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."


It's still worth mentioning and talking about! Not necessarily enough to override the rest of her life and legacy, but simply so that we can recognize that great things come from people of all sexualities, and that her sexuality DIDN'T preclude her from accomplishing everything else. I think we have to at least acknowledge this aspect of her life if we're ever going to *get* further along as a society.

Ummm, ok, Clare. You obviously didn't read this...


I suggest we let gay and lesbian Americans take pride in, and inspiration from, whomever they may choose to.

Yours is the most absurd and illogical proposition. There is no reason why she can not be both. I met Sally on a number of occasions. We overlapped at Stanford. I certainly think of her as an exemplary role model for women in the science. While I was moved to sadness upon hearing of her death but I was moved to tears when I read those few words that single line: Sally is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. She chose to come out this way. It was not just a terribly moving display of the deepest love but an act of courage for surely Sally was aware that divulging her sexuality risked her reputation among too many Americans and that she would not be around to defend herself. She honored her partner and she honored us by acknowledging the facts of her life. Despite the sadness of the occasion, I think the way she chose to come of out one of the most declarations of love, gay or straight, in the history of humankind. I applaud Sally for her courage and my respect for her has only grown.

I would also encourage you to read what her sister has said on this aspect of Sally's life. Bear Ride is an ordained gay Presbyterian minister. Here's the essay that Bear Ride has been sending around as a tribute to her sister:
"Sally Ride was the first American woman to go into space and she was my big sister. Sally died peacefully on July 23rd after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. I was at her side. We grew up in Encino, CA. Our parents, Joyce and Dale Ride, encouraged us to study hard, to do our best and to be anything we wanted to be. In 1983 Newsweek quoted our father as saying, 'We might have encouraged, but mostly we just let them explore.' Our parents encouraged us to be curious, to keep our minds and hearts open and to respect all persons as children of God. Our parents taught us to explore, and we did. Sally studied science and I went to seminary. She became an astronaut and I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.
"Sally lived her life to the fullest with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. Sally died the same way she lived: without fear. Sally's signature statement was 'Reach for the Stars.' Surely she did this, and she blazed a trail for all the rest of us.
"My sister was a very private person. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we're Norwegians, through and through. People did not know she had pancreatic cancer, this is bound 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.
"Most people did not know that Sally had a wonderfully loving relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy for 27 years. Sally never hid her relationship with Tam. They were partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they wrote books together, and Sally's very close friends, of course, knew of their love for each other. We consider Tam a member of our family.

"I hope the pancreatic cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there's now this advocate that they didn't know about. And, I hope the GLBT community feels the same. I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them."

Some héros do things in a bold and brash way. Sally Ride took a different approach. With one simple line honoring the love of her life, she spoke volumes on the nature of love and dared bigots to cast their hate not at an American heroine but at love itself.

I urge you to rethink your proposition.

Well said, Charles, thank you for sharing brother.

Arrogance, thy name is Clare.

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