Labels are for bottles, not people, according to the popular aphorism. I’ve been thinking of this while reading “Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space,” by writer and former ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr, just out from Simon & Schuster. As this engrossing, moving biography reveals, neither Ride nor her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, liked labels. Especially, about their sexual orientation or same-sex relationship.
“She didn’t want to be defined by the lesbian/gay label …we both didn’t like categories,” Sherr writes that O’Shaughnessy told her.
Like many of us, LGBT and straight, I was sad to learn on July 23, 2012 that Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, had died of pancreatic cancer. Growing up, starry-eyed, watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, cheering when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs and embracing the women’s movement, I didn’t think girls could be astronauts. Ride’s historic 1983 space flight was thrilling to women of all generations.
“Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see that they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists,” Gloria Steinem said at the time.
As Sherr’s biography engagingly shows, Ride was so multi-faceted in her talents and interests that she was almost, to use Duke Ellington’s dictum, “beyond category.” Ride was an astrophysicist who studied Shakespeare, an athlete (who joked that her horrible “forehand” kept her from becoming a professional tennis player), educator, and, with O’Shaughnessy, a children’s book writer. She was a serious scientist who was most comfortable in academia. After the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, Ride was part of the commission established to investigate the accident.
“As a retired astronaut, she did research on arms control,” Sherr writes, “… she championed programs to advance the status of women and fought against stereotypes that dampened children’s dreams, barriers to success that had never stopped her.”
When I was in school, science was creepy – a bunch of (mainly male) teachers saying boring, incomprehensible things. Ride and O’Shaughnessy, through their company Sally Ride Science, worked to change this dreary image of science. Ride wanted children to know that “science is cool,” Sherr writes.
Though Ride was an intensely private person, she loved talking with kids about going to the bathroom in outer space. When a child asked Ride if the food that she ate in space was gross, she replied, “No! We had peanut butter.”
Like many in the LGBT community and in the wider culture, I was surprised and saddened to learn only after her death that Ride had been in a same-sex relationship for more than two decades. I didn’t judge her for not being open about her sexuality or her relationship with O’Shaughnessy. I thought then, as I do now, that deciding to come out, even as marriage equality increasingly becomes a reality, is still a personal, and often, difficult, decision. Homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness until 1973, and it’s doubtful that NASA would have accepted an openly LGBT astronaut.
“She was just a private person who wanted to do things her way. She hated labels (including hero),” Ride’s sister Bear told the Associated Press at the time of her death.
Few beyond a small, extremely close-knit circle knew of Ride and O’Shaughnessy’s relationship. Even, Sherr, a friend of Ride’s, didn’t know that Ride and O’Shaughnessy were a same-sex couple. Though not a hagiography in any sense of the word, Sherr wrote this book because O’Shaughnessy wanted it to be written. O’Shaughnessy decided “that it was time for a proper biography,” Sherr writes. “That the obituaries didn’t capture the richness or the nuance of her life … that in the interest of honesty it was time to lift the veil of privacy Sally had guarded so tenaciously.”
Many thanks, Tam, for lifting the veil. And thanks to Sherr for illuminating a legendary life in all its rich complexity.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.