First American woman in space Sally Ride passed away Monday, and her death has become a question of adjectives. Specifically, which ones are used in the plethora of tributes. Used: iconic, pioneer, brilliant, author, passionate, advocate, and role model. All true. Not used: lesbian. Also evidently true.
Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan accused the New York Times of either active or passive homophobia by omitting this core part of Ms. Ride’s identity in her extensive obituary. Ultimately, though, Sullivan saves his harshest criticism for Ms. Ride herself, calling her an “absent heroine” for her trademark discretion and bemoaning her missed opportunity to serve as a role model for young gay people.
My neck hair bristled reading that, empathizing with Sally and far too familiar with the universal curse of professional women painfully managing the delicate balance between fruitful camaraderie and destructive vulnerability in male-dominated and often sexually charged workplaces. Still, it seems that towards the end of her life, Ride was quite open about her relationship with her partner of twenty-seven years, Tam O’ Shaughnessy, who was noted as surviving family in the statement released by Sally Ride Science to announce her death.
But the jury’s out on the cause for the omission. Commenters chimed in to point out that the New York Times never leads with a “heterosexual” headline when one dies. Others point to Anderson Cooper, who came out this month to an anticlimactic chorus of “duhs!” If equality is counterintuitively defined by the choice to exercise privacy, to many this is one battle that seems to be drawing to a close.
Such is the view from elite media and pop culture. The view down below isn’t so rosy. The same day as the Sally Ride obituary was printed, the Contra Costa Times carried a report of a Pleasanton, California, comedy club that turned from humorous to hostile when the drunk performer noticed a lesbian couple in his midst. According to the women’s lawyer, the comedian approached the table violently thrusting his pelvis and yelling: