Sally Ride's Decision to 'Come Out' Posthumously

26 Jul 2012

As we mourn the untimely loss of history-making astronaut Sally Ride, the AP’s David Crary noted that the obituary Ms. Ride co-wrote with her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, has gotten a great deal of attention due to its final line, wherein they “disclosed to the world their relationship of 27 years.”  While it was clear that those close to Ms. Ride had long known of their union, she chose to keep her private life private from millions of others.

That decision has sparked a certain amount of second guessing and disappointment.  I understand the wish for solidarity and a role model but I also honor the fact that Sally Ride preferred her accomplishments stand on their own.  It is possible she felt that the many “firsts” she had achieved would be overshadowed by the label of gay astronaut and would draw away from the very mission she gave herself – to inspire young people and particularly young women to embrace science as a field of study.

Prominent gay blogger Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast (and the Atlantic),would disagree with me.  He stated:

“She had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to,” he wrote. “She was the absent heroine.”

Sarah Blazucki, editor of Philadelphia Gay News, said that:

“It’s still important to come out, because we’re not post-gay yet,” she said. “When we do have full equality, then it’s a different story.”  “In the long run, everyone in the LGBT community and those who will follow benefit from someone coming out,” Blazucki said. “It’s sad that she felt she had to wait.”

Yet openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson acknowledged that Ms. Ride grew up in a time when coming out was “unthinkable,” and stated:

“For girls who had an interest in science and wanted to go places women had not been allowed to go, she was a tremendous role model.  The fact that she chose to keep her identity as a lesbian private — I honor that choice.”

Perhaps the best answer came from her sister, Bear Ride, herself a lesbian active in gay-rights causes,

“She was just a private person who wanted to do things her way.  She hated labels (including ‘hero’).”

We are entirely too busy in this society with labels.  The first Black president, the first woman president, the first Latino president, the first gay president…  How about a qualified president, regardless of any other qualifier?

As Mr. Crary notes in his article, it is true that many professionals in the arts, sports, politics and news have guarded their private lives, refusing to acknowledge their sexual preferences.  But if that is their choice, why is that not acceptable?

This is not about wanting anyone to remain closeted, but rather telling others to mind their hooting business.  Many in our society can be demanding, even downright voyeuristic, when it comes to the private business of those in the limelight.  Why do we have a right to that knowledge?  Would any one of us like living in a goldfish bowl?  Aren’t those who wanted Sally Ride to go public with her sexuality years ago demanding she live her life by their standards and not her own?  This also discounts the other myriad challenges she must have faced as a woman entering what had been an all-male province.

An actor, for instance, may choose to maintain a certain mystique so that when you see him or her on screen, you become absorbed in the character, not distracted by who they are otherwise.  This is true of anyone in the public eye.  As a writer, I have a certain comfort level sharing about myself, my past and my family.  Others may find the very thought of doing the same the equivalent of walking on broken glass.  That is their right, too.  And in whatever professional capacity I serve, I want those hiring me or buying my work to let my “product” stand on its own merits.

While I do admit to being torn on behalf of my gay friends, or young people I know who have had difficulty being accepted by their families for their sexual preferences, I respect Sally Ride’s decision.

Per CNN, as President Obama noted at the time of her death:

“As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model.  She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools. Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve, and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come.”

A trail blazer who has the courage to walk first, to stand up and be counted, encourages and inspires all of us. Such a person can grant a certain permission to those who might not feel safe otherwise. There is great power in such a gesture and if a public figure chooses to make that gesture, it is a gift but I have no right to expect it.

I am quite sure Ms. Ride, literally a rocket scientist, considered all of this.  Yet she chose to keep the focus on her many groundbreaking achievements and her love of science.

Isn’t it a bit much to expect her to carry the sword here, too.


Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin: Sexism and Sabotage, a Hillary Supporter’s Rude Awakening, available on Amazon in print and kindle editions.

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  1. Great post, Anita. You are spot on. Ride, by all accounts, was a private person, who did not relish the spotlight. It was her and her partner’s decision as to whether or not they wanted to be out to the whole world, or to close family and friends. Considering all Ms. Ride did for young people from teaching at UC-San Diego to her company promoting science for young people to being the first woman in space, I think she did way more than most as a role model…

  2. Gary Maxwell Says: August 1, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    Isn’t enough that she must have established a brilliant career as an a astronaut? Isn’t enough that she dedicated herself to the promotion of science and encouraging young women to move unafraid into that area?
    She is a source of great pride to the choices she made in her public life. For some individuals such as Sally Ride, there is no end to the requirement that others of us might make. Could she ever have done enough? I doubt it. She lived a life most of us would probably never try to achieve. Why can’t she, and others, be afforded the privacy that they deserve. We have far more to be concerned about than Sally’s being out. Gays have another model, albeit she decided to live a private life.
    Thanks for joining us now…it counts!

    • Hi Gary. I agree. If she had come out during her career, it is likely that career would have been torpedoed, however unfairly, and that the media would have focused on her beign gay and not her achievements. Everyone has the right to privacy and no one is under any obligation to forego that for the desires of others. They were not standing in her shoes at the time.

      So nice to “see” you here!

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