Yesterday, Sally Ride, the first American woman to orbit the Earth in a spaceship, passed away at age 61 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. This was sad for many reasons. Her family and friends obviously miss her very much, but she also contributed to human progress on a much larger scale, doing groundbreaking work in physics, writing several books, teaching at the University of California, and spearheading various initiatives to make science more appealing and accessible to children, especially girls.
And, as we learned from her obituary, she was also in a committed relationship with a woman named Tam O’Shaughnessy for 27 years.
In an interview with The Broward Palm Beach New Times, Ride’s sister Bear (who is also gay) said that Sally decided to wait until death to come out because she was an intensely private person in all ways, not just in regards to her relationships:
“Sally was a profoundly private person. It was just part of who she was. We chalk that up to being Norwegian. She had a sense of ‘this is family stuff.’”
She added that Ride was not in the closet in her private life, with friends, family and colleagues all aware of, and friendly with, her partner Tam. She just wasn’t out to the general public. In reference to the battle for gay rights, Bear said “it wasn’t her battle of choice—the battle of choice was science education for kids. And I just hope that all the different components of Sally’s life go towards helping kids.”
They certainly will, this particular one included. When I was a little kid, I dreamed of being an astronaut. (Before I found out about the physical requirements, of course.) Sally Ride was my hero! And she was and remains one to many other kids, but especially girls, all over the world. Astronauts are pretty much universally admired, and to know that one of the first space explorers was a lesbian (or maybe bisexual; her obituary didn’t specify) is bound to increase LGBT kids’ sense of possibility by quite a bit. It’s one thing to claim various historical figures as queer; it’s another to know for sure. So thank you, Sally Ride, for giving up your privacy in death so that LGBT people all over the world—people whose battle this is, as well as people who are just trying to live—can have one more remarkable person to look up to. You’re an American hero in more ways than one.
Photo: National Image Archives