The Lookout

Outing Sally Ride: Her sexual orientation has nothing to do with space ships

The Lookout

View photo

.

Ride (NASA)

Maybe the idea of gays in space is just so exciting that it has overwhelmed Sally Ride's eulogists, who really should be parsing her achievements in astrophysics, accident investigations and middle-school education, rather than trying to make hay out of her mellow lesbian romantic life.

Commenters just seem like gay astronauts. After all, the first slashfic— gay romances spun out of fictional male friendships— involved men in space, namely Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock of "Star Trek." The stories were called Kirk/Spock fiction, and the name "slash" was given to the genre. Neil/Buzz slashfic also exists. There's not much of it, but it can be pretty lewd. Those who like to keep their memories of Apollo 11 chaste, or believe that slashfic defames real-life people featured in it, should never, ever put "Neil/Buzz slashfic" into a search engine.

At the same time, there was Sally Ride. Her amazing life wasn't fiction, or fan fiction, or slashfic. She really was the first American woman and first gay person and youngest astronaut in space. And she and her collaborator and co-author Tam O'Shaughnessy, a biologist and school psychology professor, really did live together for three decades. This was well-known to family and friends.

Ride died Monday. Much of her adoring public learned the details of her domestic arrangements only posthumously. In this way, she was like most celebrities who die. I didn't know until I read the obituary, for example, that Davy Jones of the Monkees, who died in February, had been married three times. I was also surprised to learn that Etta "At Last" James, who died in January, had been married to one man through 42 years (during her heroin and coke addictions), and that she had two sons.

But for some reason the fact that Ride's live-in relationship with O'Shaugnessy was only revealed when she died, bugged commenters like Andrew Sullivan, who managed to find feminist secrecy in Ride's and O'Shaughnessy's promotion (O'Shaugnessy was the head of Ride's company) as a woman first and a lesbian second.

"Feminists," he writes on the Daily Beast, citing no examples, "often 'inned' lesbian pioneers, or the lesbians closeted themselves. This was not because they were in a reactionary movement; it was because they were in a progressive movement that did not want to be 'tarred' with the lesbian image."

For social liberals, Sally Ride's posthumous out-coming is a luxury problem in the extreme. She was the first American female, the youngest and the first gay in outer freaking space—and a major force in space policymaking. What's more, Ride alone served on the two presidential commissions that investigated both the 1986 Challenger crash and the 2003 Columbia accident, which together killed 14 astronauts. Without fear or favor, Ride concluded that NASA made the same errors in judgment both times.

Is it more important than any of this that, having been married briefly to a man, Ride eventually settled down with a woman? Ride's identity as both gay and female is an embarrassment of riches that presents an irresistible opportunity, it seems, to kvetch rather than celebrate a life astoundingly well led.

Correction, July 25: This article has been updated to indicate that Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, rather than the first woman. The first woman in space was a Soviet cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova.

View Comments (1726)