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.

Bullshit.

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.

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45 thoughts on “Stay classy, Andrew

  1. You know, not to belittle the battle of gay people to achieve social acceptance or anything, but if a *gay* *woman* *scientist* *astronaut* decides to engage some set of social bulwarks, I’m okay with giving her a pass on not trying to be The Complete Enterprise Solution.

    Not to mention the fact that she was living with somebody, and their collective decision to make their relationship a public issue is precisely nobody’s business but their own.

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  2. My same comment from Blinded Trials:

    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.

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    • Exactly. And I’m hoping this comes out correctly, but it seems that she was an amazing woman because of the things she did, not because of who she was. To me, that’s the important lesson in these kinds of things and hopefully advances the idea of the normalcy of differing sexual orientations: Her sexuality was incidental to what kind of person she was. Just like mine is incidental to who I am and what I do. Sometimes the insistence, as Sullivan seems to have insisted she do, to make sexual identity the overarching characteristic and lens through which all else is seen actually seems to draw unneccessary attention to it rather than having it where it (hopefully, one day) belongs: As much a descriptor as hair color, eye color, height, or skin color.

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        • But, apparently, they did sort of know about it. She simply chose not to make it her crowning achievement. Andrew seems to give the impression that if you aren’t out beating people over the head with the cudgel of your sexual preference and insistence on equality in all things right now, then you must either be self-loathing or working against your own interests.

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  3. I do think there are interesting questions about the extent to which prominent/privileged people from oppressed groups have some duty to call out that oppression. I remember having a discussion with some friends when Torii Hunter was accosted by the police (with gun drawn) outside his own home for the unusually-common crime of being a black man in the vicinity of a house, and what responsibilities he has in that situation. (His actual, real life response: he blew it off and said it was no big deal.) Our conclusion, at the time, was essentially that his freedom to have a private life where questions of race wouldn’t intrude evaporated at the moment that they did, in fact, intrude.

    Now, all that said, I don’t think that’s anything like where Sully is going with this. And I definitely don’t think he’s trying to have a conversation of any kind.

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  4. I remember Sally Ride as having a lady partner from a long time ago. I may not have heard about it at the time of her flight, but certainly soon thereafter. It was not a “closeted” relationship by any means. She was open, about it, but didn’t see fit to publicly promote the existence of the relationship.

    The fact that she championed her own preferred causes after becoming famous, and not those of Andrew Sullivan, is Sullivan’s problem and not hers.

    Vaya con Dios, Dr. Ride.

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  5. We will probably have to go through a phase of it not being a big deal that it’s a big deal before we can notice that it’s a big deal that it’s not a big deal.

    If we can go through those to get to it’s not a big deal that it’s not a big deal, it’ll be a good thing.

    In the meantime, Sally Ride was, in fact, a big deal. We are better off for being a country that has such folks in it.

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  6. I’m with ya doc, I think Andrew is in the wrong on this one and is probably just digging his heels in now that he’s gotten some blow back.

    We naturally applaud a person who hurtles themselves in front of an out of control bus to knock another person clear of it but we certainly do not condemn a person who fails to do so in the same circumstance.

    She was a giant and it was more than enough.

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  7. I think Sullivan is wrong in his tone, but I don’t think he deserves this vitriol for the factual statements he is making. Sally Ride could have come out at some point after her spacefaring career was complete. It seems to me that everything in Sullivan’s piece is consistent with him being disappointed that, not only did she never come out, but that her closetedness has had the effect of causing outlets like the NYT to feel the need to hide the fact that her partner was a woman. I personally had no trouble finding clear reason to believe she was lesbian, but he seems to feel obfuscation occurred. Sullivan ultimately says that her failing to come out in life pales in comparison to her gifts to the world, which “vastly outshine any flaws.” He is merely pointing out the additional good that could have been done (and effectively holding Ride up in comparison to Anderson Cooper’s example).

    Here’s my defense of Ride’s decision, even if one takes Sullivan’s stance as wholly justified.
    My impression (personal, not professional) was that Sally Ride saw her commitment to the Astronaut program as including doing her absolute best to get kids interested in science and math learning. In particular, she knew the effects a female astronaut could have on female students’ interest in science and math, and she knew she would be going out to schools and communities, talking about her experiences, working with communities and philanthropists, etc. for probably the rest of her life. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that some number of schools would have been off-limits for her; that some number of communities would shun her; and that some might even use her life as a bad example to hold up to girls if she came out in the 1980’s as a lesbian. I think I would have had to come to the same conclusion.

    No one in the world knew better whether the efforts of Sally Ride Science would be hurt or helped by them coming out publicly than Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy. And no one knew better than they what hardships Tam would have to endure alone and without the support of Ride’s Federal benefits (I’m betting they worked something out). So, I’m not as inclined to judge as Sullivan is, but I can’t say his piece doesn’t have some valuable insight.

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    • Sullivan has a point sure, but I think his wording failed him. He made gestures towards it as you aptly point out but I think he failed to balance his tone and content correctly.

      Then again if I were trying to feed the dish day in and day out I can’t imagine my own errors.

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    • I appreciate your perspective, my friend.

      Since I agree with Sullivan that it would have been very nice if Dr. Ride had chosen to make a more public declaration of her sexuality, I suppose it is with his tone that I have the most unhappiness. Further, it seems to evince a belief (common to gay and lesbian people, and probably one that I fall victim to myself all too often) that we are owed such public declarations. We really aren’t.

      And I take incredible exception to Sullivan’s temerity in making any statement whatsoever about Dr. Ride’s courage, or his implication that it was somehow lacking. She demonstrated tremendous physical courage (as do all astronauts) and personal fortitude to do what she did. I find it galling in the extreme that he would use her lack of a stance on an issue he holds dear (as do I) as a reason to cast aspersions on her.

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  8. This is a bit off-topic, especially since I agree with the essence of the OP very deeply, but is there somewhere where someone other than a media flack has actually said in so many words that Ms. Ride identified as lesbian rather than bisexual? The only phrasing I can find from a family member is that she “didn’t like labels”.

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  9. Is this not the definition of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good, with Sully fancying himself the “perfect” and Dr. Ride being merely the “good”?

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  10. Apropos nothing in particular, I was always fascinated with the challenges of being a female astronaut even before Ride, Sally Ride took her journey. My friend the ex-U2 pilot has told me some hilarious diaper stories, they were basically astronauts also wearing identical space suits (custom tailored and you’d better not ruin yours cause they ain’t gonna get dry cleaned at the local laundromat). They made two for you, your primary and a backup. Don’t ruin the backup or you’re done.

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  11. Why does anybody read Sullivan? He’s not a compelling writer, he’s a conventional and boring thinker on most topics, and when he attempts contrarianism he ends up, as here, simply being a dick.

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    • He writes what he feels, which is compelling over the long term, eg, with the while Bush/Iraq/Torture drama, and precisely because he’s pretty conventional what he’s feeling is often what lots of other people are feeling. His ability to be so completely spectacularly wrong and then (sometimes) change his mind in a very public and reflective way is part of the charm.

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      • I always find myself impressed with the utter conviction and passion which Sullivan feels the things he is currently feeling. He is a serial monomaniac, and while I tend to skip his posts now I do appreciate the collection of Internet goodies he manages to put on his site.

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      • “He writes what he feels, which is compelling over the long term”

        If that works for some people, fine, does nothing for me. Idiocy about race, religion, politics, and Trig Palin is still idiocy no matter how insistently expressed, as far as I’m concerned.

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  12. Tam O’Shaughnessy works with children and writes children’s science books, which is an area (especially in the 80’s and 90’s) where parading your sexuality isn’t particularly helpful. I could understand why they’d both be low key.

    I’m pretty sure Sally Ride’s ex-husband, astronaut Steven Hawley, would be shocked to find out she wasn’t at least bi-sexual. But mostly, I’m glad people didn’t make 20 years of jokes about how the Shuttle encountered a lesbionic space anomally and got infiltrated by Lesbulan brain worms.

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  13. The privilege of being an overeducated pretentious white man is that you get to condescend to people who don’t match your causes…or something.

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