Sally Ride showed Generation X girls the sky’s the limit — literally.
Amid all the girl power that Ride taught women, one barrier the first American woman in space chose not to break was sexuality. When she died on Monday at age 61 from pancreatic cancer, it emerged that Ride had a partner. As one friend on Facebook wrote, in jest, “That lady astronaut was gay.”
Yes, Sally Ride, a theoretical astrophysicist, American hero and feminist icon, was a lesbian.
She had a partner for 27 years. According to some news reports, Ride didn’t keep her relationship secret. Perhaps not, but the world certainly didn’t know about it. Most of us learned that tidbit of Ride trivia when her obituary was written.
Ride lived a quiet life, a throwback to another time not so long ago; when someone’s personal life wasn’t splashed all over television or Facebook. There’s a reason it’s called “a private life.”
Ride’s partner was Tam O’Shaughnessy, a professor emerita of school psychology at San Diego State University. She and Ride wrote several books together, and O’Shaughnessy was also chief operating officer and executive vice president of Ride's company, Sally Ride Science, where girls receive encouragement to learn about engineering, math, science and technology.
When she became the first woman in space, she was married to astronaut Steve Hawley. They divorced in 1987.
He said in a statement on Monday, “Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable. I was privileged to be a part of her life and be in a position to support her as she became the first American woman to fly in space.”
She didn’t have an easy ride into space amid media scrutiny. Some reporters back then in the 1980s asked her if she would wear a bra into space. Others asked if she planned on having children. Ride hated that she was asked such sexist questions at NASA news conferences while her male counterparts weren’t.
Ride may have tolerated ridiculous inquires in the quaint ‘80s, but the decade also shielded the shy astronaut. She wasn’t politicized or trending on social media. If she was married, we didn’t obsess over it like we would now in a celebrity-obsessed world. We didn’t become oversaturated with tales of Sally Ride, but we did take a lesson from her.
In death, Ride has already become politicized. Progressive and gay blogs are lamenting the fact that O’Shaughnessy will not receive Ride’s federal benefits because of the Marriage Act (DOMA) and blaming Republicans.
Ride obviously didn’t want to be a gay icon. If she had, she could have easily sat down with Oprah or Ellen and told the world about her sexuality, her private life and her love for O’Shaughnessy, whom she had known since she was 12.
Instead, Ride lived in a world where we should all live, a place where we celebrate someone for her accomplishments and not her sexual orientation.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker