Yesterday, the day before Amelia Earhart’s 115th birthday, Sally Ride joined the skies for a final time. At 61, she died of pancreatic cancer—a horrible disease. Back in 1983, it was thrilling to watch her smash the American gender barrier as she zoomed into space. When she headed off into the final frontier, it was not as it was with the subordinate Lieutenant Uhuru on the Enterprise—the closest analogue there was at the time—but as an equal astronaut. Ride strode up to the Challenger as if she belonged there—which, of course, she did. She had degrees in physics, astrophysics, and English—what an underachiever! When she saw a NASA newspaper ad seeking astronauts, she applied and got the job.
Sally Ride was one of a host of exhilarating barrier-smashers in that decade when young feminists like me thought all barriers would soon come crashing down, from Sandra Day O’Connor to Geraldine Ferraro. Of course women could do anything, including fly to the stars! It’s funny now to read The New York Times’ summary of the questions she got asked:
Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?
The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.
I know we still have a ways to go, but can you imagine any woman having to endure a barrage like that today? According to the Christian Science Monitor, Ride deeply disliked the pioneer role, preferring to concentrate on the joy of space flight. Ride inspired us: She was smart, ambitious, fearless, strong, capable, and pretty, all at once, and unflappable in the face of ignorance.
But here’s yesterday's big news, at least to me, in addition to the grief of losing her so young: Her obituary mentioned that for 27 years she had lived with her female partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy. With that acknowledgment, even in death Sally Ride smashed yet another barrier. I was stunned; I’ve heard rumors about lots of folks, but never the pioneering scientist Dr. Sally Ride. I sent out some queries, and as far as I can tell, no one in the LGBT community knew for sure, although a few had suspicions. Diane Anderson-Minshall, now the executive editor of The Advocate (where, full disclosure, I will soon be a reporter), emailed:
We had heard eons ago that she left her husband for another woman but could never get her to talk to the lesbian press (this was when I was back at Girlfriends still) but part of that was because NASA wouldn't have allowed any openly lesbian staff at the time. I remember interviewing another lesbian who worked for NASA at the same time and after she got caught in a gay bar raid she was kicked out and couldn't do any work with security clearance.
Ah, yes, the federal policy against giving security clearances to homos was still in place. So there was good reason to keep it quiet—in addition to what appears to have been her natural reticence. Chris Geidner, the tireless gay reporter now at BuzzFeed, immediately interviewed Ride’s sister, Bear (yes, really!) Ride, who explained that those in the astronaut’s life knew:
"We consider Tam a member of the family."
Saying that her sister was a very private person, Bear Ride said, "People did not know she had pancreatic cancer, that's going to be a huge shock. For 17 months, nobody knew—and everyone does now. Her memorial fund is going to be in support of pancreatic cancer…."
Of Sally Ride's sexual orientation, Bear Ride said, "Sally didn't use labels. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we're Norwegians, through and through."
At my house, my wife and I have been marveling over how it’s possible we didn’t know and didn’t guess. We look at the pictures now, and think, of course she was! In that era, who besides a dyke would have stepped so firmly out of her gender role? But we were young then and focused on the girls around us, not the icons on TV. And in the 1980s, what was thrilling was that any woman was heading into the sky. Ride knew all that and focused her life’s work on encouraging girls and women to get into science; O’Shaughnessy was her business partner in that mission, in addition to being her life partner. (There's an interview with the two of them about that here.)
In a way, it’s wonderful that Dr. Sally Ride wasn’t out until now. At the time, that would have disqualified her for NASA, of course, but it also would have limited her as a role model for most girls. Of all the strange things she got asked, she wasn’t dyke-baited or dismissed as queer. While alive, she was able to be an inspiration for girls and women to reach for the stars. Now, when girls and women have a plethora of role models, she’s returned to tell young LGBT folks: You, too, can fly.
RIP, Sally Ride.