Renee Richards expected my call Monday night. Maybe not a call from me, specifically -- but a call from someone like me. From a sports writer wanting to talk about South African runner Caster Semenya, the most famous ambiguously gendered athlete since ... Renee Richards in 1977.
"I knew my phone would ring," she told me from her home in upstate New York. "It always does when something like this happens."
"This" was the weekend emergence of Semenya, 18, as the women's world champion in the 800 meters. Because of Semenya's masculine form and deep voice, the International Association of Athletics Federation tested her genetic makeup to determine, basically, if she's too much of a man to compete against women.
|Despite a sex-change operation, Renee Richards was allowed to play on the women's circuit. (Getty Images)|
In 1977, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Richards -- who was born a man but underwent sex reassignment surgery at age 40 -- should be allowed to compete against women on the professional tennis tour. Richards never won a tour event, but she reached the 1977 U.S. Open doubles finals and was ranked No. 20 in the world in singles in 1979.• Doyel: The ugly side of gender gap
The cases of Semenya and Richards are similar in their sexual ambiguity, but there are significant differences. Let Dr. Renee Richards, still a practicing ophthalmologist at age 75, explain.
"Completely different situations," she says. "I was a transsexual. I was [born] a so-called 'normal' XY [chromosome] male with normal male development who had a sex change and then no longer had any testosterone produced in my body and instead had estrogens taken externally -- and after a period of time my body changed enough so I wasn't an overwhelming physical presence that would dominate any sport I'd play against other women. So after some time it was kind of recognized that I didn't have a great advantage [over other women] and I was allowed to compete.
"That's a totally different situation than somebody who has potentially had this vague intersex from birth -- like this runner. One has nothing to do with the other ... except for how strong someone who's fueled by testosterone would be compared to women."
Here's where Richards' opinion on Caster Semenya gets fascinating. Some might even call it hypocritical. She addressed that, too. You'll see in a second.
Richards thinks Semenya probably shouldn't be allowed to compete against women. That assumes that Semenya has a significant male genetic code, an assumption Richards says she doesn't want to make. But I asked her to make that assumption for the sake of this story. I asked her: What should happen to Caster Semenya's athletic career if testing shows her body produces an abnormal amount of male characteristics?
"Someone may have to say to [Semenya], 'We know it's not your fault, you didn't put anything in yourself of your own doing -- it came by you naturally -- but even so, it may be that you can't compete against other women,'" Richards says. "That just may be the fact of life.
"If your body is fueled by testosterone from an early age, you're going to develop a skeleton and a muscle mass and a type of muscle that is different from that of a normal woman -- so you have this tremendous advantage. That's why they have to be very careful to have men competing with men, and women with women. If she has this body that's fueled or developed under the influence of testosterone, she has a different body than the runner she's running against."
Hearing that, I had to ask Richards if she was being hypocritical. Two years after becoming a woman, hadn't she competed against women after 40 years as a man -- using all that testosterone to build muscle mass unavailable to the average female tennis pro?
"That is true, and if I were 22 when I'd had that sex change, I don't think two years of not being on testosterone would be enough to change that advantage," she says. "But I was 40 when I was competing, so it's totally different, and a judge ruled that I didn't have a significant advantage, and I think that was right. But if I'd been a lot younger and stronger -- say, 22 -- I think it would have been unfair."
Whatever happens with Semenya, Richards says she is saddened that this teenager is facing international questioning about something as private as her gender assignation.
"This poor woman has to be scrutinized," Richards says. "She's naïve, and she probably has no clue what's going on. She probably has less clue than most of the people talking about it. That's what is so sad. This little 18-year-old from South Africa probably doesn't know from XY or XX chromosomes, or the gene SRY on the X chromosome or the Y chromosome, or the sensitivity syndrome because her particular body doesn't 'hear' some of the signals that's been given by a particular gene. This is a very complex genetic and medical situation.
"She probably doesn't see any reason why she can't compete. She's powerful, and she thinks, 'Well, I'm the Michael Jordan of my sport, or the Mike Tyson of my sport. You wouldn't disqualify them because they're so powerful.' That's why you have to get some sort of politburo to go over this issue."
That's Richards' suggestion: A governing body of the finest medical minds -- bioethicists and geneticists -- who would form guidelines for athletes like Semenya, who presumably produce more male characteristics than the typical woman. How much male hormonal and chromosomal makeup is an accepted advantage, and how much is too much? Richards doesn't claim to know.
"They're going to have to put together some kind of a guideline," Richards says. "Some kind of a numbering system to say, 'This is a person who should be allowed to compete as a woman ... and this is a person who should unfortunately not be allowed to compete as a woman.' That's going to be hard, but at some point they're going to have to think about it."
That day seems inevitable, and when it comes, Renee Richards will wait for the phone to ring. It always does when something like this happens.