This week, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Ride made history when she shot into space aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1983, a feat she repeated in 1984 before retiring from NASA. Later, she would be the only person to participate in probes of both the 1986 Challenger explosion and the 2003 Columbia crash, and in 2001 started a company, Sally Ride Science, to encourage young people, particularly girls, to pursue science and engineering. And she left a final mark on American history in the obituary her company provided, which says (presumably with her approval) that she is survived by her partner of 27 years, a woman named Tam O'Shaughnessy. "With that simple statement," says Chris Geldner at Buzzfeed, "Ride came out." Some gay advocates have voiced disappointment that Ride didn't acknowledge her sexual orientation sooner. Should this influential role model have come out before her death?
Yes. She abandoned the gay rights movement: Ride's "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," says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. "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." We can "judge this decision in the context of Ride's life," much of which was spent during a time when homophobia was more widespread. Still, it's clear she was an "absent heroine" of the gay rights movement.
"America's first woman in space was a lesbian"
No. With this obituary, Ride has contributed enormously to gay rights: "Ride's posthumous coming out is a wonderful gift to America's youth," says Michelangelo Signorile at The Huffington Post. Now it's clear she was not only the first American woman in space, but the first "gay or bisexual person…to fly in space as well." At a time when the Boy Scouts of America continues to shun openly gay members, and the owners of fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A flaunt their opposition to gay marriage, Ride's life is a testament to what gay people can achieve. Future generations can point to her and say, "This is what a lesbian looks like."
"Sally Ride, American hero: This is what a lesbian looks like"
And we should respect her choice: Perhaps Ride "didn't think her personal life was anyone's business but her own, and if that was the case, good for her!" says Maressa Brown at The Stir. "Why can't we just let our fellow citizens, gay or straight, live their lives as they wish — without sticking our noses in their bedrooms?" The last thing Ride would have wanted is to be "cast as a political pawn," and we should respect her choice while celebrating her trailblazing life.
"Sally Ride's private lesbian relationship wasn't our business until now"