Sally Ride's Right to Remain Silent

I’ve been startled by certain gay men who have petulantly demanded that it wasn’t enough for Sally Ride to be an astounding feminist hero, a role model for all girls; she also should’ve stood up for the gays. Andrew Sullivan (and others) had a tantrum about her postmortem announcement, as if coming out were the central patriotic duty of everyone who loves someone of the same sex:

I'm not so understanding. We can judge this decision in the context of Ride's life. Her achievements as a woman and as a scientist and as an astronaut and as a brilliant, principled investigator of NASA's screw-ups will always stand, and vastly outshine any flaws. But the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people's horizons and young lesbians' hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to.

She was the absent heroine.

#Srsly? As if being lesbian or gay were a more important—or even equally importantidentity than, say, being the first American female astronaut? Imagine what it must've been like to be a woman at NASA at the time!  The woman didn't even like being called a hero! My God, she donated enough of herself. And we have the bad manners to say: That wasn't enough, you should've given more?

True confession: I’ve never understood how anyone could be a celebrity; part of what I like about being a writer is the anonymity behind the screen. (Ha! You can't see me working!) I will come out for radio and TV and public speaking, because that's part of the job, but it's not my favorite part. According to her sister, Sally Ride also valued that sense of privacy. She wanted to avoid inviting the cameras and intrusive microphones into her life yet again, after she'd served her country, inspired countless girls and young women, and had finally retired to continue making the world a better place for girls and women who might be interested in science. And nevertheless, she left yet another breakthrough legacy after her death, when she didn’t have to get grilled about it. 

Sally Ride's sister, interestingly enough, is openly gay. I wondered whether there could possibly be any straight women who’d call herself “Bear Ride.”  Nope:

"In her inherent Norwegian reticence — in this and so many aspects of her personal life (wrestling with pancreatic cancer, for example) — she just didn't talk much (see Norwegian comment, and add to that the typical tight-lipped scientist thing)," Bear wrote. "If you read interviews from years and years back, you'll see that there was always a major frustration that she didn't comment much on 'how it feels to be the first American woman in space' — she just didn't think that way. She wanted to get the job done. Her personal feelings were just that: personal. Not right or wrong — simply Sally. Everyone who knows her well really got that about her."

Bear, a gay Presbyterian minister, takes a different approach.

"I'm a rather out-there advocate for LGBT [lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender] rights — my partner and I have even been arrested a couple of times in public protest!" she told me. "But that's me, and not Sally."

My lord, the woman kept her illness private—from her friends. She was that kind of person. Look, I genuinely believe in respecting diversity. That has to include diversity of personality type as well. Being a pioneer takes an enormous amount of energy. Being a pioneer twice—well, that's a lot to ask. Given the costs of being different, there has to be some room for people to choose which identities they will sacrifice themselves for.

In slightly related news, I heard from a San Diego friend who didn’t want her name used, and who regularly saw Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy together at tennis events. (My friend is kicking herself, now, that she and her gal never invited the couple over for dinner, as they'd discussed. Don't Put Off Till Tomorrow and all that.) My friend was disappointed, she wrote me, that they looked just like any other older lesbian couple, quite ordinary:

I suppose I half-expected to see her floating in the air 4 feet above everyone else, smiling in a blue jumpsuit, being all charismatic.

Nope. She goes on to write:

"It's kind of weirdly cool that she's making this statement clearly on her own time, from the beyond, wherever that might be -- seems to be going viral in a way it perhaps would not have earlier. And if you have the kind of vastness of perspective that comes from being out among the billions of stars, maybe a few years' delay didn't seem like that much."


"I’ve been startled by certain gay men who have petulantly demanded that it wasn’t enough for Sally Ride to be an astounding feminist hero, a role model for all girls; she also should’ve stood up for the gays."

This kind of self-centered, self-righteousness irks me too. I had the same kind of response to a certain prominent anti-Zionist blogger who pilloried Paul Krugman when he posted a brief note about his positive response to Beinart's *The Crisis of Zionism*. It wasn't enough that Krugman has other important fish to fry during this unnecessary drawn-out recession. He must also take on the Israel lobby. It's his duty as a Jewish public intellectual.


It's all part and parcel of the intolerance of the Left -- and I say that as a dyed-in-the-wool Lefty. It's the old circular firing squad model of leftist politics.


This whole thing was so offensive on so many levels. First of all, Sally Ride was NOT closeted. The Coming Out Police need to breathe into a paper bag and realize there is a world of difference between being closeted and living one's life as Ms. Ride did: with quiet dignity. Secondly, it's time for gays and lesbians to acknowledge the "B" in GLBT. We don't know how Ms. Ride identified herself, but she was married to a man, so bisexuality is certainly a possibility. I recognize that the alphabet soup that describes folks who are not straight has grown unwieldy; however, as a bisexual person, I find it beyond ironic that lesbians in particular, who insisted with great vehemence that they be called lesbians --NOT gay, treat bisexuality with lip service at best.
Personally, I thought the mention of Ride's partner in her obit in perfect keeping with a classy, heroic life.

All this discussion of public/private ignores the rampant sexism that ruled at NASA and how it must have affected Ride's decision to keep a low domestic profile. Instead of championing her right to privacy, maybe we ought to look at the disapproval of same-sex relationships that reigned during the 27 years these women were together.

Amy Davidson over at the New Yorker's blog even suggests that Ride was pressured by NASA into marrying fellow astronaut Steve Hawley, and Ride's relationship with O'Shaughnessy predates her divorce. If anyone thinks their ability to pursue her career will be crippled by a personal relationship, you can see that the urge to privacy is not exactly freely exercised. Now, after 27 years, O'Shaughnessy cannot receive federal spousal government benefits. Maybe we shouldn't blame Ride, but how about blaming DOMA, California voters and homophobia for the damage they inflict?

I totally agree but will add that I have encountered, online and elsewhere, many lesbians also condemning Sally Ride.

It is blaming the victim on an intergalatical level. Ms Ride clearly lived in fear of the consequences of being openly gay. Consequences that many glib folks seem to think are minor. They can be devasting and if she felt safer closeted, then so be it.

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