In death, Sally Ride inspires a new audience
The first U.S. woman in space never revealed publicly that she was a lesbian, but her obituary did — and LGBT groups have taken notice.
San Francisco Chronicle
Astronaut Sally Ride, who died this week at 61 of pancreatic cancer, inspired millions around the world, not only as the first American woman in space but for her support for women in the sciences.
Posthumously, she is inspiring a new audience: the LGBT community. Ride was the first known LGBT astronaut.
The obituary published Monday on her website, Sallyridescience.com, was the first public acknowledgment of what only Ride's friends and family knew: She is survived by "Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years."
"Sally never hid her relationship with Tam," Sally Ride's sister, Karen "Bear" Ride, said in an email. "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."
The inclusion of the relationship in Ride's website obituary "was done with her blessing," said Terry McEntee, Ride's assistant and co-founder of Sally Ride Science. O'Shaughnessy declined to be interviewed.
Sally Ride, her sister said, "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."
"It's not as if Sally knew a closet," Bear Ride wrote in an email. "She was just private — like no one knew about the cancer," either.
"I hope the pancreatic-cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there's now this advocate that they didn't know about," said her sister, a Presbyterian minister who also has been in a longtime relationship with a woman. She said she hopes Sally Ride's story "makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them."
After Ride's posthumous coming-out, interest in her private life is increasing quickly. It comes after President Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage, while the Boy Scouts of America upheld its ban on gay Scouts and Scout leaders. Target and Chick-fil-A also have made headlines for their stands for and against same-sex marriage, respectively, while CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's confirmation that he is gay barely rippled.
Gay-rights advocates say Ride's story highlights the discrimination facing many gays and lesbians. O'Shaughnessy is ineligible to receive federal benefits because the federal Defense of Marriage Act does not recognize same-sex relationships.
Only 16 states, including Washington, prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identification, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT civil-rights organization.
Some commentators, such as prominent gay blogger Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast, second-guessed Ride's decision to opt for privacy.
"She had a chance to expand people's horizons and young lesbians' hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to," he wrote. "She was the absent heroine."
Sullivan's view was in the minority.
"Her coming out in this way makes it even more powerful," said Fred Sainz, director of communication for the Human Rights Campaign. A photo of Ride blanketed the organization's website, with one of her quotations: "All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary."
That Ride was a lesbian "is huge and positive and really inspirational," said Herndon Graddick, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Now, gay-rights advocates say, gay and lesbian children can feel even more inspired by Ride's famous encouragement that young people should "reach for the stars."
"It tells LGBT kids that they can be anything they want to be in America," Graddick said.
It is significant because "it reinforces for all Americans that LGBT people are everywhere. We come from every walk of life," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.
As a community, "You can say, 'Sally Ride was one of us. A member of our tribe,' " Kendall said.
Aside from Ride, no other astronaut of any nation has come out as gay. No active player in the four major North American pro sports leagues — football, basketball, baseball, hockey — has come out as gay, though some retired players have done so. Ken Mehlman came out as gay only after completing his stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In 2002, baseball star Mike Piazza — then playing with the New York Mets — rebutted rumors by holding a news conference to declare, "I'm not gay." Hip-hop star and actress Queen Latifah has countered comparable speculation over the years by refusing to discuss her personal life.
While Sally Ride did not do any LGBT advocacy, her sister has worked to make her church more inclusive to LGBT families, "and Sally and the rest of the family were absolutely supportive," said Michael Adee, executive director of the More Light Presbyterians, who has worked with Bear Ride and has known the Ride family for more than a decade.
A photo on Bear Ride's desk shows her in her clerical collar standing with Sally wearing her flight suit, Adee said. Next to that is a picture of the sisters wearing the other's uniform.
"For that family, faith and science were not in opposition," Adee said. "They were in harmony."
Robert McGarry, director of education for Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which compiles educational materials on gay history, said it is important that Ride's life history "will now include a fuller picture of who she was."
Still, Sainz and others expressed sadness that Ride's full story was not known to a wider audience until now.
"On one hand," Sainz said, "I wish Americans would have been able to experience this while she was alive, so we could ask her questions and use her as a role model to that mom and pop in Nebraska. But, on the other hand, Sally Ride may have gotten this absolutely right."
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.