27 Jul 2012
- Written by Andrew Sullivan
GUEST WORDS - 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 lead! 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.
I guess putting this information at the end of the obit is in line with the Times' treatment of sexuality; they certainly would not go out of their way to identify someone as heterosexual other than in listing survivors. That alone shows how far we've come. But are we really in a world where the fact that one of the most respected and pioneering women of the past quarter century was a lesbian is not worthy of mentioning more prominently?
According to the obit, Ride was very concerned with promoting women's opportunities in the sciences. She apparently was not as interested in promoting opportunities, or visibility at least, for gays and lesbians (at least, no such efforts are mentioned), which is a shame.
But assuming that she was not out before her death, I don't think we can judge this as a failing. We all do what we can, and play the role we are most comfortable with. Now that the information is in the open, the LGBT community has another heroine to claim as our own and celebrate posthumously.
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.
She was the absent heroine.
(Andrew Sullivan is a well known writer and blogs at thedailybeast.com where this column was first posted.) –cw
Vol 10 Issue 60
Pub: July 27, 2012