The Adjectives of Sally Ride’s Life and Death

The Adjectives of Sally Ride’s Life and Death

The Adjectives of Sally Ride’s Life and Death

Was Sally Ride’s choice to stay private about sexual orientation a personal one? In a country increasingly fractured on equality, the personal unfortunately remains political.


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 Beasts 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:

"You’re a LESBIAN. All you need is a GOOD-MAN!! I’ll volunteer my services to get in between the two of you to show you a ­good time you won’t be needing any strap-on’s or vibrators with me.”

Get it? Because nothing makes a lesbian joke better than throwing some rape allusions on top. After the threatened woman threw a drink at her thruster, he retaliated by hurling drinks and bottles from other patrons’ tables at the fleeing couple. Rather than help the women to safety, many in the audience joined in.

When news of the incident led to bad press, the performer in question, Eddie Griffin, fell back on the “can’t you take a joke?” defense, long the kryptonite of anyone trying to highlight cultural oppression. The production company screamed censorship, and Eddie himself posted a screed on his Facebook page calling out the negative publicity “all over a joke about dyke bitches!”

These twin tales are emblematic of a culture increasingly embroiled in a fractured relationship with itself on issues of tolerance. The president endorsed gay marriage in an election year and mogul Russell Simmons can heap public accolades on hip-hop star Frank Ocean for coming out. Progress. A young gay couple faces a hostile crowd in a club in suburban California, and teen suicide remains 300 percent higher in the gay population than the straight. Miles to go.

Kermit gets massive social media love for his public divorce from Chick-fil-A after the fast food chain’s CEO retrenched his company’s commitment to only support the ­“biblical definition of marriage.” But it’s a mistake to lose sight of the fact that the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day started by Governor Mike Huckabee in response had 80,000 people signed up in the first forty-eight hours. Those metrics are the envy of any organizer who’s ever planned an online event.

A new initiative between Courage Campaign and American Bridge understands this all too well, which is why they’ve joined forces to launch Mitt Gets Worse. These groups are trying to head off the insidious complacency of an embattled electorate who thinks that in comparison to a Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney might be a kinder gentler alternative on social issues. The effort is aimed at those tempted by a change in course on the economy, and serves to remind them that falling for a charlatan carries a heavy price.

Concerns about the economy may divide us into the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, but the numbers get a whole lot scarier when we look at other critical progressive values like justice and civil rights. Until this dynamic changes, the adjectives that define Sally Ride’s life and death are going to be have to remain more than a personal choice.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sally Ride as the first woman in space. This has been corrected to accurately represent her as the first American woman in space. 

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