Ride, Sally, Ride!

by Aimee Genter-Gilmore, PQ Monthly


Sally Ride communicating with ground controllers during the six-day space mission of the Challenger in 1983.


As a former nerdy kid (turned nerdy adult), Sally Ride was one of my heroes. I was a big space nerd, but hey… it was the ’80s. Space was big back then. And in 1983, Sally Ride was the first woman to enter space. How excited was I, a fledgling feminist astro-nerd, to finally have a role model? Back then, we didn’t think about sexual orientation, and we really didn’t care. What she did on her own time was unimportant to wide-eyed kids like me. Mostly I was just amazed by the fact that she was actually in space. Space! How cool is that?

So this American icon, Sally Ride, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer last week, and I just feel awful about that. The wife of one of my close friends is battling pancreatic cancer, and it just seems like a really painful way to go. But in her death, it seems like the acknowledgment of her longtime partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, has overshadowed her pioneering accomplishments.

Now, some people have used this new knowledge–her posthumous coming out party, if you will–to make her another kind of pioneer… but some wonder if these actions are disrespectful to Ride’s choice to keep private in life:

Still, that hasn’t stopped members of the LGBT community from using Ride as a focal point in the struggle for equality.  The fact that O’Shaughnessy won’t receive death benefits has popped up on status updates and placards almost immediately. Many are acting as if Ride’s posthumous coming-out means we broke another barrier—the first gay in space.

“What a shame that we didn’t learn this while she was alive,” HRC spokesman Fred Sainz said. “However, the fact it was acknowledged in death will be an incredibly powerful message to all Americans about the contributions of their LGBT counterparts.”

Do we even know if Ride wanted to send a powerful message? Should we be using her death as a political tool? And if the person didn’t talk about their sexuality, what message does that send to all Americans?

It’s a valid question, and one that may not be answered. Maybe that’s what bothers us so much. In this information age, we always want to figure things out. Some things, however, should maybe just be left alone? Capt. Joan E. Darrah wrote an excellent editorial that I think may enlighten us a bit on the subject:

I know thousands of LGBT kids might have been encouraged to learn Sally Ride was gay — but we need to remember that those of us who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, when many of us didn’t even know what gay meant, are still on a journey of self-acceptance.

I still marvel at so many young gay and lesbian kids when I see how accepting they are of themselves and how their straight peers accept them as “normal.” Although I am retired and DADT is gone, I still hesitate to share I am a lesbian and am still surprised when people are totally fine with it.

Let’s remember Sally Ride as a courageous pioneer and American hero. Let’s not let the fact that she didn’t publicly come out to the world detract in any way from her remarkable accomplishments.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. And to Sally Ride, I say thank you so much for opening my mind to dream BIG. Rest in peace.