NEW YORK (AP) - Pioneering astronaut Sally Ride, who relished
privacy as much as she did adventure, chose an appropriately
discreet manner of coming out.
At the end of an obituary that she co-wrote with her partner,
Tam O'Shaughnessy, they disclosed to the world their relationship
of 27 years. That was it.
As details trickled out after Ride's death on Monday, it became
clear that a circle of family, friends and co-workers had long
known of the same-sex relationship and embraced it. For many
millions of others, who admired Ride as the first American woman in
space, it was a revelation - and it sparked a spirited discussion
about privacy vs. public candor in regard to sexual orientation.
Some commentators, such as prominent gay blogger Andrew Sullivan
of the Daily Beast, second-guessed Ride's decision to opt for
"She had a chance to expand people's horizons and young
lesbians' hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to," he wrote.
"She was the absent heroine."
Others were supportive of Ride's choices.
Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who in 2003
became the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican world, noted
that both he and Ride were baby boomers who grew up "in a time
when coming out was almost unthinkable."
Robinson is 65. Ride was 61 when she died of pancreatic cancer.
"For girls who had an interest in science and wanted to go
places women had not been allowed to go, she was a tremendous role model," Robinson said Wednesday. "The fact that she chose to keep her identity as a lesbian private - I honor that choice."
However, Robinson said he had a different standard for younger
gays - to the point of insisting that his own clergy in New
Hampshire be open about their sexuality if they are gay or lesbian.
"While there is still discrimination and coming out will still
have repercussions, the effect of those repercussions are vastly
reduced now," Robinson said. "I believe that times have
There's no question that gays and lesbians overall are coming
out now at a higher rate and an earlier age than those of previous
generations. According to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project,
adults aged 30-54 are 16 times more likely to be closeted than
those under 30.
In pop culture, the fine arts, the entertainment industry, and
in some individual sports, it's now commonplace for luminaries to
be out as gay or lesbian. But in many other fields, the dynamics
Aside from Ride, no other astronaut of any nation has come out
as gay. No active player in the four major North American pro
sports leagues - football, basketball, baseball, hockey - has come
out as gay, though some retired players have done so. Ken Mehlman
came out as gay only after he completed his stint as chairman of
the Republican National Committee.
Back in 2002, baseball star Mike Piazza - then playing with the
New York Mets - rebutted rumors by holding a news conference to
declare, "I'm not gay." Queen Latifah, the hip-hop star and
actress, has countered comparable speculation over the years by
refusing to discuss her personal life.
According to a study by the Human Rights Campaign, a national
gay-rights group, 51 percent of gay, lesbian, transgender and
bisexual workers hide their sexual identity to most or all of their
fellow employees. Citing those findings, gay-rights activists have
been pushing, so for in vain, for Congress to outlaw workplace
discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign's vice president for
communications, said his initial reaction to the revelation about
Sally Ride was, "What a shame that we didn't learn this while she
"However, the fact it was acknowledged in death will be an
incredibly powerful message to all Americans about the
contributions of their LGBT counterparts," Sainz said. "The
completeness of her life will be honored correctly."
Ride's sister, Bear Ride, a lesbian who has been active in
gay-rights causes, e-mailed a supportive explanation of Ride's
"She was just a private person who wanted to do things her
way," she wrote. "She hated labels (including `hero')."
Carolyn Porco, a prominent planetary scientist and leader of the
imaging team on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn, met Ride many
years ago when she was an astronaut candidate, already steeped in
the NASA mindset of reserve and self-effacement.
"Following her career all these years, she struck me as a woman
of impeccable class, and it doesn't surprise she wanted to keep her
private life private," Porco said. "I don't think it's anyone
else's business, and I'd love for us all to get to the place where
it doesn't matter anymore."
That's been a common theme in the commentary about Ride's
relationship - a hope that American society will someday reach a
point where being gay or lesbian is no more noteworthy than being
Sarah Blazucki, editor of Philadelphia Gay News, said that day
has not arrived.
"It's still important to come out, because we're not post-gay
yet," she said. "When we do have full equality, then it's a
She expressed respect for Ride's choices, but also regret.
"In the long run, everyone in the LGBT community and those who
will follow benefit from someone coming out," Blazucki said.
"It's sad that she felt she had to wait."
Another gay journalist, widely followed blogger Bil Browning,
said the revelation about Ride left him with mixed feelings.
"I wish that she had come out while she was alive," he said.
"The statement that would have been sent to young lesbians across
the country would have been like Obama's election was to
On the other hand, he acknowledged generational differences and
said Ride was entitled to her privacy.
"The activist in me thinks it's a missed opportunity,"
Browning said. "But she did the right thing at the end."
Some of the same issues involving privacy and openness surfaced
in early July when CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, after years of
reluctance to go public about his personal life, confirmed that he
Cooper wrote in an online letter that he had kept his sexual
orientation private for personal and professional reasons, but
eventually decided that remaining silent had given some people a
mistaken impression that he was ashamed.
"I hope this doesn't mean an end to a small amount of personal
space," Cooper wrote. "But I do think visibility is important,
more important than preserving my reporter's shield of privacy."
Two days later, there was another revelation: fast-rising R&B
star Frank Ocean announced on his Tumblr page that his first love
was a man.
"I don't have any secrets I need to keep anymore," Ocean wrote
at the end of his post. "I feel like a free man."