Home > Politics and Society, Yuri > Sally Ride and Why I’m Okay With Her Not Coming Out

Sally Ride and Why I’m Okay With Her Not Coming Out

Four days ago, the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, passed away due to pancreatic cancer.

I’ll openly admit that while I’m keen on the idea of space exploration and science beyond the confines of our planet, the natural sciences have never been my forte, and I have never exactly kept up with advances in space science and technologies (at least until a friend got me heavily invested in the SpaceX Falcon 9 C2+ mission), and until the headlines broke, I’ve never actually heard of Sally Ride. (In my defense, I did know Christa McAuliffe, but I suppose she has the advantage of having tragically been killed by a highly famous Challenger disaster.) Therefore, although the subtitle of this blog is probably a big hint that I was quite pleasantly surprised that Sally Ride’s obituary revealed that she was, in fact, lesbian, and had a long-term relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy. (Personally, I’m amused at the possibility that Sally Ride’s legacy will now be attacked by conservatives who seek to discredit everything she did because she was an “immoral sexual deviant”, a possibility which – despite my morbid sense of humor – I honestly hope will not happen.)

That said, as they did with CNN journalist Anderson Cooper when he came out that he way gay (despite the fact that he has actually always been openly gay, except people didn’t seem to have noticed the first time), some LGBT rights activists are criticizing Ride for not coming out soon enough with the fact that she was, in fact, lesbian. Andrew Sullivan was one of the most critical:

I’m not so understanding. We can judge this decision in the context of Ride’s life. 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. But the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to.

He was hardly alone. Tommi Avicolli Mecca was more understanding but also no less obvious:

I understand that some people prefer to be quiet about their private lives, but imagine all the good she could have done as a living role model rather than a dead one? Especially for all those girls struggling with their sexual identities in hostile environments (and there are a lot of them) throughout this still very homophobic country. She wanted to teach them science, but what about accepting themselves for who they are?

And J. Bryan Lowder chips in as well:

What might Ride’s visibility have meant to LGBT youth, to young lesbians, who are all too often crowded off of the media stage by gay men? Gay youths are in desperate need of mentors, and what makes Ride’s reticence all the more disappointing is how clearly gifted she was in that kind of role. […] As we remember Ride’s well-lived life and celebrate her contributions to exploration and science, we can also regret her silence on this issue. Call it a personal choice or call it a flaw, I’m sad that Ride felt the need, whatever her reasons, to withhold this part of herself.

It’s an understandable sentiment. Being a LGBT even today is like the European Extreme mode of life, and many feel that members of the LGBT community need whatever support they can get. A national heroine such as Ride could have boosted morale, gave plenty of individuals struggling with their sexuality hope, accelerated the normalization of the LGBT community.

But ultimately, however, I disagree with the rhetoric and the attitudes, and I believe people should lay off on Ride’s decision to keep her life private for four simple reasons.

1. Sally Ride did not owe you anything.

Somewhat honestly, the whole rhetoric about “disappointment” kind of offends me. It insinuates that Ride somehow fell short of an expected standard that we impose onto people, that she did not fulfill some of her obligations. If there are signs of this, I’ve clearly missed it. All accounts describe her as a “moral’ person (save extreme-right conservatives somewhere deep in the United States who will denounce her for being a “lesbian feminist”), she paid her taxes, committed no crimes. And while she certainly wasn’t obligated to as a private citizen, she made great contributions to NASA as a scientist and physicist, she founded the company Sally Ride Science to encourage young girls to pursue interests and careers in science in a culture where people still believe that men are better at math and science while women are better at the arts and humanities. Oh, and she happened to be the first American woman in space as well. That might’ve gotten lost in there somewhere.

We don’t ask this of “normal” people. I can spend the rest of my life at a nine-to-five job as a hotelier to pay the bills it and have no other earthly accomplishments to my name, and the vast majority of the world won’t be “disappointed” (except maybe my parents, but that’s another story). I can die never having created a foundation to encourage young girls to become highly accomplished ninja maids, I can die never having contributed an iota of thought to literature (my not-so-secret passion), and I can die never having set a foot in space (if that’s an acceptable analogy in zero gravity), and the world at large will not be “disappointed” in me. Yet Ride – who did all this and more (well, maybe not the ninja maid part, but she was a student of English literature) – is somehow subject to “disappointment” because she, as a lesbian and not-a-“normal”-person, didn’t publicly announce her sexuality? This rings hollow to me, and it brings me up to my second point…

2. Sally Ride’s life belonged to Sally Ride.

It was at the end of 2008, when I was finishing up my third semester of university, that a handful of friends and I – ladies and gentlemen both – went to the bar, and half of them promptly lost their alcohol control. While that night will always be remembered first and foremost by the comic resistance one of the girls put up as we tried to drag her from the sofa when the bar had to close, I also remember a particular scene in which my male friends – who shall go unnamed like most other people in this story – asked for the measurements of one of my female (and sober) friends. The latter was understanding and aware that he was drunk (he was memorably quoted as saying “if I can cup your breast with one hand, it’s a B cup; if I can’t, it’s larger”), and coolly asked him why she should divulge such information, in which he replied, “Because you will make many men happy by doing so, and increase the net happiness of humanity.”

Needless to say, he did not get her measurements. (He also denies ever having said that, although – given that he had been drunk – I would’ve been impressed if he said he had remembered.)

First off, no, I’m not equating my friend’s measurements with Ride’s sexual orientation, nor am I equating the morale support her coming out would’ve generated with the ammunition my friend’s measurements would’ve given to the culture of female objectification. Ultimately, however, the principle is the same: These are private, personal aspects of a person’s being, and the only person who should’ve ever had any say as to whether or not to divulge that information was the person themselves. None of us owe it to society to divulge that we are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered anymore than we owe it to divulge our measurements. These are personal aspects of our lives, and unless you seek a society where everyone knows everything about everyone else, then you will respect that privacy, however much going public with it might help you.

My meido fetish is my business, my friend’s measurements are her business, and Ride’s sexual orientation is her business. Until we’re ready to tell you, please keep out of it.

3. Sally Ride was not Superwoman.

I don’t read Western comics. I don’t follow D.C. or Marvel superheroes, I find their stories and plotlines laughable and hilarious, I find their art ugly and worthy of snark, and I’m disappointed at how much these narratives have been turned into cash cow franchise that has no consistent beginning or end, and are solely devoted to keeping the franchise running as long as possible. My knowledge of characters like Batman and Superman and the X-Men come solely from popular culture references and the cinematic universes of these characters. Even then, however, I have once stumbled upon an interesting quote: “Where was Superman?” The question was asked in the context of whether society has become too complacent, relying on Superman everytime disaster strikes, and then criticizing him when he doesn’t show up in the nick of time to save the day. (One might even suspect this is an analogy towards God, and the question of “where’s God when disaster strikes”.)

Let’s make this clear: Ride was not Superwoman. She was not Superman, and she certainly wasn’t God. She could neither be everywhere at once, nor could she do everything at once. People describe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “genuine superwoman“, and she sure hasn’t worked for NASA or been in space yet. Perhaps the term wouldn’t be an unfair figurative title for Ride; after all, she continuously worked in aerospace engineering from 1978 until her death in 2012. She was involved in space missions such as STS-2 and STS-3, and was a member of the flight crew of STS-7 and STS-41-G. She helped developed the robotic arm used by space shuttles to grab objects in space, she was part of the commission that investigated the Challenger shuttle disaster, and she became one of NASA’s strategists at their headquarters at Washington, D.C. Hell, she was the only person who publicly supported engineer Roger Boisjoly when he gave NASA pre-launch warning signs of the ill-fated Challenger disaster. If this isn’t real life superhuman-ism, I do not know what is.

But ultimately, she could not do everything, nor should she ever have been expected to be. Perhaps she could have, but she wasn’t a LGBT rights activist alongside an astronaut, a physicist, a NASA strategist, a CEO of a company that encouraged young girls to be interested in the sciences, and a feminist icon. And that should be fine with everyone.

“But we didn’t ask much of her!” some might say. “It would’ve been enough for her to have said ‘I’m a lesbian’! Three words! How hard could that have been?”

This brings us to our last point:

4. Sally Ride was a heroine for gender equality.

This is the part where some people are going to hate me, because this is the part where I start becoming cold and rational.

Let me get something straight first: I am not saying being a heroine for gender equality means you are immune to criticism. The statement is about the context in which Ride became a heroine for gender equality, and why that is so significant.

The fact of the matter is that as much as I have mentioned that being a member of the LGBT community today is akin to living life on European Extreme mode, the truth was that it was even harder in the 70’s and 80’s (necessitating Kojima Hideo to create an even more insane difficulty level for the next Metal Gear Solid game). The odds were stacked even further against Ride due to the fact that she lacked a Y chromosome and a hanging pair of testicles. If you think religious fundamentalists crying out against the “homosexual agenda” and “feminism” being the elements that are “destroying moral society” are disgusting, understand that this was the dominant view of American society back in the 70’s and 80’s. This was an era where women are told not to “worry your pretty little head”, and advertisements as blatantly sexist as the 1970 Goodyear Polyglas commercial were totally normal.

We have the luxury to take equality amongst men and women today because of centuries of work from the women’s suffrage movement (except, sorry, we don’t have that luxury). Ride did not, if interviews of her were any indicator:

No other astronaut was ever asked questions like these: Will the flight affect your reproductive organs? The answer, delivered with some asperity: “There’s no evidence of that.” Do you weep when things go wrong on the job? Retort: “How come nobody ever asks Rick those questions?” Will you become a mother? First an attempt at evasion, then a firm smile: “You notice I’m not answering.”

Yes, she could’ve took a stand back then and then be remembered today as the woman who embraced her homosexuality, but was ostracized for it. She could’ve been vindicated today. But if she did, would she have managed to become the first woman in space once blacklisted by the social morality police? Would she have shown her country that women weren’t somehow “second-class”? Would she have been an inspiration of so many young ladies of dreams they could accomplish had she been blacklisted by NASA? Would we even care today whether the first American space heroine was a lesbian if she hadn’t been the first American space heroine?

I’m not going to answer those questions; you can answer them on your own.

*****

So, please. Stop with the criticizing of Sally Ride and her refusal to “come out”. Stop bashing her for not being a LGBT icon. Stop expecting her to have been all the things you wanted her to be. Be happy for the fact that she managed to convince society that women can be taken seriously. Be happy for the fact that she convinced America that girls can be scientists and astronauts too. Be happy for the fact that she died peacefully and with dignity. And, most importantly, be happy for the fact that – even though the Defense of Marriage Act tragically means O’Shaughnessy won’t be getting benefits despite surviving Ride – she managed to spend the last twenty-seven years of her life with the woman she loved.

That makes her enough of a LGBT icon for me.

Categories: Politics and Society, Yuri
  1. Darth_Slaverus
    July 27, 2012 at 12:51

    Although you’ve brought this topic up with me before, I very much enjoyed reading your full opinion piece on the topic of the public reaction to Sally Ride’s sexuality, and I agree with virtually everything you’ve said here. The end to your article is particularly poignant; it almost sent shivers down my spine.

    Long live kittens and yuri~

    -Darth

    • July 27, 2012 at 17:44

      Thank you for your support. I’m just glad that, for the most part, those who are critical are of a small minority, and most people will remember her as an American heroine who was capable of love, period. ^_^

      Kitties and yuri~ X3

  2. Anne
    July 27, 2012 at 14:18

    You make some powerful points here. 😀 I think it’s a very fair rebuttal to the criticisms, and I completely agree with you regarding the disappointment thing. I think she more than exceeded expectations simply by what she accomplished in her lifetime. I also heartily agree with her business being her business. If this is a country where privacy is valued, she should nether be prosecuted for her sexuality nor criticized for not making it public. In fact, I believe her sexuality should have been a non-issue altogether. A very well-written and enjoyable post to read. :]

    • July 27, 2012 at 17:46

      I admittedly do sympathize with the people who felt they should come out. As I’ve said, it’s difficult trying to look for great role models today who are not only nearly universally considered to be a great hero, but also non-heterosexual. But I think we should also respect what she has done, the context under which she did it, and the privacy she was entitled to. It’s easy to say these things when you were not Sally Ride. ^_^;

      Thank you very much for commenting~ ^_^

  3. anonymouspersonguy
    July 27, 2012 at 17:12

    Great post, phoenixfactory! It really highlights the existence of forces trying to convince closeted homosexuals to out themselves without regard for whether or not they’re ready to do so. Such a thing is incredibly unjust and it’s great that you’re taking a stand for those who aren’t ready/willing to out themselves 🙂

    • July 27, 2012 at 17:48

      Personally, I don’t think Sally Ride needs me to stand up for her, but I’m glad that I’m not the only person who thinks it is unfair for LGBT organizations – regardless of how well-intentioned they are – to pressure people to come out as a way to normalize their status in the world. People need to choose to come to terms with themselves and how they integrate with society; to assume that people will universally somehow automatically be happier for being open and truthful is arrogant to me. ^_^;

      Thank you for your comment~ ^_^

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