Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died yesterday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was also, as you may have heard by now, gay. Dan Amira underscores the casual way in which this information was relayed—via Ride's obituary on her own website—in a Daily Intel post titled "Oh, By the Way, Sally Ride Was Gay."
In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.
BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner reported, "Terry McEntee, a spokeswoman from Sally Ride Science ... confirmed to BuzzFeed that there had not, to her knowledge, previously been published acknowledgment of Ride and O'Shaugnessy's relationship." According to Bear Ride, Sally's sister, to whom Geidner spoke, this was because "Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we're Norwegians, through and through."
Maurice Sendak, similarly, was a public figure who was incredibly private about his personal life, and he too was gay. Prior to his recent death, in a 2008 interview, he told the New York Times, “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”
But as more and more celebrities come out to the public in a new "low-key," "no-fuss manner," as Patrick Healy wrote in a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review in June (Anderson Cooper is one recent example) it's heartening to think that we may be headed out of the age in which public figures, closeted for fear of what their families might think or because of prejudice and bigotry or just because it's "not done," were only revealed to be gay at the end of a long life, or after death.
Healy writes, "public discussion about one’s sexuality is so common now, so unexceptional in parts of America, that sexual orientation is akin to personal characteristics like race, ethnicity and religion. For some television stars like Mr. Parsons, Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family), Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) and Ellen DeGeneres, being known as gay seems like no big whoop."
The quote Ride gave at a NASA press conference in the '80s about being female speaks to this equality milestone on another level, I think: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.” But that was regarding her "woman in space" status, and Denise Grady's New York Times obituary, which lists a range of silly questions Ride received because of her gender, like "Did she cry on the job?"
The same could be said for her sexual preference. Ride is a pioneer here the way she was a pioneer as a woman in space (regardless of what some are arguing, I think wrongheadedly, about how much we should applaud her space flight as a feminist moment). At the same time, like Ride said, the day in which this sort of news—her being a woman, her being gay—is not "a big deal" but just plain fact will mean we truly have journeyed (ahem) light years from where we began. When pioneers can stop being pioneers and are just people, then we've really won.