Box Turtle Bulletin

Box Turtle BulletinNews, analysis and fact-checking of anti-gay rhetoric
“Now you must raise your children up in a world where that union of man and box turtle is on the same legal footing as man and wife…”
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Posts for August, 2013

Sally Ride, Bayard Ruston Named Presidential Medal of Freedom Honorees

Jim Burroway

August 8th, 2013

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy innaugurated the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, the White House has announced sixteen new recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor, with two gay honorees on the list:

Sally Ride (posthumous)
Sally Ride was the first American female astronaut to travel to space. As a role model to generations of young women, she advocated passionately for science education, stood up for racial and gender equality in the classroom, and taught students from every background that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. Dr. Ride also served in several administrations as an advisor on space exploration.

Bayard Rustin (posthumous)
Bayard Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.

When Sally Ride flew aboard a Space Shuttle Challenger flight in 1983, she became the first American woman in space. She flew again on the Challenger a year later and 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. When she died last summer, her obituary revealed that she was survived by her partner of 27 years.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Rustin is credited with teaching King about the principles of nonviolent protest when he met King during the Montgomery bus boycott, techniques Rustin honed during the first Freedom Rides in 1947 (for which Rustin spent 22 days on a chain gang for violating North Carolina’s Jim Crow laws). Rustin’s sexuality was often used against him by enemies of segregation and, later, by more militant members of the Black Power movement. He was forced to resign from King’s organization during the bus boycott, but King turned to Rustin to organize the 1963 March on Washington. In the end, King and other civil rights leaders refused to abandon him and expressed their confidence in Ruston’s abilities.

Other honorees include Chicago Cubs’ Earnie Banks, journalist Ben Bradlee, former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Daniel Inouye (posthumous), Nobel-laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Sen. Richard Lugar, Country singer Loretta Lynn, Nobel-laureate environmental scientist Mario Molina, Cuban-born jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, feminist author Gloria Steinem, civil right leader Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, Judge Patricia Wald … and Oprah.

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.