Sally Ride Comes Out

Posted on 2012 July 26


I went to school with astronauts. Two of them, to be precise. Kathy Sullivan attended high school with me — though, as far as I recall, we never met. The same goes for Sally Ride, who attended my middle school when I was there. Of course, I had no inkling either of them would become world famous. How can any of us know which of our childhood associates will be celebrated in the future?

For that matter, how can we predict the outcomes of our decisions, decades into the future? It’s hard enough to plan one’s day-to-day life, much less gauge the effects those choices will have on ourselves and others.

Only now, with the publication of her obituary, do we learn that Dr. Ride was gay. And already members of the LGBT community are criticizing her for failing to “come out” during her 27-year relationship with her partner, Sally Ride Science executive V.P. Tam O’Shaughnessy. It’s as if Ride sinned against her lesbian sisterhood by keeping her orientation private.

Many of the more militant LGBT members speak as though the lives of gays are mere fodder in the battle for emancipation. To them, it’s of little consequence that peoples’ worlds sometimes fall to ruin when they come out. All that matters is the fight. The end justifies the means.

What, then, might have happened had Ride gone public about her sexual preference when she was alive? To begin with, her efforts on behalf of science education for girls would have been diluted by the publicity. Doubtful parents might have suspected her intentions. NASA would have been embroiled in a dispute over whether Ride had violated 1980s regulations and become a security risk by engaging in sexual activities that, in those years, might have subjected her to blackmail. In short, controversy would have dragged down Ride’s sincere efforts. She’d have overwhelmed us with her feminism and her lesbianism and her controversial actions. She’d have seemed like a kook.

Astronauts are nothing if not meticulous. They plan carefully; they execute with deliberation. Ride and her partner prepared her obituary when they knew she’d be taken by cancer, and O’Shaughnessy is listed first among Ride’s survivors. In death — as we mourn her passing, laud her career, and renew our respect for her work on Earth and high above it — Ride quietly unloads a stunner of a revelation, forcing us to acknowledge an important piece of her character, a part we hadn’t known but must now accept if we are to honor the entirety of her. Ride chose to reveal her preferences at a moment that would support lesbians without harming her other causes.

And that, dear LGBT activists, is a perfect example of why each of your cohorts should be free to decide for themselves when, or whether, to go public.

Granted, I’m not a member of the LGBT community. But its rank and file have issued enough comment over the years to afford everyone the right of response. Besides, people aren’t merely summed up by their sexual orientation; they’re also human. And I lay claim to membership, however tenuous, in that community.

In any case, Sally Ride’s timing was impeccable. Neither she nor any of us with her in the eighth grade could possibly have foreseen the arc of her near-perfect career trajectory. Somehow, though, Ride knew how to bring it in for a beautiful landing. I salute her.