Stay classy, Andrew

Did you know that Sally Ride was a lesbian?  I didn’t either.  I learned it while driving in to work two days ago and listening to NPR: at the very end of their obit they mentioned her partner of 27 years.  I, like pretty much everyone else in America, had had no idea.

Andrew Sullivan, in his inimitable fashion, has decided that Dr. Ride’s accomplishments as America’s first woman in space are insufficient.  Not enough that she battled sexism.  No, she also needed to take on homophobia in order to be truly praiseworthy.  As far as Mr. Sullivan is concerned, there is no dayenu for her.

I’m not so understanding. We can judge this decision in the context of Ride’s life. Her achievements as a woman and as a scientist and as an astronaut and as a brilliant, principled investigator of NASA’s screw-ups will always stand, and vastly outshine any flaws. But the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to.

She was the absent heroine.

Is there a polite way to say “bullshit”?  Actually, scratch that.  I’m not inclined toward politeness just now.


Mr. Sullivan’s petulant, tendentious fault-finding is appalling.  Sally Ride was a brilliant and courageous woman whose historic accomplishments served as an inspiration to a generation of girls, and that is valor enough.  I know it’s Sully’s usual MO to understand no causes other than those he champions himself, but as a gay man I am embarrassed by his small-minded sniping in the days following the death of a great woman.  Because she chose to devote her efforts to ending one kind of discrimination, but not the kind he faces, he calls her “absent.”  I call that shameful.

His arrogant response to being called out by readers is even worse:

I’m struck by the notion that “being out was not an option.” Sure it was. It is always an option. A truly difficult option, but an option. She chose not to go there, while she embraced many other causes. Others took the risk and faced the consequences. That kind of courage is what makes civil rights movements succeed.

Oh, so you know?  So familiar are you with the culture of Reagan-era NASA that you can pronounce on Dr. Ride’s options with authority?  Because she  chose to further the cause of equality for women and not gays, her accomplishments as a civil right figure are lesser?  How unbelievably small to say so.  How can we know what options she would have been given, what she would have been allowed to accomplish, if she had been out?  We can’t, and it is profoundly churlish to pretend otherwise.

Sally Ride was a credit to science, to women, and to the nation.  Even if she wasn’t out about it, she was a credit to gays and lesbians, too.  We should join the rest of the country in celebrating her life and service with gratitude.  To do otherwise is disgraceful.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. +100

    Great post Russell and I couldn’t agree more.

    • Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it.

      I’ve decided I’m pissed off enough to post this at the main page. I’m really, really disgusted by Sullivan’s comments.

      • For obvious reasons you are definitely the best person to talk about this. Ride fought (and won) a very important battle. I think she did enough.

  2. Don’t get me wrong, I think she should have been able to marry the person she fell in love with and formed a family with; they should have been able to adopt children had they chosen to do so. And it’s a great shame that the woman she built a life with for so many years will not get Federal survivorship benefits as a result of the prejudice that some lawmakers chose to enshrine into law — laws that we are on the verge of ending now, too late for the Ride family but at least families in the future will, we hope, be treated better (by which I mean, the same). Okay, that’s out of the way.

    Could Dr. Ride have been an LGBT rights hero instead of the kind of hero she was? Sure, I guess. But isn’t it also a victory for LGBT folks and their allies that she was a hero who, as it turned out, happened to be a lesbian — and that her orientation turns out to have been utterly insignificant in comparison to her achievements and her life? The woman was a freaking astronaut! And a scientist, and an entrepeneur, and and educator.

    More Americans like her, please. I don’t care if they’re gay or straight or in between or whatever.

    • The problem I think is that some people can’t imagine that other people of a similar persuasion aren’t as passionate about their cause as they are. I’m really proud of my Irish heritage. My brother and sister could care less.

      • This goes a bit deeper. At this point, no Irish-American kid is going to be inspired by one more Irish-American success story, but John Kennedy did make the point once and for all that Catholics are real Americans too. Jackie Robinson wouldn’t have been a hero if he’d gotten into to the Big Leagues by passing for white. Ride would have done a lot of good if she’d come ou. The point isn’t that Sullivan’s wrong about that, it’s that she already did a lot of good without coming out, and its not his place (or any of ours) to judge what she accomplished insufficient.

  3. Being the first woman in space is ‘insufficient’, really?


    All because she didn’t ‘come out’ during the Reagan Era? If someone wishes to remain ‘in the closet’ with their partner, then that’s their decision. They don’t owe it to me or anyone else to ‘come out’ and proclaim their sexual orientation for the masses.

    Sally was a role model for me when I was growing up. She was smart, loved science and was a FREAKING ASTRONAUT! How goddamned COOL was that? She was everything I aspired to become!

    How DARE Andrew Sullivan downplay everything she worked for and everything she sacrificed for simply because she was not ‘out’ as a lesbian. Her orientation contributed diddlysquat to her accomplishments. Trying to insinuate that she ‘could have been more’ if she was ‘out’ is plain disrespectful and goddamned RUDE.

  4. This is a great post, Russell.

    Sally Ride was a contemporary of mine at Stanford, although we never met. Of my classmates who now identify as lesbians, a surprisingly large number first married and had children. Dr. Ride had a husband, Steven Hawley, a fellow astronaut, whom she married in 1982, although they had no children.

    1969 was a different universe, from the homosexual point of view. I don’t think there even was a gay alliance at Stanford until…maybe 1972 (? — my memory is dim. There was an out lesbian contingent at one of the later Women’s Day events.)

    Sullivan is (a) 11 or 12 years younger than Dr. Ride (b) raised in England, where homosexuality is far less of a hot-button issue and (c) did not publicly out himself until 2003, if Wikipedia is correct.

    Sullivan has a lot of nerve, chiding a dead woman for not doing what Sullivan himself has only doing for a decade.

    • Mike, two of my male childhood friends also married and had kids before coming out. Sadly, both died of AIDS. I grew up just south of San Francisco — well more than half of my gay friends and acquaintances died before they were 40, of AIDS. Some were not out to their families.

    • Just to be clear, the first sentence of Sullivan’s VIRTUALLY NORMAL is, “I remember the first time it dawned on my that I might be a homosexual.” The book was published in 1995, and the sense that I’ve gotten from his own narrative is that he came out publicly in the late 80s/early 90s.

      Not that I don’t agree with Russell et al. on this particular issue, and not that his penchant for righteous indignation doesn’t frequently seem too enthusiastic for me these days, but he’s being less hypocritical here than that Wikipedia line entails. (I think it was his coming out as a “Bear” within the gay community, but I wouldn’t know from lions and tigers in this regard.)

      • By “he” in the second paragraph, I meant Sullivan, not the good doctor. If I’m going to proofread my comments, I should really start doing that before posting them…

        • Don’t feel bad. It happens to all of us. I can read through a comment and go, “Yeah that looks fine.” and as soon as I press enter it’s, “Well crap. Now I see the error(s).”

          It’s worse when I’m posting in Danish – my fingers go faster than my brain.

      • Thanks for setting me straight, J Wall. He’s still a self-righteous buffoon (at least in this instance).

  5. If Ride were a dude, he’d have been held up as an example of a quiet and humble courage in the face of an oppressive society.

    • Do you think so, Jay? We have room in our culture for a gay male hero but not a lesbian hero? Maybe you’re right. I’m trying to think of famous lesbians who aren’t a) entertainers, b) athletes, or c) Sally Ride. All I’m getting are Rachel Maddow and Suze Orman. Can we look back to Gertrude Stein and Eleanor Roosevelt from history?

      • How much abuse was given by folks toward Coop’s way for not confirming until a few weeks’ back?

        • See, maybe I’m not watching enough news nowadays, but when Coop came out a few weeks ago, my response was, “Okay, and this is news why?”

          I don’t understand why someone has to verify their sexual orientation for anyone else*. I still think Coop is a very attractive man, which is something some of my acquaintances can’t seem to understand.

          “But Darwy, Coop is GAY! How can you be attracted to him??” is the usual response I get.

          I have to count to 10, sigh and give the standard response: “What does HIS orientation have to do with what *I* find attractive? ie: MY orientation?”

          Apparently, because he’s no longer on the ‘dinner for girls’ menu, he’s suddenly on the ‘brussel sprouts from hell’ menu. I don’t understand that rationale, and to be honest, I don’t ever WANT to.

          *(The only instance where someone needs to disclose their orientation is with the person they’re interested in. Otherwise, things don’t tend to go smoothly)

          • You’re right, it’s not really news except in the sense that it’s a new piece of information some people didn’t know about a supposed celebrity.

            I didn’t know Cooper was gay until he came out, and then I didn’t and don’t care. Perhaps I don’t watch enough news, but I didn’t even (and still don’t) have a clear idea of what he does or why he’s so famous, although I had heard of him and knew what he looked like.

    • I would be interested to know the numbers on whether men or women tended to come out first, and to see some sort of systematic study or studies on which gender was treated better.

      However, I don’t want to read the studies if they’re too long, and the studies are probably too hard to do at any rate, so I’m left with my gut instinct that society seems to somewhat more welcoming to gay women than it is to gay men. Again, I’m offering only my gut instinct, and I’m by no means trying to say that one gender necessarily has it better than the other. At the end of the day, I don’t know.

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