Wait, Sally Ride is dead?
Wait, Sally Ride was a lesbian?
Yesterday I was delighted to learn that there are finally American athletes among the gay Olympians (go Megan Rapinoe!) I was thinking about my own Olympic ambitions*, and about the complex way that adults relate to (or reject) their childhood dreams and idols.
This morning, reading the news, I stopped cold at this paragraph from the end of Sally Ride's obituary:
Survivors include her mother, Joyce; and a sister. She is also survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. The two women co-wrote several books, including "The Third Planet" (1994), which won the American Institute of Physics Children's Science Writing Award.I had to read that paragraph several times to be sure it said what I thought it said. Sally Ride was a lesbian? The Washington Post and New York Times chose language so quaint they could have used the phrase "Boston marriage". But at least they mentioned Dr. O'Shaughnessy as a survivor, so she's ahead of Annie Leibovitz. But that's not my point.
My point is that Dr. Sally Ride -- astrophysicist, astronaut, pioneer, inspiration to millions of women of all ages including this astrodyke -- was a lesbian.
Counting backwards twenty-seven years, Drs. Ride and O'Shaughnessy must have begun their relationship in 1985. In 1985, Dr. Ride was still a NASA astronaut in training for her third mission. Being gay was still legitimate grounds for dismissal from federal employment. The president refused to say the word AIDS. In 1985, there were absolutely no out lesbian role models, except infamously Ride's mentor Billie Jean King, who in 1981 had lost every sponsor after being outed. There are closets and then there are closets.
I am trying to imagine how Dr. Ride must have felt in 1985, as one of the most recognizable women on the planet, when she realized that she was falling in love with another woman. As an intensely analytic person, she must have tallied the magnitude of the potential public scandal. Can you imagine if she'd been outed in 1987? I have to wonder if the weight of it didn't accelerate her departure from NASA.
I hate the closet, and have little empathy for anyone who chooses it today. We all have a duty to come out, to live openly and honestly. To do otherwise is to lie about who we are and what we value.
I can say that today. But take a moment and put yourself in Sally Ride's astronaut booties circa 1985. Can you really blame her for not coming out? Yes, I wish she'd come out in her retirement. It would have accelerated our nation's evolution toward respect for its LGBT citizens, and it would have washed away continuing discrimination toward lesbians in traditionally male-dominated professions.
It's hard enough to think back to the attitudes of the 1980s, when Sally Ride was asked at press conferences if she'd wear a bra in space. But as much as women's rights have advanced, LGBT rights have advanced much further. In terms of societal acceptance of LGBT people, 1985 might as well have been a hundred years earlier, when Willa Cather was passing as a man at U. Nebraska. A person can only be a pioneer so many times.
Sally Ride broke down barriers for women in physics, science, space, and government, inspiring and enabling many of us -- gay and non-gay -- to pursue our dreams. I honor her life and mourn her death.
And I think back to the young girl I was in 1988, when I attended a lecture by Dr. Sally Ride at the local college, and got an autograph that I still have. In 1988 Sally Ride had been in love with her partner for 3 years. In 1988 I was a little kid with stars in her eyes, who had heard that women couldn't be scientists or astronauts, but who knew that couldn't be true, because there was Dr. Sally Ride.
Sally Ride was a role model, a scientist, an explorer, a lesbian, an incredible woman.