voice was not familiar to me. For a few minutes, the conversation focused on Jenner’s three wives and what they knew and didn’t know during the course of their respective relationships with Jenner. In the midst of this, the writer very briefly and offhandedly mentioned that he himself sometimes wears women’s clothing. It was a quick enough aside that I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly, or whether the writer was making some kind of joke. Two minutes later, as the back and forth continued, LeBatard stopped and asked something to the effect that “did you say two minutes ago that you sometimes wear women’s clothing?” At this point, the writer, who turned out to be Buzz Bissinger – author of Friday Night Lights – elaborated, by saying yes he did, that he’s been doing it for a long time, that it makes him feel sexy and alive, that he enjoys it, that his wife and kids know about it and that he’s not at all ashamed of it.

Two things about this kind of floored me:

1) That this conversation about cross-dressing not as  an opportunity to crack jokes or mock the practice, but instead as a relevant matter of identity to be treated seriously, was taking place on ESPN radio.

2) that it was Buzz Bissinger, an older sportswriter dude who’s been well known for many years now (Friday Night Lights – one of the all-time great sports books – came out in 1990), and has been most prominently in the public eye in recent known in recent years as a curmudgeon decrying the changing and coarsening of our culture. He made something of a fool of himself in a public exchange a few years ago with Will Leitch, then of Deadspin, in a kids-get-off-my-lawn rant. In 2012, he attacked on twitter the excellent young writer Jamelle Bouie, when Bouie raised questions about Bissinger’s decision – after a lifetime of voting Democratic – to pull the lever for Mitt Romney against Obama in 2012. The two eventually had a productive conversation in print, but this only came after Bissinger was a nasty prick to Bouie on twitter, calling him, among other choice things a “fuckhead.” (yes, the same Bissinger who, in the previous rant against Leitch, had decried the profanity of the internet).

As a friend said to me when we spoke last night, Bissinger’s appearance on LeBatard upended my Buzz Bissinger schema. It also revealed to me my own ingrained notions of the “typical” profile of a transgender person (not that Bissinger identifies himself in that way) or, in any event, someone with a more fluid notion of their own gender identity, or someone who sometimes cross-dresses.

None of what Bissinger said yesterday tells us anything about whether he’s a good, decent, empathetic human being. But it was an eye-opening moment for me, as it seems the coverage of Caitlyn Jenner has been for many, in prompting many of us to re-think how we use surface-level characteristics and cues to form deeper judgments about our co-humans. In that way, what I heard from Bissinger yesterday was a learning moment for me.

To step back for a moment, the coverage of Caitlyn Jenner this week has me thinking about an early-in-life experience I had with what was – back in the 1970s, to the extent that it was discussed at all – typically referred to as trans-sexualism. I was born cross-eyed (Strabismus is the preferred medical term). It compromised my vision and necessitated surgery when I was five years old, in early 1971. That surgery was performed by a noted ophthalmologist, Dr. Richard Raskin. I remember Dr. Raskin well – he was a kind, caring and excellent doctor. He also happened to be physically striking – tall and handsome, facts that always made an impression on me when I saw him. I had numerous follow-up appointments with him in the years after the surgery, until I was about ten. Raskin was, at this time, a top male amateur tennis player, not that I had any awareness of that during the time I was a patient in his care.

Richard Raskin became famous not for his work as an eye doctor or an amateur male tennis player. He became famous as a woman – Renee Richards, one of the very first prominent transsexual individuals in the United States. Raskin became Renee in 1975 and eventually decided to play professionally as a woman, which she did with a good deal of success between 1977 and 1981 (by which time she was 47). Richards faced a storm of controversy, befuddlement and derision for who she was (some of which was chronicled in a television movie, based on Richards’ memoir, starring Vanessa Redgrave, who played both Richard and Renee). Some time in the summer of 1977 or 1978, when I was 11 or 12, my mom awkwardly tried to tell me what had happened to Dr. Raskin. She imagined that the news would be upsetting to me so rather than explain it to me herself, she directed me to the pile of Sports Illustrateds in my room to read an article about a female tennis player named Renee Richards. At first, I was indeed stunned. I didn’t really know how to make sense of what I was reading, as the vivid images of the person who became Renee Richards in my mind were still those of Dr. Raskin, so that every time I thought about Renee Richards I had a jarring split screen in my head.

It’s been nearly forty years since I last saw the doctor who took such good care of me. When I see pictures of Dr. Renee Richards today, I confess I still have something of that that split screen in my head, though the line down the middle is more blurred. But in addition to coming to terms with the passage of time etched in her face, photos of Richards today prompt fondness for the person before me. It mattered profoundly to Renee Richards to live as her true self. All that mattered to me was the warm, comforting manner and the great skill that my doctor possessed. In that respect, as in so many others, the man then and the woman now are one and the same person.

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