Pioneering U.S. 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.
As details emerged after Ride’s death, it became clear that a circle of family, friends and co-workers had long known of the same-sex relationship and embraced it. For 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 both 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. “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 – to the point of insisting that his own clergy in New Hampshire be open about their sexuality if they are gay or lesbian.
“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.”
There’s no question that gays and lesbians overall are coming out now at a higher rate and an earlier age than those of previous generations. According to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, adults aged 30-54 are 16 times more likely to be closeted than those under 30.
In pop culture, the fine arts, the entertainment industry and some individual sports, it’s now commonplace for luminaries to be out as gay or lesbian. But in many other fields, the dynamics are different.
Aside from Ride, no other astronaut of any nation has come out as gay. No active player in the four major North American pro sports leagues – football, basketball, baseball, hockey – has come out as gay, though some retired players have done so. Ken Mehlman came out as gay only after he completed his stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
According to a study by the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, 51 percent of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual workers hide their sexual identity to most or all of their fellow employees. Citing those findings, gay rights activists have been pushing, so far in vain, for Congress to outlaw workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign’s vice president for communications, said his initial reaction to the revelation about 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.”
That’s been a common theme in the commentary about Ride’s relationship – a hope that American society will someday reach a point where being gay or lesbian is no more noteworthy than being straight.
Sarah Blazucki, editor of Philadelphia Gay News, said that day has not arrived.
“It’s still important to come out, because we’re not post-gay yet,” she said. “When we do have full equality, then it's a different story.”
Gay blogger Bil Browning, said the revelation about Ride left him with mixed feelings.
“I wish that she had come out while she was alive,” he said. “The statement that would have been sent to young lesbians across the country would have been like Obama's election was to African-American kids.”
On the other hand, he acknowledged generational differences and said Ride was entitled to her privacy.
“The activist in me thinks it’s a missed opportunity,” Browning said. “But she did the right thing at the end.”