Space holds an undeniable romance. That final frontier. The expanse beyond the edges of our understanding. So those who go there, who touch the heavens, they too inspire awe and wonder among us. And to be the first, well, that’s where terms like “role model” and “hero” get thrown around. For a generation of girls, young and old, Sally Ride was that hero. The first U.S. woman in space, the very definition of a trailblazer, the inspiration for dreamers everywhere. The woman who made millions of little girls not only reach for, but know they could touch the stars. So her passing today was sad on many levels. One can never truly understand when a hero dies.
But tucked within the somber news was a very significant piece of news. Written into her obituary was this simple sentence:
“She is survived by Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years; her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear, a niece and a nephew.”
Yes, universe, the first woman in space was also in a long-term, loving relationship with another woman for almost three decades. People rarely make news with their obituaries. But this, indeed, is news. This is the first time that Sally’s relationship was Tam was referred to anything other than “good friends.” Tam helped found and is COO and Executive Vice President of Sally Ride Science. She has also authored books with Sally. The two had known each other since Sally was 12.
Buzzfeed spoke with Sally’s sister, Bear, about her coming out by way of obituary. And Bear, who also happens to be a lesbian – though with a name like Bear, come on – said:
“I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them.”
So what does it all mean? A hero to all turns out to be a gay woman in private? It means both nothing and everything. Being gay doesn’t ever change who you are as a person. It doesn’t change what you’ve done – your contributions, your potential, your core. It’s just a little difference about who you fall in love with. Who you make your life with. Who you spend 27 years together with. So, Sally Ride was gay. She’s still awesome.
But then, in another way it means so much. Because in this little piece of news is another reminder that we, gay people, are no different than everyone else. And, sometimes, we can be unfathomably extraordinary. Gay men and women contribute to culture, to history, to science. Our contributions are an integral part of our society and this world. And each time one of us stands up and is counted as gay, our accomplishments are a reminder that we are everywhere and a part to everything.
So I wish Sally had come out during her life so we could have embraced her as a community and she could have seen what her coming out meant to all of us? Certainly. The age of coming out only in death à la Rock Hudson is gradually, happily fading into stardust as more and more people feel comfortable and safe being who they are in life. But what I really wish is that now, when little girls stare at the stars, they’ll know the amazing, inspiring woman who was the first to travel amid them was gay. And that we all have the ability to reach our dreams, no matter how high and how far and how vast. Safe travels back into the stars, Sally.