No matter how well we think we know them, our icons often surprise us. Like many who were saddened when Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, died on July 23 at 61 from pancreatic cancer, I was surprised to learn that the trail-blazing astronaut, is survived by Tam O’Shaughnessy, her same-sex partner of 27 years.
As a lesbian, I bet I’m not alone in having mixed feelings since hearing about Ride’s death and her relationship with O’Shaughnessy. I’d wager that many of us in the LGBT community are mourning the loss of a beloved scientist, space pioneer and teacher; while wishing that, though her same-sex relationship was an open secret among her personal circle, Ride could have come out more widely. At the same time, if you’re like me, though deeply sad that Ride lost her 17-month battle with cancer, you’re thrilled to have another great gay role model for our team – especially LGBT youth.
Whatever our wishes and expectations of our heroes, whether or not to come out remains, even now when a newly out celeb emerges every nanosecond, a highly personal and, often difficult, decision. Deciding if, when and to whom you should reveal your sexual orientation, depends on your temperament and circumstances.
Ride became famous around the world, when, at age 32, as the youngest American to go into space, she flew into space for the first time on the shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983. At the launch at Cape Canaveral, 250,000 wearing T-shirts reading, “Ride, Sally, Ride” (from the song “Mustang Sally”) cheered Ride on, reported her obituary in The New York Times. The late Johnny Carson, then the reigning king of comedy, joked about Ride on “The Tonight Show” and reporters, because of her gender, asked how being in space impacted her menstrual cycle.
“Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists,” Gloria Steinem said after Ride’s first space flight.
Yet Ride, a Renaissance woman with expertise in Shakespeare, physics and X-ray astronomy, who was encouraged by Billie Jean King to become a professional tennis player, shunned fame, craved privacy and downplayed the significance of being the first woman to go into space. “It’s too bad this is such a big deal,” she said at a NASA news conference, “It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”
Bear Ride, a lesbian who has been active in gay rights, is Sally Ride’s sister. “She was just a private person who wanted to do things her way. She hated labels (including hero),” Bear Ride wrote in an e-mail about her sister’s choice around coming out, according to the Associated Press.
It would have been wonderful if Ride, a famous astronaut and an inspiration to girls and women, had come out to the world. How great it would have been if Ride had fought for marriage equality or to end workplace discrimination against LGBT people. What a morale boost it would have been to the queer community if, Ride and O’Shaughnessy, San Diego residents, had gotten married.
But being openly gay would have likely been hard for Ride when she was with NASA (where it would have probably been viewed as a distraction from her work). Let’s remember: everyone doesn’t have to be a gay rights activist; and being out only to family and friends isn’t the same as being closeted.
I’m grateful to Ride for being posthumously open about her relationship with O’Shaughnessy. “I hope [Ride’s coming out in her obituary] makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that one of their heroes was like them,” Bear Ride wrote on NBCNews.com.
Because of Ride’s legacy, LGBT children will know they can reach for the stars. R.I.P. Sally.