23 July 2012

Sally Ride was gay. Does it matter?

I struggled with the title of this post.

Read the standard press release about Sally Ride's death. It remarks on her status as the first female U.S. astronaut in space, her scientific and educational accomplishments, and her legacy as a role model. The last paragraph of the article refers to a partner, Tam. A whole generation of female, queer, and allied scientists scratch their heads: "Sally Ride was GAY? I'm so ashamed for not knowing!"

A deeper look at news tributes reveals that she never publicly outed herself as a lesbian. In fact, she chose to keep her personal life private. Several news articles even include quotations from her former husband, another astronaut, while still relegating her partner of 27 years to the last paragraph.

Sally was renowned, as President Obama has noted, for "inspiring generations of young girls to reach for the stars." She didn't choose to be female, and she couldn't hide it. She accepted the label of female role model and continued her work of encouraging young women to pursue math, science, and technology. I imagine her position as a public figure felt precarious at times, and outing herself would've certainly politicized her career yet again.

After her passing, Sally's family has decided to reveal her sexuality. I'm sure there will eventually be controversy from many political camps. The temptation to dissect her life, decisions, and career will be irresistible, both for opponents of equal rights and those of us who can now relate even more to her viewpoint.

Does it really matter, though? Being gay doesn't affect one's ability to perform scientific experiments, or to educate about science. On the other hand, she purposely chose not to become a spokesperson for gay rights, so should she become one now that her voice cannot be heard? I'd rather not politicize her life any further.

The most poignant writing about Sally's death I've read so far points out two relevant issues. First, Sally was a federal employee as an astronaut, which again highlights the lack of benefits for same-sex couples given our government's failure to acknowledge such relationships. Second, and more importantly, Tam is the survivor and will bear the brunt of any fallout from such an announcement. She has still lost her partner, though, and my heart hurts widespread knowledge about her relationship only after it has ended.

I only offer opinions, and a bit of empathy, from the perspective of a young, queer, female scientist. Sally fought many battles to help pave the road of my career, and regardless of who she loved and when, I am very grateful.

1 comment:

Eli said...

My heart goes out to Tam too. I'm disappointed that the family felt it was necessary to make this public when Sally and Tam chose not to, and I hope that Tam had a say in the decision.

However, when I think about Sally Ride, I'm always going to think about the thrill I got when I first saw her go into space and that feeling of exultation that if she could do that, then I could do anything.