The discreet Sally Ride

The first American woman in space let it be known in her obituary that she was a lesbian who had been in a relationship with her childhood friend that spanned nearly three decades, although she had been married at one time to a fellow astronaut. Andrew Sullivan criticizes this reticence on her part.

Of course, if she had let on back in the 1980s, she might well have been shown the door and not had the opportunity to go into space. But I think that that was not the only reason for her not revealing her sexual orientation and becoming a public advocate for the LGBT movement while she was alive. After all, her own sister, a Presbyterian minister, was openly gay and her close family and friends all seemed to have known, so she did not need to fear alienating those close to her.

I suspect that Ride was a quiet and private person who may have simply felt that her private life was no one else’s business. She took the same attitude with the pancreatic cancer that killed her, again telling only those close to her. We should respect the right of people to choose what they want to reveal about their private lives while they are alive, however much we might wish that they become public role models. It is a role that some choose to play only after they die.

I hope this news makes those who rail against gays pause for a moment and realize that whether they know it or not, gay people are everywhere all around us, quietly going about their lives.


  1. Steve says

    The problem is that some people generalize this attitude towards all gay people. If someone is a naturally private person that’s one thing and totally acceptable (although that can also be caused by being in the closet in the first place).

    There is however a tendency by some straight people to apply this to gays in all situations. When straight people mention their partners, children and private life that’s normal. Yet when gay people do it sometimes becomes “flaunting” and “throwing it in peoples’ faces” or “no one needs to know about their sex life”. That’s not ok.

  2. Paul W., OM says

    I wonder if Ride kept quiet about being lesbian for a long time after leaving NASA because she was afraid that if she came out, NASA would screen out other lesbians, lest they too come out.

    The astronaut program has always been very, very “family-friendly” PR oriented—a big motivation for having humans in space, even when it’s unnnecessarily dangerous and grossly wasteful, is that a big part of NASA’s fanbase wants people in space, not robots.

    Since the very beginning, NASA has made astronauts into heroes, and swept inconvenient human truths like alcohol abuse, womanizing, and failed marriages under the rug.

    Lesbianism just isn’t The Right Stuff to a big fraction of NASA’s fanbase, and not being “family friendly” would threaten its funding.

    Similarly, and up to the present, Ride and her partner may have prioritized getting girls into STEM fields over advancing gay rights, figuring—rightly I’d guess—that if their foundation was associated with lesbianism in too many minds, a lot of parents wouldn’t want their girls to participate.

    Even now, it’s rather risky for an organization that educates children to be associated in any way with homosexuality.

    IMO, Ride and her partner made a very reasonable decision to out her in a very low-key way, and only after her death. That way, she doesn’t have to answer questions about it in the media, and it’s more difficult to cast her or the Foundation as “pushing a lesbian agenda” in their outreach to girls. (Not that there won’t be some wingnuts doing it, pissed off at even this ultra-low-key coming out.)

    At long last, Sally gets to come out, and to avoid not just the personal costs, but probably much of the cost to her legacy, by refusing to be part of a media frenzy in which she’s put in a no-win situation of defending lesbianism at the expense of her foundation, or selling out her lesbianism to some extent to reduce the impact on her outreach to children.

    In general, I think that the more and the sooner people come out, the better, but I can see how things were especially fraught for her, and I’m just glad she came out.

    But was she the first lesbian in space, or just the first American lesbian in space?

  3. Mike de Fleuriot says

    For me, the fact that she did science is the most important thing in all the other positive stuff of her life. And we should support science more, so that these killer diseases can be stopped as soon as they are detected. Anything else about her life is just a bonus for us, if she was willing to tell us about it.

    We do not need to know everything about the hero’s in our world, especially things they want to keep private and that includes the reasons to keep these things private.

  4. slc1 says

    My position is that a gay or lesbian who gay bashes has no right to privacy and should be outed. Otherwise, it’s nobody’s business.

  5. Paul W., OM says

    We do not need to know everything about the hero’s in our world, especially things they want to keep private and that includes the reasons to keep these things private.

    Ride’s famous ride was largely a PR stunt.

    I’m not demeaning her abilities or even outstandingness as an astronaut, but her main significance to pretty much anyone who didn’t personally love her was not that she drove the bus to space, but that she did it Driving While Female.

    She’s mainly a celebrity who traded on that celebrity for decades. She did it for good reasons, and for good causes, and I say good for her, but she’s still mainly a celebrity whose primary importance is her public image.

    That makes her image and “hero status” public property, and we have every right to analyze her as a pop culture phenomenon, and draw whatever lessons we can. Our main obligation is not to her, certainly not now that she’s dead, but to society—what does it say about society that her image was constructed and preserved in the ways that it was?

    I’d say that we have an obligation to try to see through the PR bullshit that NASA spins, making more or less interchangeable parts into “heroes,” and fanning the ridiculous hero-worshipping mentality that brings in the money.

    Ride had no particular right to be incredibly famous. She was a fine specimen of humanity, but not that special, and was quite lucky to be in the right place at the right time to be selected by NASA as the spokesmodel for The Right Stuff. (I don’t mean that in a sexist way—e.g., John Glenn was very much a lucky spokesmodel, too, and he was not so special that he deserved to be so famous that he could ride that fame into the US Congress. And at that time, he was crucially lucky to have a penis, not a vagina.)

    The 13 women who trained to be astronauts in an earlier, aborted NASA program were no less deserving of fame, and no less “heroic.”

    Like every famous astronaut, Ride was somewhat overrated in the popular imagination, and mostly very, very lucky to be the chosen spokesmodel.

    And she exploited her fame accordingly, selling a product that the “famous astronaut” image is good for. A fine product—science for kids—but no less a celebrity endorsement.

    Celebrities who endorse products should be analyzed critically. If you really value your privacy, don’t become a celebrity, and if you do become a celebrity by accident, don’t trade on that celebrity, selling your mostly undeserved name recognition.

    We, as the people who so much PR was directed at by NASA and by Ride herself, have every right not to take the image at face value, and not to be overly concerned with her “privacy,” especially now that she’s dead.

    We especially have every reason to talk about a closeted gay or bi person, and why she was closeted for so long. It’s an important subject, and she makes a good example.

    Do keep in mind that she chose to come out in her obituary, presumably fully aware that it would spark a lot of discussions like this one.

    Maybe she thought “I’ll be dead, so it’s okay—I won’t have to deal with the reporters and stuff, so go ahead and talk about it.”

    Or maybe she thought it was past time to come out, and this was her last chance.

    Or maybe she just didn’t want to dis her partner by not acknowledging their decades-long relatinship in her obituary, and thought the cost in being-talked-about was worth it, at least if she’s dead.

    And no matter how you slice, it’s interesting to anyone interested in equal rights.

    As an astronaut, per se, Sally Ride isn’t very interesting. She’s more interesting as a female astronaut. She’s even more interesting as a lesbian astronaut. (Or bi or whatever.)

    If we’re going to talk about her at all, I think this is much better and more socially responsible than blather about her being a “hero” of “science” which IMO she mostly wasn’t, except in a mostly extrinsic, the-times-make-the-woman sense. I personally know more people more important to science than Sally Ride, who will never be famous, much less the kind of household name she was—people who aren’t overhyped interchangeable parts like astronauts, or even “female astronauts.”

    To me, the most heroic thing she ever did was come out, however late in the game. (Have any male astronauts ever come out as gay?)

    Now that’s cool.

  6. Paul W., OM says

    I guess the tl;dr is partly that I think it’s mostly ridiculous that people are talking about Sally Ride so much because she was the first American female astronaut/cosmonaut.

    (That in itself is actually mainly interesting because it came 20 years after Russian female cosmonauts. WTF?)

    And if we’re going to talk about Ride, specifically, it seems more interesting that she came out of the closet—maybe 20 years late on that score too, by some measure—than that she was a gosh-darned American woman in space.

  7. cswella says

    I wouldn’t be in favor of outing them as retribution for their actions. Seems to be a bit of ad hominem.

    Really, they should be taken to task for their lies and bigotry, regardless of their orientation.

    And anyway, with all the degrees of sexuality, how would someone other than the person in question be in a position to judge their orientation?

  8. says

    slc1 writes:
    My position is that a gay or lesbian who gay bashes has no right to privacy and should be outed.

    Not burned at the stake? You’re mellowing in your dotage.

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