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Sally Ride’s Legacy

A commentary

Jim Burroway

July 24th, 2012

I first learned about the death of pioneering astronaut Sally Ride from this CNN report. When she flew aboard a Space Shuttle Challenger flight in 1983, she became the first American woman in space. She took another trip aboard the Challenger a year later. She was scheduled for a third mission, but it was cancelled after the Challenger exploded shortly after take-off in 1986. She served on the accident review crew for that flight, and served again in the investigation of the 2003 Columbia accident.

All of that was covered in the CNN report, as with all of the other obituaries. But there was one line which, at the moment of her death, has overshadowed all of her accomplishments in life. It was this:

Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, her mother, her sister and other family members.

Look around the blogs and tell me what you see. What are they talking about? Her accomplishments? Or the fact of her partner? Andrew Sullivan, for example, reacted:

I’m not so understanding. We can judge this decision in the context of Ride’s life. Her achievements as a woman and as a scientist and as an astronaut and as a brilliant, principled investigator of NASA’s screw-ups will always stand, and vastly outshine any flaws. But the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to.

She was the absent heroine.

An absent heroine? Really?

When she took her first flight in 1983, I was a year away from graduating with an Engineering degree. There was exactly one woman in my sixty-some member class. The male-female ratio in many of the hard sciences was typically greater than the straight-nonstraight ratio in the general population. Even within my graduating class, gays outnumbered women. I’m still not sure that has changed much since then. Ride most certainly expanded people’s horizons in ways that I think, sadly thirty years later, many still fail to see.

I don’t know what it says about us that we expect — demand, really — that anyone who gains any kind of achievement, fame, or notoriety, they must accede to our demands and come out of the closet — which we define not in terms of acknowledging their relationships to their friends, familes, neighbors, coworkers and others who are important to them, but to reporters, bloggers and PR specialists who are important to us.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to those who do come out publicly and with great fanfare. I appreciate their value as role models. But isn’t it one of the goals that we are striving to achieve that everyone can live their own lives as publicly — and as privately — as they wish, for whatever reason they may wish it? Isn’t our fight a fight for self-determination and against the interference of busybodies who would presume to tell us how we should live based on what they think we should do?

I’m not going to second-guess her any more than I’ve second-guessed anyone else’s decision in how much they want to disclose about themselves, as long as they don’t act in a way that is hypocritical or in conflict with those in similar situations who choose differently. It’s why I was never all that agitated over Anderson Cooper’s decision until recently not to discuss his personal life for so many years. Sally Ride was a hero in the way that she chose — and fought — to be a hero, and there are many women and young girls today who are rightfully grateful for it. I can live with that.

Comments

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Michael K
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

Every time I am close to changing my mind about how much I loathe Andrew Sullivan he goes and confirms exactly why I feel the way I do about him.

Charles
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

In the late 1970s when she was accepted for the astronaut program, she would have surely been rejected if she disclosed her sexual orientation. And, at one time was even married to another male astronaut. It is too bad we will never hear her whole story. She died too young.

Steve
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

It would have been nice for her to come out after she left NASA, but she just chose to focus her activism elsewhere. She was *huge* about expanding your girls’ horizons about women in science. That’s really what much about her later life was about.

Raybob
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

You said it best:

“Ride most certainly expanded people’s horizons in ways that I think, sadly thirty years later, many still fail to see.”

JimInMa
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

She certainly had no obligation to be out publicly. Just like the rest of us. Her accomplishments should stand for themselves. She’s an inspiration to anybody, and I’d say is a terrific role model to any girls interested in the sciences. The fact that she was lesbian is just one more reason to admire her strength. I don’t care when this news came out.

Ray
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

I think the closet is terrible and NASA is no different than being in the armed forces during the height of DADT and WWII & Viet Nam purges. One of my dear friends worked as a scientist for NASA during the McCarthy era and was forced to bury his personal life to the extent that he was still paranoid about outing himself when he was in his 90s. I’d even say his closet experience made his screwy and his parter of 62 years an alcoholic after enduring that paranoia for decades.

This just reminds me of the costs of the closet.

tristram
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

I lived through those years and can only admire the courage and determination it must have taken Sally Ride to achieve what she did. But what really touches me is the incredible love story this must have been. Two girls who met at the age of twelve, forged lives of great accomplishment (in Sally’s case, extraordinary accomplishment), and reunited in their thirties to spend the next 27 years together. Too short a time – my heart goes out to Tam.

Steve
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

It’s certainly true that she could never have been out when she was an active astronaut. But she was out in her personal life to her family and friends. I’ve even read a few comments here and there, that some people at NASA knew about it later on.

Steve
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

Btw, I think it’s wrong to say that her being gay has overshadowed her accomplishments. It really hasn’t. The mainstream media isn’t hyping it or anything. It’s mentioned in the obituary (just an opposite-sex spouse would) and maybe there are some specific articles here and there about it. But they mention other things far more extensively. And the comments I’ve read are nearly always about other things too.

But I think it’s fair that this fact is getting more time and attention in LGBT media. That really doesn’t mean that people are reducing her to her sexual orientation.

CPT_Doom
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

From most of the comments I’ve seen, Sullivan is, I am glad to say, in the minority. The expectation someone would out themselves just to help or be an inspiration to others, as the Sullivan quote implies, is ludicrous. More importantly, does he somehow think waiting for her death to come out makes her less of an inspiration to young lesbians? That also seems ridiculous.

It is the catch-22 of being gay or lesbian – we of course have the right to our private lives, but when your private life is the subject of myth, propaganda attacks, lies and distortions – and thus made to seem shameful – by not coming out you are implicitly backing up the notion, even if that is not what you intend. But let’s remember the problem with this line of thinking is that it distorts who is to blame. The real problem are those that traffic in bigotry, prejudice and political attacks, not the people who decide to be private.

I actually liked how Dr. Ride chose to come out, and as Mike Signorile in the Huffington post noted, it is the best example of what Entertainment Weekly described as the new “low-key” method for doing so. It was an elegant, simple statement that did not draw attention to the very big political step it was taking – treating a same-sex relationship in exactly the same way as a “traditional marriage.”

In a weird way, it reminds me of the character Serena coming out on Law and Order. For those who are not procedural junkies, Serena Southerlyn was one of the the show’s revolving Assistant District Attorneys for NYC. Her sexuality is hinted at throughout her multi-season tenure, but is only confirmed when she is fired in her last episode and asks “is this because I’m a lesbian?” The revelation angered many of the show’s fans, especially gays and lesbians, but because the show is in such constant re-run, I think you end up watching Serena’s episodes with a greater understanding of the character. In the same way, this information will enhance our appreciation for what Dr. Ride accomplished.

Muscat
July 24th, 2012 | LINK

I’ve only seen positive responses to the revelation that she was in a same-sex relationship. The only critical comments I’ve seen were that it was shameful her partner won’t be getting her federal spousal benefits.

I wonder if one of the reasons she didn’t disclose publicly is because it would have risked limiting her work/influence towards getting girls and women more interested in science. This was clearly her life’s passion.

MattNYC
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

While I could possibly argue both sides of this, I think my initial reaction–see yesterday’s Agenda–was just one of surprise that–wow, she was a Lesbian–how did I not know that. It is a shame that she will only be added to the LGBT history lessons posthumously. She had every right to her privacy, but I can’t help thinking it was a shame that she couldn’t be that same guiding light (even beyond what she HAS done for all girls/women) in life.

I would say that Muscat is probably right in her reasons for not being out.

Then again, Girl Scouts of America continues to inspire thousands of girls while being a completely gay-affirming (beyond mere “tolerance”) organization. So I suspect it would have been quickly forgotten by the mainstream and she would have been just *that* much more of an example for young Lesbians.

Neil
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

I can’t see any credible argument today to claim sexual orientation as something private. For anyone in the public sphere, dancing around pronouns and ruling all relationships an enigmatic status to avoid conclusions being drawn presents an unedifying spectacle. No straight person does this. Why should lesbians and gay men? How is the mere fact of being lesbian something that must be obscured behind a veil of total privacy?

That said, Sally Ride’s life in the public sphere was in a time when there was a sad necessity in concealment. Her career afterwards wasn’t so spotlit. Maybe she might have chosen to be a role model and made a public announcement. I don’t believe she was obliged. I’m also not sure she wasn’t out in a general sense either.

The position of Queen Latifah today or Anderson Cooper until recently is different. They, as Cooper rightly observed of himself, make their sexuality a much bigger deal by not addressing what is at heart a very simple detail about themselves. The sense there’s an issue to be avoided just implies shame where there should be none.

Charles
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

I was born in the same year as Sally Ride and know the difficulties of the time. However, I do believe that lesbians are treated with a bit more respect than gay males.

Frank
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

I was counting on you to articulate an intelligent response to Mr. Sullivan’s vile characterization of Dr. Ride as an absent heroine. Thank you for doing so. Dr. Ride chose to advance the cause of feminism, and in doing so was a hero to countless women who followed the trail she blazed. The final coda to her life -a reference to her long time spouse – likewise serves as an inspiration for many LGBTQs. Heros follow their own arc, not the dictates of arm-chair philosophers.

Sgt. Lewis
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

I think its a pretty sad state of affairs that people are still more concerned with someone’s personal life than their accomplishments. I never knew that Sally Ride was a lesbian, and honestly (and dont take it the wrong way), I really don’t give a damn that she was. She did a lot to accomplish what she accomplished, and that’s what she should be remembered for. And for Mr. Sullivan to sum up her life in such a fashion clearly indicates that he is no different than a typical homophobe.

Priya Lynn
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

Sgt Lewis, I never knew Sally Ride was a lesbian either, but I’m glad she was. She did come out of the closet after her death and establish herself as a role model for young lesbians so ultimatley she’s done what Andrew Sullivan lamented she had not.

Reed
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

Andrew Sullivan remains an opportunistic ass. Is there NO way to deport him – so that he and his husband can live in the bonds of wedded bliss in his dear old home country of England, where he can frolic in his RC conservatism to his heart’s delight, and generally continue to bore the crap out of a disinterested public?

Mark F.
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

Reed, you are ridiculous. You want someone deported because of a difference of opinion?

BTW, I wish Ride would have “come out.” That’s not to denigrate her very real accomplishments.

Mark F.
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

I really can’t believe people are upset at other people criticizing Ms. Ride for staying in the closet. The closet is the enemy, folks. Progress in gay rights is only possible if people come out. It’s too bad Ms. Ride didn’t believe this, that’s all people like Andrew Sullivan are saying. She still was heroic in other ways, just not for our struggle for equality.

F Young
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

I don’t mean to insult Ride’s memory while her family grieves her death, but since the issue has already been raised and most commenters have disagreed with Andrew Sullivan’s comment, I feel justified in saying that I largely agree with it:
http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/07/a-pleasantly-buried-lead.html

Personally, whenever I find out that a person is needlessly closeted, my respect for them becomes conditional and diminished. I can’t help suspecting that it reflects a lack of honesty, courage, responsibility and charity, perhaps also selfishness, greed and shame.

I can respect their right to decide their own lives as long as they don’t hurt others, but I can hardly admire a person who does not meet the standards I set for myself. So, if their life is otherwise admirable, my respect is diminished.

Of course, there may be valid reasons for being closeted, like avoiding violence and unemployment, but in Ride’s post-astronaut career, these dangers seem unlikely.

I recognize that she may have wanted not to hurt the feelings of people she loved, like her parents, and that is a difficult call to make.

I also recognize that there is a moral difference between lying and secrecy, and I hope that Ride mostly avoided the latter.

Bottom line, I suspect the reason Ride was relatively closeted was mostly because she decided that coming out publicly would damage her credibility as a model for girls interested in science, and she judged that that was more important than being a model for lesbians interested in science or space.

As a result of coming out only at the time of her death, what she now models for lesbians is that, if you want to get ahead and make a difference, it’s okay to hide your sexuality and your most significant relationship throughout your life, if you decide you have to. So, in that sense, I agree she was an absent heroine, as Sullivan said.

Chuck
July 25th, 2012 | LINK

I completely agree with the message in this post. I am tired of people berating people in the gay community and out of it for imagined slights and “not doing enough”. I am quite tired of the “militant gays” and wish they wouldn’t represent my community.

Richard Rush
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

I’ve been conflicted about this, but in the end I largely agree with F Young’s comment.

Regarding Andrew Sullivan: I’ve been a daily reader of his blog (http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/) since about 2001. While I often disagree with him, I probably learn more from his blog than from any other single daily source. He covers a vast array of topics, and includes diverse opinions other than his own. I almost abandoned him as he supported Bush during the run-up and early years of the Iraq war (and I got really tired of reading the term, “this president”), but he’s evolved a lot since then.

Désirée
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

I have to disagree with Andrew Sullivan and thus F. Young by extension here. Ms. Ride chose to not make public her lesbian relationship. It is almost certain that it would have been used against her and hindered her effort to get young girls involved in science. It would have changed her “science is for everyone, even girls” into “science is for boys and lesbian tomboys” which would have been far more damaging than whatever benefit would have been gained by her being out.

Yes, we as gay people need all the role models we can get but it pisses me off when gay people act as if they have some right other people’s story. Sally Ride chose not to be a gay icon, instead she chose to be a female one. She had no obligation or moral duty to be out for the sake of all those young lesbians. Her life was her own, first and foremost. No one else had any right to claim her as a role model *at her expense* and a libertarian-conservative like Andrew Sullivan should know that.

Jim Burroway
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

In my post, I asked two questions that every single person who has lined up against Sally Ride has failed to answer. I didn’t write those questions just to fill up space. They were serious questions, intended to spark thought and discussion. But when minds are made up, I guess questions aren’t needed. But anyway, here they are again:

But isn’t it one of the goals that we are striving to achieve that everyone can live their own lives as publicly — and as privately — as they wish, for whatever reason they may wish it? Isn’t our fight a fight for self-determination and against the interference of busybodies who would presume to tell us how we should live based on what they think we should do?l

Jaime
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

Jim, thank you once again for excellent questions to promote true dialogue and discussion.

F Young
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

Okay, I’ll tackle your questions, Jim:
“But isn’t it one of the goals that we are striving to achieve that everyone can live their own lives as publicly — and as privately — as they wish, for whatever reason they may wish it? Isn’t our fight a fight for self-determination and against the interference of busybodies who would presume to tell us how we should live based on what they think we should do?”

Yes, that would be nice in an ideal world in the future, but we are far from that point now. And when we fail to come out, we delay and endanger that ideal future.

The fact is that homophobes are working feverishly to crush and persecute us, and LGBT kids and adults are dying (and getting addicted, depressed, devalued, etc.) as a result.

They desperately need support, connection, validation, hope and role models. Anyone who refuses to be a role model has decided that their own survival and/or happiness trumps everything else.

I am okay with survival as a rationale for the closet when it is actually true, but, for many, coming out would not threaten their survival. It would only threaten their wealth, comfort, social status and perhaps their sense of security and even joyfulness.

For them, not coming out means they fail to return the favor that they have benefited from, i.e the work of all those who came out and fought and enabled us to have the rights we have now. In that sense it is parasitical.

It is also self-defeating, since the homophobes are always ready to move in and strip us of our rights when they see we are weak, invisible and disorganized.

Priya Lynn
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

F Young, the way I see it if a gay or lesbian feels coming out would “threaten their wealth, comfort, social status and perhaps their sense of security and even joyfulness”, who the hell am I to tell them they should take the risk?

Its admirable when people sacrifice themselves for others and I love it when they do, but I certainly don’t think they have any moral obligation to do so.

Timothy Kincaid
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

Ditto what Priya Lynn said.

ZRAinSWVA
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

Ditto what Priya Lynn said. It was just not possible for me to be out during my early career. There is no question that my company would have fired me, and in my state I have no legal protections.

Neil
July 26th, 2012 | LINK

But isn’t it one of the goals that we are striving to achieve that everyone can live their own lives as publicly — and as privately — as they wish, for whatever reason they may wish it?

I would’ve thought one of our goals is for LGBT people to move beyond feeling the need to adopt an unreasonable degree of privacy. There’s privacy and then there’s hiding.

Isn’t our fight a fight for self-determination and against the interference of busybodies who would presume to tell us how we should live based on what they think we should do?

Which is why posthumously discovering a public figure was LGB or T leads us to express concern that they may have felt undue pressure to appear heterosexual (or cis gender) by default.

Désirée
July 27th, 2012 | LINK

except she wasn’t “hiding.” Her family and friends knew. She just never released a press statement announcing she had joined the club. People like Andrew Sullivan become all righteously indignant when some one doesn’t want to announce their membership to total strangers though

Blake
July 27th, 2012 | LINK

I’m not talking to people where coming out will put them in danger of real physical harm: coming out of the closet means living out. If you’re out to your friends and family and not out to “strangers” than you’re not out. Because most of the time those “strangers” aren’t really strangers. They’re coworkers, they’re acquaintances, they’re fellow church-goers, they’re regulars at your favorite bar. If you’re out word gets out before you die (especially if you’re a celebrity). If you’re hiding you’re hiding (especially if you’re a celebrity). If you’re hiding you’re lending credence to the idea that gay is shameful. If you’re supporting the idea that gay is shameful you are not my ally.

Gay IS good. The Closet is bad. I’m not going to out you. I believe it is still everyone’s personal choice & I wouldn’t have wanted someone else to out me when I was in the closet (golden rule & all) But, seriously, y’all need to come out. Get on it or know that we all know that you’re secretly ashamed of being gay and we resent you for being ashamed. Get on it or know that you’re placing the burden of being out on school kids while you live your wealthy complacent lives.

That is what changes the moral paradigm in this situation. This is not a sacrifice in the sense that you will not gain. When you’re in the closet the only benefits derived are for you while simultaneously you are supporting the idea that gay is not good and denying the benefits of your open life to others. When you come out you subject yourself to potential harm while granting benefits to yourself and many others. This moral calculation is clearly related to your influence. The more you posses the more harm you’re causing by agreeing that gay is shameful by staying in the closet.

I think that is the difference between what I’m asking people to do and busybodies who tell others how to live their lives. Your life in the closet has a direct effect on my and future generations lives outside of the closet. You have a moral obligation to be out.

In my own life it has been simple because the people who came before me, though their true sacrifices, have allowed me to live my life more openly than at any time in recorded history. Has being out closed opportunities to me? Sure. But I rest easy at night, despite my lack of wealth, my lack of influence, my marginal existence, because I know I’ve done my part to pave the way for the next generation. And we can progress along like this with a bunch of little insignificant minions doing our part to slowly advance progress. Or we can continue to demand that those who possess influence in our society do their part. Which, if we’re not going to out them, means pointing out posthumously that they were a coward. That they failed, morally. That, if you’re in a similar situation and you don’t want to be remembered thus, you need to change your life.

Sally Ride will become a role model for gay people in the future (in fact her celebrity as the first gay astronaut is a little more impressive than the 3rd woman in space title she holds) because in posterity she’ll never have been in the closet in the first place. It’s just a shame I couldn’t have benefited from her example before her death and that she withheld that benefit from me for my entire life.

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