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Sally Ride’s Posthumous Outing Sparks Debate

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Wednesday Sep 26, 2012

Sally Ride will be remembered for the many accomplishments she achieved throughout her 61-years. But most of us will always associate her with being the first American woman to enter space.

After the pioneering astronaut lost her 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer in July, however, many will now recognize her as the first gay person to enter the Last Frontier.

Ride was an extremely private individual. So it wasn’t until her obituaries were published that the public learned of her sexual identity. On July 23, her private life became knowledge when the New York Times and other media outlets casually referred to her longtime partner, and millions of people found out that Ride was a lesbian.

Toward the end of the Times’ obituary, nine words revealed an entire world Ride kept secret and told the public she had been in a same-sex relationship for nearly three decades with Tam O’Shaughnessy, who is the chief operating officer and executive vice president for Sally Ride Science and an emeritus professor at San Diego State University.

"Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years," the obit reads.

Ride’s sister, Bear Ride, who is also a lesbian, told Buzzfeed that her sister wanted her private life to remain private while she was alive. Many people did not know about her struggles with cancer and certainly not about her sexuality.

"People did not know she had pancreatic cancer, that’s going to be a huge shock. For 17 months, nobody knew," Bear Ride said. "Everyone does now." There is a memorial fund being established in her honor to fight this form of cancer.

"The pancreatic cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there’s now this advocate that they didn’t know about -- and I hope the GLBT community feels the same," she said. "I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them."

Respecting One’s Privacy? Or a Selfish Choice?

But after Ride’s posthumous outing, many wondered aloud if the astronaut couldn’t have done even more good had she revealed her sexuality while alive and promoting science and technology programs to school students. A number of young girls looked up to her for her achievements in space but perhaps if Ride was living openly, the trailblazer could have inspired LGBT youth as well.

Barbara Belmont, a lesbian chemist, wrote in the San Francisco Bay Times that she, for one, believes if Ride was upfront about her sexuality, she would have been a valuable role model for lesbian teens and young adults.

"If only the world had known Sally Ride was gay, we LGBT scientists might have enjoyed more visibility and recognition," Belmont wrote. "If we had known, we could have had a mentor-muse, our role-model, a spokesperson! Ah, but Sally Ride was a very private person, and would never have agreed to being such an icon."

For some of those who live in the public eye, however, perhaps for Ride herself, coming out isn’t always that simple, despite the good it could possibly do for the community.

Carla Lundblade, a Beverly Hills licensed clinical therapist who specializes in treating celebrity and sports figures, told EDGE that people in the public eye face a slew of pressures when deciding to come out of the closet.

"Some individuals are not public about their personal lives, especially their sexuality and it is always the best choice for people to honor what they feel," Lundblade said. "I think it is an individual choice to come out, and I think there are many people who would come forward if it were their own choice."

The therapist said that a celebrity’s management can get in the way of their coming out, however.

"Oftentimes in celebrities’ careers, they will create a public image of what managers want but not what the celebrity themselves really want to portray," she said. "Sometimes a celebrity would want to come out because it is their personal choice, but they don’t because of the industry or because of other people say it’s not a good career move. But doing what they personally feel is the best choice."

Coming Out When It Feels ’Right’

Everybody has the right to come out when it feels right for them, said Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, who echoed Lundblade’s opinion.

"I think we need to respect the decisions made by celebrities," he said. "But I think when they do choose to come out they can serve as a role model for LGBT youth and adults as well."

The biggest difference between a celebrity coming out and an individual not in the public eye is that the "world is watching them," he added. Although they face most of the same pressures, celebrities have an "extra burden of everybody watching."

"It’s not always an easy thing to do, for celebrities or for anyone else," Guequierre told EDGE. "That extra pressure would add to someone not wanting to come out."

Younger celebrities may find it more difficult to come out as some depend on their looks to gain a large fan base and to score job opportunities. "It depends on the career but young celebrities’ careers that are generated by their attractiveness and sex appeal, can find it difficulty in coming out," Lundblade noted. "They could suffer financially because coming out could alienate half of their fan base and they could lose projects and career opportunities."

The best celebrity careers come from individuals who are "working and presenting themselves in an authentic way that works with the way they are as individuals," she added.


  • Anonymous, 2012-09-26 16:02:50

    Her decision not to come out earlier was for nobody but her and her partner’s to make. It in no way deminishes her remarkable accomplishments and role model status for gay youth in America. It just happens to be the current and future youth. The saddest part is that she will never know if she was the inspirational drive behind future LGBT superstars.

  • Anonymous, 2012-09-29 06:36:10

    agreed. Jed, but one thing to consider is that she made a remarkable life and no one can say she used anything as a crutch to speed up her career she did it all on skill and talent. I think I respect that even more!

  • Anonymous, 2012-09-29 10:37:31

    A true pioneer and hero in every sense.

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