Let's Not Make Sally Ride a Gay Icon

A single line in Sally Ride’s obituary has caused a lot of fuss over the last day—the fact that she spent the last 27 years of her life with another woman. It’s a bit of a shame that the buzz of the public revelation has taken away from what it seems Dr. Ride would have preferred her legacy to be: pushing young women into careers in math and science.

It doesn’t appear that Ride’s sexuality was a secret to those who knew her, just to the rest of us, the ones who knew her only as the trim woman in a NASA jumpsuit, sporting a soft halo of '80s hair. That’s exactly what she was to me as a little girl, a name and a picture in a history book: the first American woman in space. Firm evidence that we had been there, done that. Ride embraced that legacy, starting a company later in life that provided materials to make the teaching of science more accessible to young students.

She also spoke out about the problem of peer pressure and norms of socialization that led girls away from studying math and science at a young age. In a 2003 interview in The New York Times, Ride said, “It’s no secret that I’ve been reluctant to use my name for things. I haven’t written my memoirs or let the television movie be made about my life. But this is something I’m very willing to put my name behind.”

Ride’s obituary is a litany of accomplishments—two PhDs, being accepted into NASA on a virtual cold call, a professional-level ability in tennis (at least according to Billie Jean King, no slouch herself). Hers was a life of professional excellence, and her resume attracted national attention, but she remained a private person. It doesn’t seem as though Ride was ashamed of being gay, she just seemed not to think that it mattered all that much. One has to imagine that she probably expected all kinds of irritating hoopla over the matter, and didn’t want to talk about her personal life when she had so many other things to say and issues of her own choosing about which to advocate.

That she was gay seems that it should be an incidental portion of her legacy, and I have to think that we should try to honor her in death as she was in life: a damn smart lady who, in private, was in love with a woman. What Ride said in 1984, talking about her historic flight, probably sums it up best: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along."

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