Death, space and closets
Jul 26, 2012 | 381 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died this week. She was 61.

She was also a lesbian who was battling pancreatic cancer.

Ride came out in her obituary, which listed her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, as her first survivor.

The revelation of Ride’s sexual orientation has sparked conversations about coming out — should she have come out, is it important, why does the media care, why does anyone care?

To speak to the larger question: Yes, it matters that heroes, icons, groundbreakers and generally accomplished people come out. Until LGBT Americans have equal rights, it matters.

Her family has noted that Ride was an intensely private person, and wouldn’t have spoken about something as personal as her sexual orientation, just as she didn’t share that she was fighting cancer for 17 months before her death.

But to borrow a line from feminist Carol Hanisch, the personal is political.

And it is. It is still a political act to come out. As personal a decision as it may be, every person who comes out contributes to the good of the LGBT community as a whole — making it easier for LGBT youth to accept themselves and making it harder for society to deny LGBTs equality.

When individuals stay in the closet, it gives the appearance that they are choosing one over the other: a career over being openly LGBT. And it shouldn’t have to be that way.

Ride chose to be an astronaut, a scientist, not an activist. It’s highly likely that if she would have come out when she was at NASA, her legacy wouldn’t have been about space exploration and women in science — it would have been about her activism that might have resulted from being fired from NASA.

Take for example astronomer Frank Kameny, who was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Instead of pursuing a career in science, he became a lifelong gay-rights activist.

That Ride felt compelled to choose her groundbreaking science career over being public about her partner of 27 years is a sad commentary on the vestiges of homophobia and discrimination.

Ride was an inspiration for a generation of girls who looked up to her, who wanted to be just like her, who saw that they, too, could be astronauts.

Now, LGBT youth can also look up to Ride as a hero, as an inspiration, as an accomplished lesbian. Hopefully, our next generation of astronauts can be out too.

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