Sally Ride sparks posthumous debate on coming out

Sally Ride, foreground, and her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy co-wrote the pioneering astronaut’s obituary and discreetly disclosed their 27-year relationship at the end of it.

Associated Press (2008)

Sally Ride, foreground, and her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy co-wrote the pioneering astronaut’s obituary and discreetly disclosed their 27-year relationship at the end of it.

NEW YORK — Pioneering astronaut Sally Ride, who relished privacy as much as she did adventure, chose an appropriately discreet manner of coming out.

At the end of an obituary that she co-wrote with her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, they disclosed to the world their relationship of 27 years. That was it.

As details trickled out after Ride's death Monday, it became clear that a circle of family, friends and co-workers had long known of the same-sex relationship and embraced it. For many millions of others, who admired Ride as the first American woman in space, it was a revelation — and it sparked a spirited discussion about privacy vs. public candor in regard to sexual orientation.

Some commentators, such as prominent gay blogger Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast, second-guessed Ride's decision to opt for privacy.

"She had a chance to expand people's horizons and young lesbians' hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to," he wrote. "She was the absent heroine."

Others were supportive of Ride's choices.

Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who in 2003 became the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican world, noted that he and Ride were baby boomers who grew up "in a time when coming out was almost unthinkable."

Robinson is 65. Ride was 61 when she died of pancreatic cancer.

"For girls who had an interest in science and wanted to go places women had not been allowed to go, she was a tremendous role model," Robinson said Wednesday. "The fact that she chose to keep her identity as a lesbian private — I honor that choice."

However, Robinson said he had a different standard for younger gays.

"While there is still discrimination and coming out will still have repercussions, the effect of those repercussions are vastly reduced now," Robinson said. "I believe that times have changed."

Fred Sainz, vice president for communications for the national gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, said his initial reaction to the revelation about Sally Ride was, "What a shame that we didn't learn this while she was alive."

"However, the fact it was acknowledged in death will be an incredibly powerful message to all Americans about the contributions of their LGBT counterparts," Sainz said. "The completeness of her life will be honored correctly."

Ride's sister, Bear Ride, a lesbian who has been active in gay-rights causes, e-mailed a supportive explanation of Ride's choice.

"She was just a private person who wanted to do things her way," she wrote. "She hated labels (including 'hero')."

Carolyn Porco, a prominent planetary scientist and leader of the imaging team on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn, met Ride many years ago when she was an astronaut candidate, already steeped in the NASA mindset of reserve and self-effacement.

"Following her career all these years, she struck me as a woman of impeccable class, and it doesn't surprise she wanted to keep her private life private," Porco said. "I don't think it's anyone else's business, and I'd love for us all to get to the place where it doesn't matter anymore."

Sally Ride sparks posthumous debate on coming out 07/25/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 11:53pm]

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