America Finds Out That Sally Ride, First Female Astronaut, Was Also First Lesbian Astronaut

For many people, Sally Ride’s death at the age of 61 yesterday was the first time they found out she was in a relationship with a woman, although Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy had been together for 27 years. A Sally Ride Science spokeswoman has confirmed that while Ride was married to a man, Steven Hawley, for five years, Ride did in fact identify as gay. Furthermore, if Ride had been with O’Shaughnessy for 27 years at the time of her death, their relationship dates back to while Ride was still married to Hawley. But while O’Shaughnessy was the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Sally Ride Science, and the couple co-authored a number of books together, most of America is only now finding out that one of America’s most famous women and feminist icons was gay.

Ride’s sister, Bear (who also identifies as gay), chalks it up to her sister’s sense of privacy (although not a desire to stay closeted), pointing out that many people in Sally Ride’s life didn’t even know she was dying of pancreatic cancer. Bear says that “Sally didn’t use labels. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy…” A spokeswoman from Sally Ride Science has confirmed that “there had not, to her knowledge, previously been published acknowledgment of Ride and O’Shaughnessy’s relationship.” Bear says that her sister “never hid her relationship,” but also notes earnestly that “Sally’s very close friends, of course, knew,” although the fact that only a few close friends knew after a full 27 years makes Sally and Tam seem even more private.

sally and tam, via the american library association

Ride’s romantic relationship with O’Shaughnessy began in 1985, when being an out public figure was much harder to conceive of than it is today. It seems as though while not necessarily remaining intentionally closeted, Ride may have taken the route that many public figures have for decades, and chosen to conduct her personal relationships outside of the eye of the public, without disclosing anything about her sexual orientation at all. But even if the only factor influencing Ride’s decision was a desire to maintain privacy, given that it was 1985 and given how hard Ride had to work to become the hero that she was to so many, one has to wonder: was being out even really an option for her?

In its profile of Ride, The Advocate notes that if Ride had been out when she was becoming a NASA astronaut in 1977, it’s very unlikely she would ever have made it to space, “as the government believed gays represented security risks thanks to potential blackmail situations.” And while most of Ride’s public career has been in supporting young people in pursuing interests in the sciences, our culture isn’t particularly kind to out gay people who want to work with children. And while thousands of young girls wanted (and still want) to be the next Sally Ride, little girls aren’t encouraged to want to be like lesbians when they grow up, even if that lesbian broke barriers for women and worked her whole life to make the sciences more accessible to women. Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said that “it’s a shame that Americans were not able to experience this aspect of Sally while alive.” But did Sally Ride really have the option to share this aspect of herself while she was alive and still accomplish what she wanted to?

The Atlantic has wondered whether Sally Ride’s will be one of the last “coming out obituaries;” if we are finally moving past the point in our history where famous people are “only revealed to be gay at the end of a long life, or after death.” It seems fair to say that if Sally Ride had been born in 1981 instead of 1951, she would have had more choices about how to live her life as fully and openly as possible. But it’s also hard to argue that choices for women are now unlimited, or that two little girls who play tennis together today at 12 will be able to fall in love as grownups without worrying that it will impact their ability to become pioneers, or role models, or everything else they want to be. After all, because of DOMA, even coming out doesn’t mean that Tam O’Shaughnessy will receive legal recognition as Ride’s partner or wife; she’s not entitled to any federal benefits, despite standing by a genuine American hero for 17 months of battling cancer.

Sally Ride used her life to campaign for women and girls to have access to every kind of success, even in math and science, not to champion LGBT rights. But if looking back at the story of her life as that of a gay woman can highlight the challenges that queer people face, and if the knowledge that the woman who stood by her for 27 years is now left in the cold by the government that Ride served can help people understand the challenges that continue to keep us from living equal lives, then Sally Ride is a champion for LGBT people after all.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 771 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    I do think the difference between privacy vs. being closeted is an interesting one to explore, along with whether she could have accomplished all she could if she had been more out. Being bi, I often wonder if I’m closeting myself every time I acknowledge the fact that I’m attracted to men (say, if someone asks me if I find a particular guy attractive) without immediately following that with the fact that I’m also attracted to women. But while I’m not shy about who I am and I’ll acknowledge it to anyone who asks, I also don’t really talking about my romantic life at all with people I don’t really know.

    For example, I never came out at my last job, not so much because I was afraid but more because I wasn’t exactly closet anyone there and didn’t want to share my romantic life. At the time I had a boyfriend, and the only reason I told anyone there was because of another coworker who had a crush on me (and acted obnoxious about it) and it seemed like letting it slip I was already in a relationship was the only way to get him to leave me alone/realize it wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t like having to reveal that and probably wouldn’t have if not for him.

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      I’m the same way, I don’t even like talking about my romantic life with family (and I’m close with my family) let alone with people I don’t really know. As explained in the article with Bear, Sally’s actions make perfect sense to me since it’s largely how I approach things.

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      I agree with you, though I wonder if maybe she considered being gay something more “private” than being straight, maybe out of internalized homophobia.
      I often see gay people say that they don’t/didn’t mention their gayness or relationships not because they’re closeted but because they’re just private about their personal lives, which I totally get (I’m the same way), but I wonder if they would feel the need to be as private about it if they were straight. If Sally Ride had been with a man for the last 27 years, would it be such a little-known fact?
      On the other hand, people will talk about someone being gay but never about someone being straight, so maybe she really didn’t consider it any more private but just wanted her personal life to be as little discussed as possible.

      Off-topic : personally I don’t consider acknowledging your attraction to men to be “closeting yourself” if you don’t follow up by saying you’re also attracted to women. I mean, if someone asks “so what kind of people do you like” and you just say “I like guys”, then yes. But if you’re asked “do you find that guy hot” and just answer “yeah” then no, you just honestly answered their question.
      If someone asks if you like vanilla ice-cream, answering yes without adding “but I also like chocolate!” doesn’t mean that you’re hiding your love for chocolate, it’s just that chocolate isn’t the topic discussed at hand, you know?

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        Yeah, your last paragraph is right. It’s just a weird irrational feeling that I have. I just don’t like to give people the impression that I’m something that I’m not, and if I express attraction to a man people are going to think I’m straight if I don’t show them I’m also into women. But then again, it’s really their fault for making that assumption, and also not really their business.

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    I am not in the habit of crying over the deaths of people I’ve never personally met, but this time? Yeah.

    Sally Ride was a childhood hero of mine. One of my very earliest memories is of listening to my family’s little battery-powered radio when the news came on about her first mission. We didn’t have a TV, so I was woefully undereducated about the world, but I had a vague notion of what space shuttles were. My mom had to explain to me why it was a big deal — my reaction was simultaneously horror, “What, they wouldn’t let girls do that before? Who was stopping them? Why?” and glee because my mom was so excited.

    We read about her in first or second grade, and I concluded that Sally Ride was freakin’ awesome, but I didn’t really get why being the first *woman*, specifically, was awesome. Then at some point in fourth grade I heard a girl claim that she was bad at science because she was a girl, and suddenly remembered Mom explaining why Sally Ride was a big deal and thought, “OH.”

    So, Sally Ride kept me from accepting that I had to be bad at science because I was a girl. This biologist will be forever grateful to her for that.

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      “Then at some point in fourth grade I heard a girl claim that she was bad at science because she was a girl”

      Oh wow, nine-year-old me probably would have screamed that girl’s face off if she had been in my fourth grade class. (This is probably why I was considered a “discipline problem” when I was that age, lol.)

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        I was too surprised to say anything. Also I realized I was so deeply unpopular that my having an opinion would automatically make that opinion repellent, and I didn’t want to contaminate feminism with my germs. That way if someone cooler mentioned it later, they wouldn’t automatically be prejudiced against the idea.

        I mean, I didn’t think it out in those explicit terms. I was 9. But that was the gist of it.

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      Oh, that is beautiful. I also grew up loving science and we had a photo of Sally Ride in my 4th (?) grade classroom..but I lost interest as an idiot middleschooler when science/math were just not encouraged, by my teachers or parents.

      I understand her desire for privacy, but at the same time am so glad many (like Romney, apparently) are now finding out that their childhood hero was, in fact, a lesbian hero. :)

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      I was 13 when she went into space for the first time. I recall, so clearly, that it WAS a big deal that she was a woman. It was every where. I had already received the message that girls weren’t good in math or science and so to see Sally Ride on TV suited to go up into space was a huge, huge deal.

      It seems to me that Sally Ride was a private person first and foremost but she knew, better than anyone else, that if she were out she would have never, ever gone into Space or accomplished half the things that she did. It is sad, but true. And so why didn’t she at least come out later in life? Maybe, she was just so private she didn’t want to go through the entire media circus.

      RIP, Dr.Ride. A true hero.

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        I just wanted to add that 61yo is NOT that old. Maybe it seems like eons away to someone in their 20’s or even 30’s but most live a lot longer so maybe she would have come out if she’d lived to be 80.

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    I wonder if mountain_goats directed an equally strongly worded tweet @Obama asking him why he hasn’t taken any concrete steps–like signing the executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating based on the sexual orientation of employees–to recognize gay rights.

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      Haven’t we gone over this a million times before on this site?

      Obama’s verbal support for same-sex marriage is hardly the only thing he’s done for gay rights. He encouraged the repeal of DADT. He refuses to defend DOMA. He’s spoken out against various state-by-state attempts to criminalize marriage equality, including Prop 8 and the recent ban in North Carolina. He signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act which added sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to the list of oppressions that count under federal hate crimes law. Here’s a not-so-short list of all the stuff he’s done: http://www.equalitygiving.org/Accomplishments-by-the-Administration-and-Congress-on-LGBT-Equality

      Could he do more? Yes, but that doesn’t mean he “hasn’t taken any concrete steps…to recognize gay rights.”

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    So I’m a huge lurker in these here parts but I just needed to de-lurk to share this news with someone, even if it’s just the interweb, and I’m sorry that this is off topic from this thread but… I just came out for the very first time. Its the first time I’ve ever said the words “I like girls” to anyone ever and it feels absolutely wonderful ! Reading the posts on this site has given me the courage to be honest with myself and those around me. It’s just one person who knows but atleast it’s a step.

    Ps I totally did not know who Sally Ride was until I read about her passing on Autostraddle but she sounds like an inspiration to girls everywhere and I’m so sorry for her family and friends.

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    I really liked this, thanks Rachel! I was discussing the same sort of thing earlier today after reading this: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/07/24/sally_ride_was_gay_why_wasn_t_she_out_.html.

    I’m not sure when she should’ve come out according to this logic, back when she divorced her husband? Last year in an It Gets Better video? For all the people who say “think what she could have done for gay rights” I wonder “what would this have done to her career/life/ambitions?” Hardly an unreasonable question. Seemed to me like people have ignored the reality of the time on this one.

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    There’s an article on Gawker about how Wikipedia is being really pedantic about this. They’re having a big debate about whether she’s lesbian or bisexual even after her family members confirmed that she was the former, but even beside that they’re hesitant to add her to the LGBT tag. Even though, um, she’s clearly not straight? Because she had a female partner for 27 years?

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    I fully respect Sally Ride and think that she was extremely awesome. Even though I just really learned about her once I learned of her death, which I regret. I just have to say that she was NOT the first woman in space. She’s the first American woman but not the first over all. Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman and civilian to go in space. (I don’t know if you meant that Sally Ride was the first woman astronaut ever or the first woman in space.)

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    Though I didn’t see this, I do not think Ms. Ride being gay makes a difference. She is clearly one of the greatest figures in history. First woman in space. Can’t take away from her that honour. RIP Sally Ride.

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    lovely article, thank you; and I have no issue with Sally Ride not coming out, I think it would have been very difficult for her to do the amazing things she did if she had, and I also think that people should disclose as and when they decide to; everyone’s journey is different. For example, I have a friend who is legally married to her female partner of 12 years, but is not out at work (in the UK) and it kind of drives me crazy, but I try not to judge her because the homophobia she experienced from her mother when she came out to her was so intense that it must have impacted her subsequent decisions, whereas my parents were (pretty much) fine, making me more confident about coming out to strangers. However, I don’t really buy this “I’m not closeted, I’m just private” line. The desire for privacy cannot be untangled from the context of homophobia in which we all live. Privacy is about protection, and one wouldn’t feel the need for that safety if there was not threat involved in disclosure.

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    I always admired Sally Ride and I am pissed to hell that she didn’t come out while she was alive and do more for the LGLBTQ community. That’s pansy behavior in my book. I don’t think it was a matter of privacy because the fact that it was in her obituary shows that it was planned, and in my book that’s a pansy move. I’m disappointed.

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      Er, you’re aware that “pansy” is an antigay slur, right?

      Slang: (Disparaging and Offensive) .
      a.a male homosexual.
      b.a weak, effeminate, and often cowardly man.

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    Really great article Rachel. I don’t mind that Sally Ride wasn’t public about her sexuality. You outlined some very good reasons why it would have been hard for her to be out and why, even today, it can still be hard to be out. It’s sad that we’ve reached a point where parents are fine with little girls wanting to be astronauts when they grow up, but many parents still aren’t okay with their daughters growing up to be gay. Maybe i’m too optimistic, but I think this will change eventually. Though I disagree with the Atlantic – I don’t think this is going to be the last gay obituary we see. Also, kinda unrelated but I find the Atlantic to be really out of touch with the world, women, my life, everything.

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    Valentina Tereshkova is the first female astronaut. Ride was first US female astronaut (and third overall).
    Maybe you use distinction – cosmonaut/astronaut – but IMO it needs comment.

  13. Pingback: 3 Queer Women Autostraddle Thinks Could have been The Advocate's "Person of the Year" | Be! Magazine

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