Posted by MK on 7/30/12
I’ll add only a couple of points to the debate swirling around Sally Ride’s decision to come out in her obituary. As many readers already know, the late physicist and astronaut Sally Ride–who overcame countless challenges to become the first American woman in outer space in 1983–revealed recently that she was in a same-sex relationship, by way of an obituary that she co-wrote with her partner before she passed away. The obituary noted that Dr. Ride is survived by “Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years.”
Debate continues about whether Dr. Ride came out too late, whether she should have come out at all, whether she would want to be an “icon” for the LGBT community, and other matters. I won’t join all of these debates, but I’ll add my two cents on a couple issues.
First, I take issue with the many commentators who insist with surprising confidence that Dr. Ride would not have wanted to be celebrated as a hero to the LGBT community. I’ve sensed a fair amount of outrage as I’ve read through the comments sections of various news stories and blog posts: Commentator after commentator insists that Dr. Ride’s sexual orientation is not relevant and not newsworthy–primarily because Dr. Ride (the commentators believe) wanted to keep her “private” life private during her lifetime (to some extent anyway). Though I try not to place too much stock in angry and often-anonymous Internet commenting, it’s clear that a substantial group of people believe we should not be discussing Dr. Ride’s sexual orientation at all, much less portraying her as an LGBT hero. (Michelangelo Signorile responds to these sorts of comments in a thoughtful piece at the Huffington Post.) And several mainstream journalists have reacted similarly to the Internet posters: For example, in an opinion piece published in papers around the country, Washington Post writer Suzi Parker claims that “Ride obviously didn’t want to be a gay icon. If she had, she easily could have sat down with Oprah or Ellen and told the world about her sexuality, her private life and her love for O’Shaughnessy . . . .” (Questions for Ms. Parker: Is this the only way to come out? How many “gay icons” have established their icon status this way?)
Though most people who object to all the talk of Dr. Ride’s orientation purport to be respecting Dr. Ride’s own wishes about her “private” life, most of these commentators have failed to take into account (at least) one simple fact: Dr. Ride chose to come out in a very public way, notwithstanding her decision to keep a low profile with respect to her relationship while living. She co-authored an obituary that outed her. She was an intelligent person (<– understatement of the year); she surely knew what it meant for a person of her stature and historical importance to come out, even if done posthumously. Her family, moreover, has hardly protested the attention paid to her sexual orientation: Her sister, who is gay, said that she “hope[s]” Dr. Ride’s coming out “makes it easier for kids growing up gay,” by letting them “know that another one of their heroes was like them.”
In short, regardless of whether it would have been better in some way for Dr. Ride to come out in a more public way while living, there is no question that she came out, that she did so publicly, and that she knew what she was doing and what effect it would likely have. I think it’s quite possible she expected to be a gay icon. She might have welcomed the idea, and in any event I have trouble believing, in light of her obituary, that she aimed to avoid it.
My second thought builds on the comment from Dr. Ride’s sister, Bear, about the importance of role models to LGBT youth. Indeed, both LGBT and non-LGBT youth need strong LGBT role models. Sally Ride has added herself to the list of people that youth can look up to. When anti-gay fanatics claim that homosexuality leads to a short, unhappy, unhealthy, or unproductive life (here’s one of many such commentaries; here’s another), youth of all kinds can see in Dr. Ride yet another person who disproves the vicious lies.
It’s important to draw a connection, moreover, between, on the one hand, those who think sexual orientation is a “private” matter that should not be mentioned in the newspaper, and, on the other hand, those who believe that gays and lesbians make poor role models. How can LGBT people and their allies demonstrate that there are plenty of healthy, happy LGBT people living amazing, productive lives–and who therefore make fantastic role models–if we’re not even supposed to mention that people are LGBT (since it’s so “private,” even when somebody comes out in the newspaper)?
In the face of dehumanizing stereotypes and exclusion, silence in the name of “privacy” will only serve to oppress (particularly when the purportedly silent person has attempted to speak!). If we recognize the value of role models–which we should–we should listen to those role models when they speak.
And let’s remember that the Boy Scouts of America–which has sparked its own controversy recently, something I’ve written about in other posts (principally here)–justifies its categorical exclusion of gay and bisexual people in part on the basis that gay people do not make appropriate role models. (Fun fact: The Boy Scouts have an award named after Dr. Ride.) How can we counter the vicious stereotype that gay people are by definition unhappy, unhealthy, and depraved–and therefore bad role models–if the very same baseless stereotypes lead to the exclusion of gay people from groups like the Boy Scouts? (Not that the Boy Scouts call gay people “depraved”: They just say homosexuality is “immoral” and “unclean.”) Who will counter the stereotypes if LGBT people are excluded? Will non-LGBT people speak up about LGBT people to help break down the negative attitudes? Or would doing so constitute an unseemly intrusion into LGBT people’s “private” life, regardless of how publicly a person has come out? You can see the problem.