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I am no expert for Bruce Jenner

I am familiar with the challenges of sex transition, but only one person can decide whether it’s worth it

February 22, 2015 2:00AM ET

In 1976, after I competed in a women’s tennis tournament in La Jolla, California, I was outed for my sex change from man into woman. My landmark court case in 1977 allowed me to play professional tennis as a woman, which made me forever a pioneer for the rights of disenfranchised groups of diverse type. Ever since the disclosure, I have gotten calls from the media to comment on all matters transgender.

The calls have returned the past few months, with rumors rampant that I have been advising Bruce Jenner on his forthcoming disclosures. I met Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion, only once, at a Women’s Sports Foundation dinner in 1981. It seems absurd to me to be called his coach on a life-changing event. It reminds me of the famous line “A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient.”

The challenges facing anyone going through the process of transition (a new word for me — when I did all this, it hadn’t been invented) are momentous and many, but for someone who is a public figure, there are many more. Bruce Jenner is a famous athlete and until recently was married to Kris Jenner (formerly Kardashian), whose family activities are followed by millions of people on the reality TV show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and in the media.

When I went through my change, I did what others did at the time: I told a few close friends and one family member, changed my name, moved from New York to California, had my new name put on all my diplomas and listed in the medical license bureau in Sacramento, got my birth certificate sex designation changed and started a new life. Woodworking, it was called — merging into the woodwork, becoming anonymous, going into stealth mode. Only my closest friends in California knew of my past, and the doctor who was kind enough to keep me as an associate in his office after he found out tried to ensure my privacy. I returned to New York infrequently, masquerading as a man, to visit my son. After I was outed, my life was never private again.

Bruce Jenner is starting from that point already. No stealth mode for her — as she will be known after the transition. No anonymity, no opportunity to lead a private new life as a woman. Some transsexuals who are not public figures don’t always opt for secrecy. It is a choice for most, but it wasn’t for me after La Jolla, and it isn’t for Jenner now.

The challenges she will face would have been onerous enough if they were private. They include the decision about how much medical and surgical transformation she is willing to endure. Facial-hair removal, Adam’s apple reduction, mammoplasty and hormonal treatment are only the preliminary tasks. Then the struggle for social “acceptability,” learning to sound like a woman, dress like a woman, look like a woman — makeup, hair, manicures, superficial aspects. How about being accepted as such by family, friends, co-workers and the public at large? Will people see and accept her as a woman or as something different? How many times will she have to hear “he” and “him” when she stands in front of someone, presenting herself as much as a woman as she can? It’s bad enough to hear “Yes, sir” at the other end of the telephone, but what about someone face to face calling her “sir”? Hard to believe, but it happens. 

Now I have all the problems of a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman.

Christine Jorgensen

Trans woman pioneer

People often try to be correct. Others just appear oblivious. It is easier for some than for others. I remember once, when a person trying to be politically correct said to my adult son, “Your mother will be here soon” when they were waiting for me. My son replied, “Renee is my father. I already have a mother.” I also remember shortly after my change became public, a little girl, the daughter of a close friend, upon hearing the news, said, “Oh, now Nicky has two mommies!”

What about hormonal effects on mood — testosterone-fueled rages or estrogen-driven mood swings? Not to speak of age. The younger, the better. Who wants to start life as an old woman? Christine Jorgensen, the first trans pioneer of the last century said on her 50th birthday, “Now I have all the problems of a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman.”

What chance for romance? And friends? Old fraternity brothers, new sorority sisters? What shifting of gears will they have to make? I remember my closest golf friend never let me play from the red tees, the ladies’ tees, even years after my change. Only when I approached 80 did I have his permission. And I feel good that in my case I can say I lost only two of my close friends because of my change, and one of them was not even bothered over my being a woman; it was over my playing tennis as a pro. And then the whole issue of sexual relations. Transgender people come in all varieties when it comes to sexual orientation — heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual. Will that change along with the transition? (Not likely.)

No longer a father? A brother A husband? A son? The acceptance of a parent is often very difficult, sometimes impossible. Same for siblings. For children, sometimes a younger one adjusts better, sometimes an older. For the younger ones, usually staying close is more important than the parent’s wearing a dress. Sometimes the sons do better, sometimes the daughters. Some siblings never accept the new persona. I know from experience.

How about earning a living? Most are not so lucky that they do not need to make a living. Will the occupation before the change be available after? What about licensure in some professions, opportunities for advancement, relationships with co-workers, the bathroom? Yes, always the bathroom! Having a sex change sometimes makes it very difficult to be a wage earner.

The law has made great strides in recent years in acceptance and protection of transgender people. There are organizations that give aid and counsel. In the workplace there are guidelines, and the government recognizes and legitimizes those who are transgender. Still, transgender people are subject to higher rates of murder, beatings and hatred than almost all other such minorities. They also suffer a higher suicide rate, both pre- and post-sex-change surgery, than most other minorities. There is work to be done.

True, one doesn’t have to be in stealth mode anymore, unless it is desired. The most important question is not how the law or community will react. It is still the one which the individual has to answer personally: Is this momentous odyssey right for me or not? And no one — not me, not an “expert,” not a therapist, not some guru — can answer that question for someone else.

How sage was the derisive headline in the Canadian press one time after I was heard to give advice on the subject. The headline blared, “Doc says, ‘Do as I say, not as I do!’” I have said enough on the subject. I wish Jenner well. I predict that in her new persona, she will do just fine. It seems to me that a sex change does not undo an intact, productive, contributing, beloved member of society.

But remember, I am no expert.

Dr. Renee Richards is an ophthalmologist in New York. She is the first athlete to play successfully in professional sports as a transsexual. She also coached Martina Navratilova to titles in all four Grand Slam tennis championships. She is the author, most recently, of "Spy Night and Other Memories."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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