It’s hard to be courageous after you have died, but pioneering U.S. astronaut Sally Ride managed this with her posthumous coming out as being partnered with a woman for 27 years.
The news that Ride died at 61 years old, of pancreatic cancer, was felt particularly hard by the early generation of feminists who viewed her 1983 launch into space as a “sisterhood-is-powerful” moment. Ride was a hero for men, women and children. But it was the little girls who were the most transformed.
The Sally Ride Science website matter of factly listed Ride’s survivors as including Tam O’Shaughnessy. When I saw that, I immediately went online to confirm Tam was indeed a female. I posted the news on Facebook, and friends asked: “Did you know Sally Ride was a lesbian?” I had no clue.
Others may wonder why it matters, now that she has died. It matters to every child who feels isolated and fearful of what will happen if he or she comes out. To every adult living in fear. Ride could not be out beyond her circle of family and friends. But perhaps her boldly going where no famous American astronaut has gone before will pave the way for a new generation of pioneers.
Why did Sally hide? Having worked as a journalist in the gay media since 1984, I have written about pretty much every excuse in the book. Fear, family, career, child custody, safety, heterosexual marriage, military discharge, family inheritance, etc. There are dozens of reasons people remain closeted. But one of the most common is because their work and lives revolve around children.
We still live under the shadows of the very noxious belief that gays should not be around kids. The specious argument that gay people “recruit” youth has been a threat to the careers of countless teachers, Boy Scout leaders, coaches, camp counselors, school bus drivers and school janitors. It is also used against aunts and uncles.
One of the most notorious gay bar raids was in 1964 on Louie’s Fun Lounge in Leyden Township, Ill., when 109 people, including six women, were arrested. The Chicago Tribune did a story then about the teachers and school officials who were arrested, “Boards to Get Vice Raid Data on 8 Teachers,” and listed their names and where they taught. The next day the Tribune reported that at least two of them had quit.
Florida fired dozens of gay teachers from 1956 to 1965. Anita Bryant waged her “Save Our Children” campaign in the 1970s.
It is easy to connect the dots. Sally Ride, born in 1951, grew up in a society that arrested, fired and even murdered gay people. She died in a society that still does.
And all Ride wanted to do was teach and inspire young people. No doubt, in her mind, it was safer to do so from the closet. As her Sally Ride Science website stated:
“Sally’s historic flight into space captured the nation’s imagination and made her a household name. She became a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers and a hero to generations of adventurous young girls. After retiring from NASA, Sally used her high profile to champion a cause she believed in passionately — inspiring young people, especially girls, to stick with their interest in science, to become scientifically literate, and to consider pursuing careers in science and engineering.”
Ride probably made the calculated decision that her ability to do what she loved would be compromised by a society not yet fully embracing of her relationship status.
But even while she battled pancreatic cancer in the last 17 months of her life, somehow she must have also made a calculated decision to make one big step for humankind, as one final courageous gesture. Previous generations of closeted lesbians had their letters burned, used fake names when joining lesbian groups and died hidden in the closet. But not Sally Ride. I believe her family never would have outed her in death if she had not agreed to it in life.
Bear Ride, Sally’s sister, is also gay. She spoke to the website BuzzFeed about Sally’s legacy, her cancer and relationship: “I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them.”
I guarantee that it will make it easier for kids — but only if they are taught that part of Sally Ride’s life. In this society, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are often recloseted even after coming out. Our history books leave out important facts about our gay heroes, our leaders and our movement.
What we owe to Sally Ride, in exchange for her courage, is to work on making sure her life is not left on the editing room floor.
Tracy Baim is the publisher of Windy City Times, the oldest LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) newspaper in Chicago.