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.