Why Sally Ride’s Lesbianism Matters
My take here.
My take here.
When readers ask me sincerely to stop for a minute and re-read posts written in real time and to reconsider, I try to listen. This blog has long been a conversation, rather than a monologue. So let me briefly say what I take away from this, having slept and prayed on it. My tone was increasingly off as the debate proceeded. I don't think it was off in the first post, which I stand by in full. But as the debate quickened, my defensiveness segued into an appearance of disrespect for someone recently dead whose immense achievements, as I said at the start, overwhelm any flaws. For that, I apologize. I got carried away by the argument and forgot the person and those who loved her. That is against what I know I believe in.
And I could have made my positive point better. I just wished she had been with us because of the immense good she could have done. I would never have violated her right to self-disclosure, but it would have been dishonest not to express my sadness at her decision.
Perhaps a better way of putting this is to point to another American icon, Bayard Rustin.
I'm working on a final post on this later. Meanwhile, three emails that stood out to me in the in-tray:
You are both wrong and being a bit of a jerk about it. Sally Ride came up in a really sexist world. I'll let women at NASA chime in definitively, but last I heard it's still a pretty darn retro place to be female. She remained in various roles that were NASA/government related. She was also a physics professor, another realm that is not a bastion of female dominance. Finally, she promoted Middle School science study – particularly to girls – through her foundation.
She wasn't trying to reach girls in the progressive elite; she was trying to reach girls who might even be growing up in less accepting parts of society (remember the Boy Scouts haven't quite moved forward on this one). Just by being a brilliant, talented, accomplished scientist, she presented a great role model for women and girls. She was famous for breaking barriers for women.
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:
A reader writes:
Perhaps the NYT was puzzled about reporting whether Sally Ride should be called a lesbian, or perhaps bisexual – since she had been married to a male astronaut for five years.
And then there's a bit of awkwardness in reporting on the length of her "partnership" with O'Shaugnessy. She was married to the other astronaut between 1982 and 1987. But her partnership with O'Shaugnessy is said to have been 27 years long, which means that it began in 1985 during her marriage. If one member of a heterosexual married couple begins a relationship with another person while married, and later marries the second person, it's not customary to celebrate anniversaries as dating back to when the extramarital romance began.
Even worse for the NYT, the obit now says:
The in-tray and our Facebook page are flooded with dissents against this post:
You list the numerous accomplishments of Sally Ride and then deride her for not having also fought for your pet cause? She hits 10 out of 10 on the lifetime achievement scale and you berate her because she didn't turn it up to 11. Good grief. How many crusades does one have to be on the forefront of before Andrew says, "Ok, I guess that's good enough."
Civil rights are not my "pet cause." They are civil rights. Would a heterosexual denied the right to marry regard securing it as a "pet cause"? Another:
Geez Andrew, you need to cut Sally Ride some slack. She made her career in a type-A, patriotic organization with strong ties to the military. Of course it was hyper-macho and homophobic. 27 years ago was 1985 and the closet was pretty damn full, for better or for worse. You haven't forgotten how bad it was in the military even five years ago, have you?
In 1985, the closet was not full of people who were dying of AIDS. They had no closet left. Hundreds of thousands were about to die, in a period where countering fear and bigotry became literally a way to save lives. In 1985, Billie Jean King had been openly lesbian for four years. Another:
I worked at NASA at Kennedy Space Center during the first three launches of the Shuttle program involved with retrieval of the boosters used to launch the shuttle. I'm gay, and was not out back then. This was Florida in the early '80s, and it felt more like the late '60s. The N-word was still prevalent. It was also a government funded operation, the Air Force was the major player, and everyone is an engineer. Being out was not an option. And all these years later, Florida hasn't changed its attitude that much, so I doubt the testosterone-charged atmosphere at NASA did either.
I'm struck by the notion that "being out was not an option." Sure it was. It is always an option. A truly difficult option, but an option. She chose not to go there, while she embraced many other causes. Others took the risk and faced the consequences. That kind of courage is what makes civil rights movements succeed. Another:
As a female pioneer not just in space, but, possibly more importantly, in physics, Ride had to know that coming out as a lesbian could weaken or negate the effects of her work and stature in refuting prejudice against women more generally: "Of course, SHE can do physics and handle space – she's pretty butch, not REALLY a woman," etc. It's cruel, it's unfair, but there it is. Young lesbians face discrimination both for being female and for being gay, and fighting sexism helps lesbians as well as straight women. If a lesbian feels she has to choose her battles, I'm not sure we should judge her choice.
The trouble is: you legitimize the assumptions about being a lesbian and not being a real woman by staying in the closet. And Ride was silent during the most epic and important years of both the AIDS crisis and the battle over marriage and the military. Those weren't any old years to be gay. They were the critical ones – when gay people were dying en masse, and when the possibility of civil rights and civil equality hung in the balance. In that struggle, she was sadly AWOL. Another:
That wasn't too hard, was it?
But it takes a long time into the NYT obit of Sally Ride for readers to realize that the first American woman in space was a lesbian, and, even then, you have to be alert. Maybe this could have tipped them off:
Dr. Ride was known for guarding her privacy. She rejected most offers for product endorsements, memoirs and movies, and her reticence lasted to the end. At her request, NASA kept her illness secret. In 1983, writing in The Washington Post, Susan Okie, a journalist and longtime friend, described Dr. Ride as elusive and enigmatic, protective of her emotions. “During college and graduate school,” Dr. Okie wrote, “I had to interrogate her to find out what was happening in her personal life.”
Now talk about a buried lede! The only thing preventing the NYT from writing an honest obit is homophobia. They may not realize it; they may not mean it; but it is absolutely clear from the obit that Ride's sexual orientation was obviously central to her life. And her "partner" (ghastly word) and their relationship is recorded only perfunctorily. The NYT does not routinely only mention someone's spouse in the survivors section. When you have lived with someone for 27 years, some account of that relationship is surely central to that person's life. To excise it completely is an act of obliteration. I'm afraid the Beast's tribute is worse. Lynn Sherr manages to write an appreciation which essentially treats Ride as a heterosexual. When Sherr writes this …
In technological terms, NASA was pushing ahead toward the 21st century. But in human terms, it had finally entered the 20th. And it could not have picked a better pioneer.
… she is referring to Ride's gender, not her sexual orientation. And one often over-looked aspect of this is the long-standing discomfort of some in the feminist movement with lesbians in their midst. Feminists often "inned" lesbian pioneers, or the lesbians closeted themselves. This was not because they were in a reactionary movement; it was because they were in a progressive movement that did not want to be "tarred" with the lesbian image. (Think of Bayard Rustin for a gay male equivalent). Now, of course, Ride chose the closet throughout her life. Given who she was, how independent and brilliant, brave and cool, this is surely testament to how deep homophobia ran in American life. But it may also, as one reader suggests, be part of a welcome shift:
We only know O'Shaugnessy is a female from that vague abstraction – "partner" – and from a parenthetical statement that Ms. O'Shaugnessy was the CEO of the late Ride's company. I have no idea if Ride was out to her friends or out to the public. But this could be another replication of the Anderson Cooper phenomenon – a movement towards a gay equality where people can come out on their own terms, without making what they perceive to be a big deal out of it. Hopefully we're getting to the point where being gay is an utterly unremarkable fact in a great American life.
I don't always keep up with the latest on who has come out openly, but this certainly came as a surprise to me.
Yesterday we made one final bleg requesting “your favorite moment of Dishness” – and you delivered in spades, as you always do. It’s hard to disagree with this reader’s pick: Your wedding, plain and simple. The photos, the setting, the dogs, the look in your faces: I’ve been reading you for 10+ years and you kept me looking forward and to … Continue reading Your Moments Of Dishness
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Today on the Dish, Andrew revisited his views on Sally Ride's responsibility to be out, holding up the model of Bayard Rustin, after a final round of reader emails. He then railed against the Chick-Fil-A boycott and called out the non-logic behind Josh Barro's hand-wringing on grim GDP growth news. And while the rightwing British press lamented that Romney didn't wear a ball-gag, Andrew assumed Insta-hack Watch on the online right's refusal to notice Romney's UK flop. And David Frum was still a neocon.
In election news, Romney's numbers picked up, while data showed that two times as many Republicans think Obama is Muslim than in 2008, though some Ohio Republicans said they'd defect. More disingenuousness from the Romney campaign on the ad front, while both campaigns rolled out Olympics viewer-focused ads. Maine marriage equality advocates, meanwhile, released a powerful ad, Scott Conroy previewed the presidential debates and cannabis legalization could be in sight. Plus, Eric Cantor stooped to new lows.
Aleppo may be under seige from the Syrian regime, and though John Nielsen-Gammon downplayed the likelihood of another Dust Bowl, food price spikes caused by the US drought could foment unrest abroad. Meanwhile, Burmese democracy leader and former political prisoner Min Ko Naing urged support of gradual reform in Burma.
In Olympics news, a legally blind Im Dong-hyun broke archery records and South Sudanese refugee Guor Marial will run under the Olympic flag as an independent. Meanwhile, Ayelet Shachar weighed the implications of the medals-for-citizenship Olympic mercenary trend, Joyner objected to Slate's comparisons of winning Olympic times throughout history, gold medals were increasingly less so, and the unfair advantage police trained their eyes on running prosthetics.
Andrew doused possible titillation about Tom Hardy's gay sex past with the declaration that latest Batman movie figuratively sucked, while a London staging of Swan Lake literally sucked. Forrest Wickman, meanwhile, argued all the effects-driven blockbusters look pretty much the same and Benjamin Wallace put the TomKat craziness in perspective. Katie Baker urged women to read a Reddit thread written by anonymous rapists, Héctor Abad recalled the history of spirits and Sam Kean dished on the practice of diagnosing maladies of belated famous figures. Readers argued that eliminating sharks is a bad idea, doctors employed less end-of-life care than non-doctors and Jay Rosen discussed the effectiveness of political journalism. D.H. Lawrence poem here, Hewitt Award Nominee here, VFYW here and low doses of Manic Pixie Dream Girls here.
The rest of the week after the jump:
Bronx, New York, 7.25 tonight. "Here comes the derecho!" Today on the Dish, Andrew was uproariously relentless in keeping track of Romney's UK gaffe-a-thon, as Boris Johnson and Brit readers piled on, as well as Luckovich. While the GOP nominee blew off the US press corps, Andrew rounded up the fingers-in-ears humming within the conservative … Continue reading The Daily Wrap