Pioneering astronaut Sally Ride waited until her death to come out as a gay American. Mission accomplished, for her. For the media, not so much.
During the first wave of coverage last week, the fact that Ride was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, was mentioned at or near the end of virtually every obituary, as is the practice with obits of heterosexuals.
The problem is that Ride’s carefully planned acknowledgement of her sexuality, like it or not, was real news, and should have been treated as such.
The first U.S. woman in space had also turned out to be the first acknowledged gay astronaut in the history of NASA. Both facts matter.
Instead, most early reports ignored Ride’s revelation, which was included in the announcement of her July 23rd death put out by her educational foundation, Sally Ride Science. In my business, that’s called burying the lede—an unfortunate choice of words in this case, but true nonetheless.
In the media’s defense, Ride and O’Shaughnessy, COO of Sally Ride Science, did not make it easy for reporters. There was no indication of O’Shaughnessy’s gender in the official release, crafted by both women before Ride died of pancreatic cancer at age 61, according to a foundation spokesman.
Given her unusual first name, some media outlets may not have known that Tam O’Shaughnessy was female. Also, the fact that Ride had once been married to a man—a fellow astronaut—may have buttressed their presumption of heterosexuality.
The understated—some might call it vague—tone of the release was fitting, considering Ride’s strong sense of privacy. Outside of family, friends and co-workers, few knew of her sexual orientation. Even fewer knew she had been fighting cancer for 17 months.
In terms of timing, I couldn’t help but notice that Ride’s coming out occurred three weeks, to the day, after that of CNN star Anderson Cooper.
Cooper’s sexuality had been an open secret for years. Eventually, he came out to the world in order to counter any public perceptions of self-shame, he said. For Ride, it was about providing a role model for gay youth, said her sister, Bear Ride, a Presbyterian minister and lesbian activist.
Not everyone in the gay community appreciated Ride’s decision to pull back the curtain post mortem, however.
“She had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to,” Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote. “She was the absent heroine.” A spokesman for the Human Right Campaign, the country’s largest civil-rights organization for LGBT’s, labeled it “a missed opportunity.”
Granted, Ride, especially during her long battle with cancer, could have been a dramatically effective lobbyist for equal rights in Social Security inheritance laws, for example.
Still, for whatever reason, Ride chose to skip her own coming out party, as is her right. The good news is that now gays and lesbians throughout the galaxy can claim another iconic figure as one of our own.
Head for the stars, Rocketeer. Ride, Sally, ride.