Sally Ride And The Glass Closet: Did She Break It Soon Enough?
Shattering Ceilings, Even In Death
In the past week, a quiet announcement of an astronaut’s death brought the world a first: Sally Ride, once lauded as the first American woman in space, has also been illuminated in her obituary as the first astronaut to have been publicly outed as having a same-sex relationship. From her obituary:
Dr. Ride married a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, in 1982. They decorated their master bedroom with a large photograph of astronauts on the moon. They divorced in 1987. Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy; her mother, Joyce; and her sister, Ms. Scott, who is known as Bear. (Dr. O’Shaughnessy is chief operating officer of Dr. Ride’s company.)
You could almost miss the outing; Dr. O’Shaughnessy, her longtime partner, is a woman.
An Absent Heroine?
Almost immediately, LGBT advocacy organizations and writers exploded into a frenzy of surprise; although she had published numerous books with Dr. O’Shaughnessy, Ride had never publicly acknowledged their romantic relationship. We have had, unless there are other closeted pioneers in the annals of history, our first queer astronaut. Sally broke barriers in more ways than one; not only did she shatter the glass ceiling of gender, but sexuality as well.
Not everyone is jubilant however. In this age where it seems like we have a celebrity coming out every other news cycle, with Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean coming out in the same week, the expectation appears to have become clear: if you are queer and a public figure, you have an obligation to youth to provide knowledge of your sexual orientation in order to be a role model for struggling young people who may lack the role models they so desperately need.
From Andrew Sullivan’s piece, “America’s First Woman Astronaut Was A Lesbian”:
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.
Disregarding the assumption that she was a lesbian and not bisexual (she did, after all, have a husband), the message from journalists and pundits (many of whom are male) appears to be that not only do public figures have the ability to lead the way by publicly proclaiming their same-sex relationships, they have a duty to out themselves for the greater good.
I don’t think so.
Duty Vs. Privacy: What Are Our Obligations?
Not everyone agrees with Sullivan. E.J. Graff at the American Prospect has a different viewpoint:
#Srsly? As if being lesbian or gay were a more important—or even equally important—identity than, say, being the first American female astronaut? Imagine what it must’ve been like to be a woman at NASA at the time! The woman didn’t even like being called a hero! My God, she donated enough of herself. And we have the bad manners to say: That wasn’t enough, you should’ve given more?
Indeed, her family confirms the private nature of Sally Ride. Her sister, herself an out lesbian minister who has been arrested for LGBT rights, had this to say to NBC News:
“In her inherent Norwegian reticence — in this and so many aspects of her personal life (wrestling with pancreatic cancer, for example) — she just didn’t talk much (see Norwegian comment, and add to that the typical tight-lipped scientist thing),” Bear wrote. “If you read interviews from years and years back, you’ll see that there was always a major frustration that she didn’t comment much on ‘how it feels to be the first American woman in space’ — she just didn’t think that way. She wanted to get the job done. Her personal feelings were just that: personal. Not right or wrong — simply Sally. Everyone who knows her well really got that about her.”
In fact, it’s notable that not even some of her friends knew she was dying of cancer until the very end; she was an intensely private woman who, as the first American woman in space, had her biology and competence scrutinized at every turn during her stint with NASA. During her time there, and indeed after, as she continued working in the sciences, it was incredible that she was able to give the public what voice she had. She after was working in a very male-dominated profession, where a woman’s voice was remarkable enough. Now must we really, just days after her death, insist that she have done more?
I have yet, by the way, seen a definitive statement as to whether she was lesbian or bisexual aside from assumptions made from the press. If she was attracted to both men and women, that adds another layer of complication: it’s well-known that bisexual folk can receive hostility not only from heterosexuals but homosexuals; if she was bisexual, she could have indeed been leaving herself open to unwanted attack.
Whose Business Is It, Really?
I am all for coming out. I myself have lived as openly as possible since my ouster from the US Army over my sexual orientation. Through my various misadventures, I have also come out as HIV-positive and as an addict. I did such things because I knew, as I surmounted my challenges, I had the unique opportunity to teach others how to surmount their own. Being gay, being HIV-positive, struggling with meth addiction, I knew that the adage of “Silence=Death” as so famously stated by ACTUP was true. People in my position die if they don’t know there are others like them.
However, that was my choice. When I came out while serving, I knew that my admission would likely result in the termination of my employment. My sexual orientation, which was nobody’s business but my own, was one I was willing to make public and I chose to do so. If I had remained in the closet, would I have been doing a disservice?
Maybe, but only to my own judgment. I am by nature a very open person. Sally was not. Sally didn’t have to come out. Would it have been nice if she had? For sure! Should we be excoriating this courageous woman after her death? While her family is grieving?
No. We can hope, even ask people to come out; but we must respect their choices. Ride was enough of a public figure and, as an intensely private individual, could have been risking her own mental health and life happiness by exposing herself to more controversy. I didn’t have much to lose by coming out; her very nature and her profession of choice placed her at risk of significant pain and unhappiness. To demand that people expose themselves to that level of scrutiny is not only disrespectful, it abrogates everyone’s right to reveal what parts of themselves they chose to the public.
Thank You, Sally Ride
Silence does equal death. However, in her death, Ride broke her silence. There is a role model now for young queer women wanting to enter into the sciences. Should she have given more? Had she done enough? She thought so, and I agree. Knowledge of someone’s personal life is nobody’s business, lest they make it ours.
For me, saying “Thank you Sally,” is enough. I choose to honor her memory by being grateful that, in her last statement to the world, she illuminated one more part of a remarkable woman. Thank you, Sally Ride. Thank you for giving so much, and you will be missed.