America’s First Woman In Space Was A Lesbian, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 26 2012 @ 2:35pm

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Here we go again. Hundreds of readers are still dissenting through our in-tray and Facebook page. One reader:

First of all, being a member of the astronaut corps during the '80s and beyond, one could not be openly gay.  Hell, one couldn't even get a security clearance (a requirement of the job) if one was openly gay until 1996, and even then it was iffy until 2006.  How do you expect that Ms. Ride could have been an astronaut and been out during the 1980s?

She quit in 1987. Thereafter she could have been an incredible voice in defense of gay people in the military and against the gay ban. She was utterly silent. Another writes:

I know people who knew Sally and Tam. All I can say is, just because she wasn't sitting on the back of convertibles at Pride Parades doesn't mean she was in the closet. She didn't hide anything from people who knew her, probably much like Anderson Cooper was "out" to people who knew him long before he came out to the broader public. Ride was a very private person who used her privilege to help and inspire future scientists both male and female, something we sorely need more of in this country. You whine and rail about how she "was silent during the most epic and important years of both the AIDS crisis and the battle over marriage and the military." Good god. Just because YOU didn't hear her hardly means she was silent!

Look: read the original post. One sentence:

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.

And no one said anything about pride parades. The one most powerful thing any gay person can do as an activist is be out. That means, when you are a public person, out to the world. To do otherwise is not a passive act; it is an active act of lying. I mean, how many famous heterosexuals are straight in their private life but completely single when it comes to the public arena? To keep up that pretense takes work – every day. And it requires shame. Another:

You have no idea what role Sally Ride's erotic interests played in her life, nor do I, but for a significant percentage of people (men and women), it is not the central, defining role.

"Erotic" interests? This has nothing to do with Ride's "sex life". It's about her public identity. Acknowledging one's orientation in public is no more about sex than reporting that someone is married. A reader points out:

Billie Jean King did not come out of the closet; she was outed. She didn't "take the risk and face the consequences." She simply faced the consequences. You might want to ask her what she thinks about Sally Ride, since King has said, "a person should be able to reveal their sexual orientation on their own terms."

And I agree! I would never have outed Ride while she lived. I believe it is a person's private decision and Sally Ride had every right to choose the path of being AWOL while her gay brothers were dying in thousands and while lesbian soldiers were being thrown out of the military and lesbian couples were fighting to keep custody of their children. Another:

I'm not sure the closet was a factor so much as her Scandinavian-American cultural values and Calvinist upbringing.  Both her parents were Presbyterian elders, remember, and her sister, who is herself a Presbyterian pastor, remarked that Ms. Ride was a "Norwegian, through and through" when asked why she was so private.  I think there is something to this. Like Ms. Ride, I was raised in a very traditional Scandinavian-American family (and am openly gay).  Within this subculture there's an emphasis on the value of privacy and very purposeful disclosure of one's personal life to family and close friends.  Moreover, one gains a sense that one should not, even implicitly, put one's self above others or make one's self an example for others.  (This was codified by Aksel Sandemose in a 1933 book about Danish village life as the "Law of Jante" and has been much satirized.)

But Ride's sister, Bear, is also a lesbian yet decided to come out of the closet years ago. And I assume Scandinavian-Americans do not keep their heterosexual marriages and relationships completely "private". Another reader:

Could you share your thoughts with us about the different coming outs of Sally Ride and Anderson Cooper? It seems like you were easier on Anderson's decision to come out later in life. Is it that Anderson did come out and that Sally didn't and waited for her obituary to do it for her? I'm not trying to be antagonistic, I'm just trying to understand what seems like very different tones in your pieces about the two of them.

Well: duh. Anderson did what Ride didn't. Another, echoing many readers, suggests that I am being sexist:

How can you be so pragmatic about Obama but not about Sally Ride? She picked battles, just like Obama – just not the battle you could share with her. I think you wear blinders about the difficulties women face.

I'm not saying there are no difficulties. There could have been immense, career-ending difficulties. But civil rights heroes face those difficulties down. And I wasn't asking for her to run a country – just to be honest about who she really was in order to help others. Another tries to turn the tables:

Let me just point out a glaring hypocrisies you're indulging in: You snipe that "in 1985, Billie Jean King had been openly lesbian for four years," in response to a reader's suggestion that the Type A, macho/military world Ride worked in was a reasonable excuse for her staying closeted.

Well, in 1985 Andrew Sullivan had six years to go before he came out publicly – and that in the tolerant elite/academic world that DC journalism, and not least TNR, straddles. Here's the 1991 Time article where you did it. And when you recalled the moment earlier this month, you noted that you less came out than – your word – "stumbled" out. No doubt you'd have come out eventually, anyway, but don't go behaving now as if you were some brave pioneer. As you wrote today, "others took the risk and faced the consequences." At the time your sexuality was evidently secondary (or maybe tertiary) to what you really cared about: your work. It appears Ride lived by a similar code. I realize that your understanding of the importance of sexuality to one's self, and therefore to work, love, and the rest of life, has changed, and that you now consider it primary. And I agree. But if you're going to blast Sally Ride for having a different view, you should save a bullet for young Andrew Sullivan as well.

I was out by the age of 23 to anyone who could possibly know me. My public coming out to the world was merely a function of my writing about gay issues and then getting a big job in journalism and being asked to confirm what everyone already knew. What was I going to do: lie? Why? And my view on sexual orientation as a part of life has not changed at all. It is one part of me, not all of me, but as critical a part of me as a heterosexual orientation is to a heterosexual. Now try going a day if you are straight without ever giving a public clue as to your orientation. No mention of wife, husband, kids, marriage, girlfriend, boyfriend, home, private life … Now try doing that for decades. It takes work. Another reader with a long memory:

In 2002 you said of Rosie O'Donnell coming out, "I must say I feel bad for having prodded O'Donnell to do this before she was ready. She picked her time and made her case." Sally Ride was worthy of having the right to pick her own time and make her own case too, even if it was after her death.

Agreed! And I didn't out Sally Ride in her lifetime. Another:

You know Andrew, maybe it's just the way the discourse has run, but you seemed a lot more sympathetic to people like Ted Haggard than Ride. I'm not sure that's right.

I think I am more forgiving of those who are so obviously fucked up they are as much victims of homophobia as enabling of it. I dont regard Haggard as a role model (more a cautionary tale of how the fundamentalist psyhe can be so damaging), but I can pity him for his pathologies, even as I make no excuses for his lies. But the point about Ride was how unfucked-up she was, how brilliant a role model she could have been to young lesbians.

And now we know that her real lesson to young lesbans was and is: duck and cover.

Earlier thoughts in the thread here, here, here and here.

(Photo: NASA astronaut Robert Crippen (C, first row), the Space Shuttle Challenger crew commander, pose in January 1983 in Johnson Space Center, Houston, with his crewmembers, Astronauts Frederick Hauck (R), Shuttle pilot, Sally Ride (L), John Fabian and Norman Thagard, mission specialists. They will be aboard the Shuttle Challenger for NASA STS-7 mission, scheduled of June 1983. By AFP/Getty Images)