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Dr. Sally Ride’s Legacy: The Frontiers of Identity

by Carolyn Gage

July 27, 2012

The Internet is abuzz with the posthumous outing of astronaut Sally Ride. Everyone seems to have an opinion: Some folks wish that Dr. Ride, as an iconic astronaut, had been out publicly as a powerful role model in the LGBT community. Indeed, there is a posthumous campaign on Facebook to point out the fact that, because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy will not be able to receive federal death and pension benefits.
Others, taking their cue from Dr. Ride’s sister, support her decision to remain publicly closeted, citing her right to privacy and attributing her reticence to her Norwegian background. Others point out the excessive and unwelcome attention to her gender and personal life ("Do you wear a bra in space?") to which the media subjected her as the first woman in space. Suzi Parker at the Washington Post wrapped up a defense of Ride's closet with this summation: “… Ride lived in a world where we should all live, a place where we celebrate someone for her accomplishments and not her sexual orientation.”
Actually, Ms. Washington Post, a lesbian orientation is an accomplishment. Historically, and certainly in Dr. Ride’s lifetime, living a lesbian life has meant overcoming substantial obstacles and negotiating myriad oppressive situations. Living a lesbian life has meant excommunication and expulsion from religious organizations; discharge from the military; disinheritance and estrangement from families of birth; incarceration in mental asylums; harassment, discrimination and firing in the workplace; loss of housing; loss of educational opportunities; being banned from teaching jobs; loss of custody of one’s children; loss of partnership benefits including pensions and health insurance, and loss of one’s career.
These are specific oppressions. Living with them requires the invention and creation of strategies, alliances, alternative systems of support. It comes with the weightlessness of an invisible identity that defies the gravitational pull of what many experience as compulsory heterosexuality, a weightlessness with its own freedoms and challenges.
After all, there is a sense of stability that comes from rooting oneself in societal norms, from being able to breathe the oxygen of acceptance and approval without realizing it. In the closed space of the closet, there is a suffocating lack of circulation. Dr. Ride lived her life in a secret orbital, and the special conditions of that orbital informed her choices, her character and her legacy.Dr. Ride’s sister stated that Sally did not believe in labels, the inference being that lesbianism is a label.
Newsflash: Being lesbian is an identity, and nothing could be further from a label. When you label me, you spraypaint an offensive epithet on my front door. That’s not pleasant for me, but I can paint over it. It does not affect who I am or how I live. When you insist that “lesbian” is nothing more than a label, what you are doing is very aggressive. You are attempting to evict me from my home, deny me access to my community, cut me off from my heritage and history, appropriate a tremendous body of literature and disappear my culture. Insisting that my identity is nothing more than a label supports heterosexist hegemony and isolates and marginalizes me. It’s also more than a little pornographic because attempting to reduce the richness of lesbian history and culture to a personal sexual practice is the hallmark of a fetish.
And in case the apologists of the closet are relying on the "born that way" argument to trivialize lesbian identity, they should understand that lesbians are not gay men. Lesbianism has always represented an empowering choice in patriarchal cultures. Time out for a brief history lesson: Here in the U.S., until the invention of reliable birth control, women could not practice heterosexuality outside of marriage without risking extremely severe consequences. I am talking about the stigma of the notorious “fallen” or tragically “ruined” woman, with the searing rejection of out-of-wedlock children -- often relinquished for adoption under economic, or religious or social -- or all-three -- pressures. On the other hand, the socially sanctioned expression of heterosexuality -- marriage -- was a dangerous and degrading institution for women. In an era before birth control, women could not deny their husbands sex, and this could mean serial pregnancies for two decades or more with the attendant toll on both psychological and physical health. It often meant too many children to protect or provide for. The rates of infant mortality were nearly as high as the rates of death in childbirth. Wives could be raped and beaten with impunity, could not inherit money, could not own their own wages, vote, serve on juries (critical factor in rape trials), could not own their children. Husbands could have their wives incarcerated indefinitely in mental asylums. This was still true through the middle of the twentieth century.The woman with enough self-esteem to insist on control of her body; the woman with dreams of creative, entrepreneurial or intellectual work; and the woman whose childhood experiences of male sexuality were traumatic enough to preclude her fulfilling the obligations of the marriage bed had two choices: celibacy or lesbianism. Many women chose lesbianism. And many of these, not surprisingly, were women of achievement. Scratch around under the surface of these thousands of exceptional, historical “single women,” (as Ride was presumed to be) and you will usually find the lesbianism.
Dr. Ride made her choices during her lifetime, as we all do, weighing her priorities and considering consequences. For many women whose life work is with children, and especially in the field of education, the closet has been compulsory.
But Dr. Ride is dead now, and, in exiting the planet, has exited her closet. There is no reason to attempt to stuff her legacy back into that prison, except, of course, the usual heterosexist impulse to erase lesbian achievement, impoverish our history, appropriate our lives. What is the motivation behind that impulse? Could it have something to do with the fact that a disproportionately high number of women of pioneering achievement are lesbians… and especially in arenas traditionally dominated by men? Why is this still true today? Clearly the label theory will not provide us with an answer.
We can only begin to understand this high percentage of lesbian achievers when we begin to explore and celebrate the resistance, the iconoclasm, the strategic brilliance, the hard-won integrity and the deep gynophilic passion that are indigenous to lesbian identity. Dr. Sally Ride embodied all of these qualities, as a lesbian, and they cannot be separated from her accomplishments.

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Carolyn Gage is a lesbian feminist playwright, performer, director and activist. The author of nine books on lesbian theatre and 65 plays, musicals and one-woman shows, she specializes in non-traditional roles for women, especially those reclaiming famous lesbians whose stories have been distorted or erased from history.
Gage won the 2011 Maine Literary Award in Drama, and in 2009, her collection of plays "The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays" won the Lambda Literary Award in Drama, the top LGBT book award in the U.S. All of her books and plays are available online at
See also:

Carolyn Gage, "Me, Babe and Prying Open the Lesbian Closets of Women Athletes." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012 Cafe, June 28, 2012.

Carolyn Gage, "The Second Coming of Joan Of Arc." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 1995.

Susan Jacoby, "Wanted: A Revolution in Critical Thinking." On the Issues Magazine, Fall 2009.

Suzanne Farr, "Stimulating Social Change: Then and Now." On the Issues Magazine, Winter 2009.

Merle Hoffman, "OTI Dialogue: Congressman John Lewis and Andrea Dworkin Towards a Revolution in Values." On the Issues Magazine, Fall 1994.


Michael Bedwell posted: 2012-07-28 14:04:19

One has to wonder what those defending Ride now would say about her willful, needless closetry had she been outed by someone while still alive. The sentimentality some are overcome by at anyone’s death, and particularly death by cancer, tends to erase all but the worst sins, and render some at least momentarily spineless who, in other circumstances, would be demanding the barricades be stormed, and no prisoners taken.Tortured apologias are falling not just out of the mouths of clueless heterosexuals but those of LGBTs previously known as card carrying members of the “Come out, come out, whoever you are” choir. I used to think that all those gay men who would rush, switchblade in hand, to the defense of Anderson Cooper's public closetry were primarily doing it out of puerile sexual attraction to him. After all, it coexisted with mocking/denouncing any less attractive [by common standards] who similarly wouldn't come out such as Clay Aiken. But the Cirque du Soleil-worthy acrobatics that so many are engaged in trying to find excuses for Ride’s cowardice suggests that a lot of it must have been primarily motivated by Uncle Tomism—and that Toms come in both genders. First, the same transparently phony somersault is being used for her as Cooper tried to use for himself for years—“private life” when both of them CHOSE to be public people. Gay Bishop Gene Robinson could be appreciated for the “forgiving” nature he expressed in a recent interview because it comes with his vocation. But, simultaneously, he might be ordered to repent for his contradiction. He’s one of those among many whimpering that Ride was a HELPLESS victim of her generation’s upbringing yet he is four years older than she was and HE came out publicly. And even religious icons must be held accountable for their double standards. He gives older people a pass while insisting that “his own [younger] clergy in New Hampshire be open about their sexuality if they are gay or lesbian.” I’m sorry but when did gays of all ages stop being vulnerable to being rejected by their family members and friends who, themselves, were brought up in Robinson’s and Ride’s homophobic generation? Then there are those who’ve had the cheek to suggest that Ride’s career would have been destroyed had she come out publicly AT ANY POINT. Exactly which career is that? Astronaut trainee? Yeh, probably, given that hyper hetero-macho culture with the sweet, cooing little wife and 2.5 kids waiting at home back on Earth. But her last trip into space was nearly THIRTY YEARS AGO. And with those two historic flights as the first US woman astronaut, and her apparent brilliance as a physicist, von Braun and Lindbergh Eagle Awards, and induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the Astronaut Hall of Fame, and California Hall of fame she was hardly the space program equivalent of Penn State coach Joe Paterno, her statue pulled down by sudden scandal. Sally Ride became the definition of Privilege—the kind of person, gay or straight, no university like Stanford which hired her in 1987 or UC San Diego in 1989 or the California Space Institute would have dared pass up—even had such institutions on the liberal "Left Coast" even then wanted to. And FOR THE LAST 11 YEARS, she’s been her own boss at a company producing science programs and publications for public schools. Yes, there might have been some Troglodytes object to that but, again, this was in the last decade plus when general acceptance of gays grew exponentially, and her “Exploring Our Solar System” would be a much harder book to challenge than “Heather Has Two Mommies.” TWENTY-FIVE YEARS BEFORE she took her closet into space, Frank Kameny, who'd been born into a much more conservative generation a quarter century before she, wanted to be an astronaut, too. But he lost not just that dream but his entire career as a brilliant Harvard-trained astronomer because he refused to lie to the government about being gay. When ride was ten years old, Kameny was appealing to the Supreme Court to reverse his firing which meant he could not practice his profession even for non-federal government employers so dependent upon federal funding. But they refused, and the father of the modern gay rights movement later admitted there were many periods when he had less than a dollar a day for food; and in recent years leading up to his death in 2011 fundraisers had to be held for his meager meals, utility bills, etc. Then there were all those gay men and women who lost their careers in the military for the same reason,outing themselves to fight the ban, and the countless others in civilian life who would likely have had careers above the poverty line had they not insisted on being able to be honest with EVERYONE about themselves, and chosen a life of activism such as Barbara Gittings and her partner Kay Tobin and partners and Daughters of Bilitis founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Yes, younger women in science may stand on Ride’s shoulders, but she and her “partner” Tam O'Shaughnessy prospered for years, accepted in enclosed professional circles while “open” there because they stood on the shoulders of those who’d had courage they didn’t. Finally, she and O’Shaughnessy lived in California all these years—the launching pad of so many gay and lesbian rights issues. Yet there’s no record of either of them giving a dime to fight Prop H8TE, which could have easily been done in O’Shaughnessy’s name without anyone checking such lists recognizing her name, or paying attention to her employer’s name. Whether they wanted to legally marry themselves is beside the point for the logical extension of that excuse is that no white person need care about equal opportunity for people of color; no man need care about equal opportunity and reproductive freedom for women; and no one non-transgender need care about transgender rights. Yes, I admire Ride for her accomplishments in science, and their contribution to the advance of gender equality. And I get that it was her RIGHT not to publicly come out. But it is just as much my right to call Shame on someone who reached the heavens but proved she had self-serving feet of clay on Earth. >>>>“I’ve begun to consider whether the unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle. It’s become clear to me that by remaining silent on certain aspects of my personal life for so long, I HAVE GIVEN SOME THE MISTAKEN IMPRESSION THAT I AM TRYING TO HIDE SOMETHING —SOMETHING THAT MAKES ME UNCOMFORTABLE, ASHAMED OR EVEN AFRAID. This is distressing because it is simply not true. I’ve also been reminded recently that while as a society we are moving toward greater inclusion and equality for all people, THE TIDE OF HISTORY ONLY ADVANCES WHEN PEOPLE MAKE THEMSELVES FULLY VISIBLE.” – Anderson Cooper.<<<<

Out posted: 2012-07-30 20:12:02

Mr. Bedwell makes the mistake of thinking he "knows" someone just because they are a public figure. Sally Ride was a highly accomplished woman, she doesn't owe you anything Mr. Bedwell. You don't know what motivated her. You could simply critique the world she operated in but instead you attack her and her partner. Coming out in her death is more powerful than any of the complaints above. You seem like the type who would complain if someone gave you a gold plated toilet.

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