Thinking of Caitlyn Jenner, Remembering Renee Richards

06/04/2015 02:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

It's been fascinating to watch the rapid cultural change regarding trans people. As much as the transformation of American attitudes toward gay marriage has 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 biological 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. The volume and thrust of the attention Caitlyn Jenner's story has received is the latest and most ringing example of this larger cultural shift.

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 being an amateur male tennis player. He became famous as a woman -- Renee Richards, one of the very first prominent transsexual-identifying 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 Renee before and after transition).

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 Illustrated magazines 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. 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 40 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 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 on 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, Richard and Renee now are one and the same person.

You can follow my musings on ESPN and other sports media here.