Dr. Ride married a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, in 1982. They decorated their master bedroom with a large photograph of astronauts on the moon. They divorced in 1987. Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy; her mother, Joyce; and her sister, Ms. Scott, who is known as Bear. (Dr. O’Shaughnessy is chief operating officer of Dr. Ride’s company.)
Well, I didn’t know who Tam O’Shaughnessy is—the name certainly doesn’t give away the gender. It turns out, though, that Tam is a woman (CEO of the Sally Ride Science organization) and Ride, being in a relationship with her for nearly three decades, must have been gay. Even had I known that, I doubt that I would have mentioned it, since Ride was, by all accounts a private person. As the NYT notes:
Dr. Ride was known for guarding her privacy. She rejected most offers for product endorsements, memoirs and movies, and her reticence lasted to the end. At her request, NASA kept her illness secret.
So she apparently didn’t want to be known as The First Lesbian in Space. And is it all that important these days?
Well, it apparently is to Andrew Sullivan, openly gay writer of The Daily Beast website. Over at the Beast, he criticizes the muted discussion of Ride’s homosexuality in a piece called “America’s first woman in space was a lesbian.” There Sullivan decries not only the Times‘s failure to make a bigger deal of Ride’s homosexuality, but also goes after Ride herself for remaining in the closet.
First he excoriates the Times for its too-brief mention of Ride’s partner:
Now talk about a buried lede! The only thing preventing the NYT from writing an honest obit is homophobia. They may not realize it; they may not mean it; but it is absolutely clear from the obit that Ride’s sexual orientation was obviously central to her life. And her “partner” (ghastly word) and their relationship is recorded only perfunctorily. The NYT does not routinely only mention someone’s spouse in the survivors section. When you have lived with someone for 27 years, some account of that relationship is surely central to that person’s life. To excise it completely is an act of obliteration.
First, I wouldn’t be so quick to play the homophobia card, since the Times is, after all, run by liberals. And, to my knowledge, the Times does routinely mention the survivors only in a brief sentence at the end of an obituary.
More important, Ride’s sexual orientation may have been central to her life in the sense that she loved another woman, and love is one epicenter of life. But that doesn’t mean that Ride wanted to it to be a publicly central part of her life. She obviously didn’t. And if that’s the case, why should a newspaper? Ride’s gender was obvious to all, so she had no choice but to be The First Woman in Space, but her sexual orientation is not so obvious, and why should she even have brought that up?
Finally, the Times‘s treatment of Ride’s homosexuality is perfectly in keeping with the way it deals with gay partners these days. Sometimes in the Sunday wedding section I find an announcement of a gay marriage, and even a picture of the happy couple, but they don’t dwell on the homosexuality, or even mention it. That, I think, is healthy: it’s time for us (and especially religious homophobes) to recognize that many, many people fall in love with or are drawn to people of the same sex, and it’s no big deal. What, pray tell, would Sullivan have the Times write?
Indeed, one could say that the paper’s failure to make a big deal of homosexuality is not a sign of homophobia, but an attempt to legitimize it, bringing it into the mainstream. That’s precisely the feeling I get when I see a gay wedding announcement in the Sunday paper: I smile and think, “Well, it’s not a big deal any more.”
There’s only one proper moral stand on homosexuality between consenting adults, and that is this: it’s a private matter that should not be seen as immoral and should be given civil legitimacy in the same way as heterosexual unions. We all know where the opposition to that stand comes from!
And remember that even in the Eighties, when Sally rode, being gay was something that could bring society’s opprobrium upon you. It was Ride’s choice to keep her life private, perhaps because it might have hurt her fledgling company designed to excite children of both sexes about science. An admirable thing to do, but would it have been harder if she was openly gay? At any rate, it’s someone’s choice to keep their beliefs, their faith, and their sexual orientation private. I don’t demand that gays be “outed” any more than I require closeted atheists be “outed.” It is not our choice, but theirs, regardless of the salutary public effect of open homsexuality or atheism.
But even if you agree with Sullivan that the Times should have highlighted Ride’s sexuality more strongly, he becomes shameless when he goes after Ride for hiding it herself. He considers a remark by one of his readers:
But assuming that she was not out before her death, I don’t think we can judge this as a failing. We all do what we can, and play the role we are most comfortable with. Now that the information is in the open, the LGBT community has another heroine to claim as our own and celebrate posthumously.
Fair enough. But Sullivan doesn’t like that:
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.
That’s not only self-serving, but completely unfair. There may have been many reasons, not the least her mission as a public advocate of science for kids, to keep her sexuality secret. Yes, she may have been an “absent heroine” to young lesbians, but she was a heroine to children of both sexes through her rides in space and subsequent academic work and public advocacy of science And, as a professor in two institutions, she certainly served as a role model to women in academics. Given the homophobic climate of America, especially in the Eighties, she made what I consider a fair choice.
We have no moral right to criticize someone for keeping their beliefs private, so long as hiding those beliefs has no potential negative impact on the public. (It is fair game, for example, to ask a politician if he was ever a member of the Klan, or if he accepts the fact of evolution).
In an ideal society—and in this respect I think it’s one we’re moving toward—nobody would have to apologize for or hide their sexuality, for that would be a matter of no import to anyone else. But we’re not yet there, just like we’re not yet there for atheism. And until we are, it’s simply churlish to go after someone for trying to keep their privacy. And do recall that the public denigration of homosexuality, and the consequent need to keep it private, comes largely from religion—in fact, a major cause of that disapprobation comes Sullivan’s own Catholic Church.
Sullivan himself, then, is a hypocrite, for he has the chance to become a hero to many people by leaving the Catholic Church that bears so much responsibility for that demonization of gays he so abhors. Presumably he has his private reasons to remain Catholic, just as Ride had her private reasons to remain in the closet. He has a chance to expand people’s horizons about the moral failings of his Church, and he chooses not to. (Yes, I know he criticizes some of their stands, but a man of his beliefs should not be in that Church.)
Sullivan is the absent hero.