Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, passed away yesterday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Ride, who joined the space program in 1978, led something of a reserved life up until her death at age 61. As her New York Times obituary notes, Ride often chose to stay out of the spotlight, even asking NASA to keep her cancer a secret up until her death. But one other new fact about Ride came out in the wake of her death: Ride was survived by her partner of 27 years, Ms. Tam O'Shaugnessy.
As Ride's sister Bear (yes, Bear Ride) told both Buzzfeed and the Broward Palm Beach New Times yesterday: Sally Ride was a gay person and her relationship with O'Shaugnessy — who heads up the Sally Ride Science foundation and met the future astronaut when they were 12 years old — was a romantic one. To Ride and O'Shaugnessy, it was the sort of non-issue that close friends knew and no one else bothered to ask about. According to Bear, her sister Sally, "never hid her relationship with Tam. They have been partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they've written books together... Sally didn't use labels. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we're Norwegians, through and through."
The media, on the other hand, has never been big on privacy and started wringing some meaning out of the "partner" line in Ride's biography. For noted gay blogger Andrew Sullivan, the NY Times obit was a disappointing buried lede that shows how deep homophobia was in American life, to have forced someone so "independent and brilliant, brave and cool" in to the closet. For Sullivan, Ride's decision was a missed opportunity to "expand people's horizons" and support thousands of young lesbians.
An NYT commenter, on the other hand, called it "another replication of the Anderson Cooper phenomenon," hoping it indicated the country is moving towards an America "where being gay is an utterly unremarkable fact."
Meanwhile, on Wikipedia, an even more abstract argument is taking place over what it means for America's first lady astronaut to also be America's first lesbian in space. Edits to Ride's wikipedia entry mentioning her sexuality were quickly removed, many for nonsensical reasons. As Gawker notes: One edit claims that the partner's gender is irrelevant in an encyclopedia entry about Sally Ride. Another ponders what it means to be gay if she never actually identified herself with the LGBT movement or came out on her own.
All of it, sadly, only leads us down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia editors, who start to wonder if Ride could really even be the first lesbian in space. Because who's to say which way Russian Cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya (who were both married, for the record) were swinging in their spare time.
But Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin put it simply when he called Ride "a patriot and a pioneer" telling BuzzFeed: "For many Americans, coming out will be the hardest thing they ever do. While it's a shame that Americans were not able to experience this aspect of Sally while alive, we should all be proud of the fact that like many LGBT Americans, she proudly served her country, had a committed and loving relationship, and lived a good life."