Tuesday, July 24, 2012


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.


arcaneistic said...

I totally agree with everything you have written.

Yet, unfortunately, while things have progressed so much since the 1980's, I am saddened to see that there were an awful lot of bigoted opinions, via various social media, regarding Sally Ride's partner even being mentioned.

After reading this article via space.com http://bit.ly/OxIji3 I was compelled to write a comment because the comment with the highest amount of likes at that point in time, written by a James Franklin, totally missed the point, as most have done.

My reply on the space.com article is as follows and sums up how I feel:

"People have been complaining that it is mentioned that Sally Ride had a same sex partner.
As is probably the sentiments of many people, one woman was complaining that Sally Ride was being reduced to "her sex life"......This woman proved she is just another ignoranus, thinking that same sex couples are nothing more than the sex they have.

If a straight person's husband or wife is mentioned as being part of their life, no one thinks that they are only being mentioned because of the sex they had but because they were a huge part of their life.

She also whined about why should she have to tell her kids.

Tell her kids what? At most, that Sally Ride was a great astronaut and physicist and that her female partner of 27yrs is sometimes mentioned [rightly so] in the news articles / obituaries. The same as any other partner and or children [etc] usually are.

I mean she could also take the opportunity to educate her child about why bigotry is wrong and how although Sally Ride achieved great things for her country, that her partner will, by law, be unrecognized and denied the federal benefits that she would have received, if she were in a straight relationship.

Exactly what do people like this complaining woman think that they think have to tell their children!

Finally, If NASA do not want to include gay partners in their bio's then they should leave out any mention of all partners.

I love all things space related but it bothers me that NASA have not included Sally's partner on her updated biography. I understand the connection to the military and can see how this has influenced NASA, however we are talking about an organization built up of highly intelligent people, most of which would be or should accepting of differences."

Through my own harsh experiences, I know all to well the rights same sex couples are denied, which people have no idea about when making such flippant remarks such as "who she slept with".

If people respect the great work that Sally Ride achieved for her country and the world, as an astronaut and physicist, then they should care if she was able to be honest about her life and they should care if those since are able to do that.

smapdi said...


Laura said...

Great piece. It made me realize something. Sally Ride was one of my heroes when I was a teenager. Thinking about her death, I realize she was one of the reasons I love science fiction. Because science fiction, and women like her, offered the promise that Some Day, at least in a science fictional future, I could be a real full citizen, and not “just a girl.” The fact that she could have been fired for loving who she loved infuriates me beyond the power of words to say.

Anonymous said...

I can't resist -- what was the answer to whether she wore a bra in space?? I think it's a legitimate question. Are bouncing or floating boobs so socially unacceptable that they need to be tied down even when there's no "down"?

I also hope you'll soften your lack of empathy for ANYONE closeted today. There are a lot of cultures in the world, including within the US, and we can't know everyone's circumstances.