Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Out of stardust

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.


Erin O'Riordan said...

GLBTQ hero, women's hero, human race hero. Safe passage to the other world, brave scientist.

Redbone210 said...

I only disagree with one point you've made. I'm glad that Sally didn't make a large production about being gay. I'm glad that she lived her private life for herself.
Let's face it; the community can be tough and judgmental. Public figures are expected to be perfect, to live perfectly, and to act perfectly. Maybe Sally just wanted to live on her terms and not allow others to pigeonhole her into their agenda.
Her politics were her personal life. Private, not closeted. Living the life, not just parading and protesting about it. And I think that we should all learn to respect those that choose to do so and not make it seem like just because she’s gay and in the public eye, that she’s supposed to put herself completely out there.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Redbone. From what I've read of Sally Ride, she was an intensely private person who refused to cash in on her celebrity. It's telling that her post-NASA career was dedicated to science education; the only time she returned to a public role was to serve on the panels investigating the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

She lead a wonderful, full life of accomplishment on her own terms. I'm only sad that it was cut short. Why is there this insistence that a celebrity must share more?

Carmen SanDiego said...

Because of her I wanted to be an astronaut
Godspeed, Sally

JadedRogue said...

I'm going to be in the minority here, but she WAS out. To her family and why the hell does anyone have to announce their sexuality? Who we fuck and love is no ones business but who we want it to be our business. She was never a splashy person, she wasn't in the closet, who the hell is everyone to say that she should have been walking around carrying a rainbow flag? She was an extraordinary woman who did extraordinary things and I think it speaks more loudly that she was who she was in her own way than being on the cover of some crappy magazine announcing that she ate at the Y whenever possible.

e said...

Thanks for the tribute to an American hero. She will be missed.

Anonymous said...

totally agree with Redbone

Anonymous said...

Very well-said. Sweet and wistful, like the story itself.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Post NASA, she wanted to inspire girls and young women to embrace scientific careers. Can you imagine the backlash if she had come out, or been outed, while trying to that in the 1980s, 90s? Her goal would've been trashed. The publicity would've been: 'she's a dyke - if you study physics, people will think you're a dyke too.' (Trust me - this happened to a friend of mine.) Now, maybe that's getting easier, but only just. She lived in a happy, long-term relationship with a woman, AND managed to motivate young women who otherwise might never have explored a career in science.

Anonymous said...

I am thrilled she was gay but also sad that our society is the way it still is and she didn't feel comfortable in coming out while alive.

Rhea Flanery said...

She actually wasn't the first woman in space, but rather the first AMERICAN woman in space.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if they had a registered domestic partnership. If not, I'd say SR was seriously trying to fly under the radar.