Space, it turns out, is not the final frontier.
Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly into space, died on July 23 at the age of 61. In death she came out twice – as a person who had been fighting pancreatic cancer and someone who had been in a long-term relationship with another woman.
There is something truly poignant about coming out in your obituary. She was survived, we were told by “Tam O’Shaugnessy, her partner of 27 years.” (She had also been married to a male astronaut for five years.)
Who knows if Sally Ride thought of herself as lesbian or bisexual? Or what she felt about the debate around same-sex marriage? But the words “partner of 27 years” feel bitterly like the title of the 1989 film about the devastation of AIDS – Longtime Companion. When it comes to names gay and lesbian people can give their partners, the needle has not moved that much.
Sally Ride, by all accounts a truly private person, a reluctant celebrity. She didn’t want any great hoopla about being the first American woman in space. She knew two Russian women had already gone there before her. One, her obituary in the New York Times reported, was welcomed by a male cosmonaut who said the kitchen and her apron were ready for her. "Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we're Norwegians, through and through,” her sister Bear Ride told BuzzFeed.
Surely, Sally Ride would have shuddered at being made the grand marshal of some ticker tape Gay Pride parade. Now in death, she has been embraced as a role model and icon. Michelangelo Signorile hailed her in his Huffington Post column.
This is what a lesbian looks like: Sally Ride: physicist; author of seven science books for children; member of the space shuttle Challenger crew; member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; director of the California Science Institute; inductee into the National Women's Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame; recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, the NCAA's Theodore Roosevelt Award, and the NASA Space Flight Medal (twice).
Sally Ride was not closeted to those who knew her. And in death there is no need to canonize her as a gay hero. Her “battle of choice”, her sister said, was not LGBT rights but science education for children. We should respect that.
But her quiet coming out in death is a reminder that even if President Obama says he supports same-sex marriage and Hillary Clinton champions gay rights across the world, and the American Center sponsors a Pride Ball in Kolkata, the reality is very different on the ground, even in America.
"There's no question that Sally Ride could have been fired if she'd come out while she worked for NASA," said Fred Sainz of the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. "It was important then to keep it a secret or you'd affect your security clearance."
Now that she is gone, her partner of 27 years will not get any of the benefits that would normally automatically accrue to the widow of a NASA astronaut. There are ways same-sex couples work with, and around the law, to provide for each other but they need to jump through many hoops to do that.
Most media, from The New York Times to television news, did not mention that the first woman in space was also the first lesbian in space. The media’s silence about Ride’s sexuality was not just etiquette or reticence about outing a private person. Her own company Sally Ride Science, in its statement said clearly (note the order of precedence): “In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.”
Confusingly, Tam O’Shaughnessy is also her business partner.
Whatever one thinks of the debate around same-sex marriage one thing is clear. It needs to happen if only to do away with what Andrew Sullivan calls that “ghastly word” – partner.
One would like to think that society has come to a level of acceptance where there is no need to spell out the L-word. It’s enough to just acknowledge the surviving partner the way The New York Times and Los Angeles Times did – “her partner of 27 years.”
But we are not there. It’s as if the admission of lesbianism could somehow diminish Sally Ride’s achievements. We can perhaps reluctantly accept a gay hero but it’s hard to accept a hero who turns out to have been gay. This is not about what Sally Ride would have wanted. It’s about what we, as a society, want from our Sally Rides.
When Sally Ride went to space in 1983, headlines around the world chanted Ride, Sally Ride.
We, as a society, have a long long way to ride.