Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sally Ride

Like many people, I was shocked to hear that Sally Ride, the first American woman sent into space, had died. She’d kept her cancer secret, so of course there was no reason for most of us to expect her death.

That first shock was followed immediately by another: Learning that she was lesbian.

I well remember when Sally first went into space in 1983. The fact that this was some two decades after the Soviet Union sent the first woman into space didn’t diminish the importance of her trip. The fact that she’d finally broken NASA’s glass ceiling gave hope not just to women and girls, but also to me. As a young gay man, I, too, took inspiration from her, and thought that if she could smash the barriers that held her back because of who she was, maybe there might be hope for someone like me. I can’t have been the only person who thought like that.

Sally went into space again in 1984, also aboard the space shuttle Challenger, but her third trip in 1986 was cancelled when Challenger exploded. She was on the commission that investigated that disaster, and also the 2003 Columbia disaster—the only person to serve on both panels.

Since her first historic flight, 42 women have followed her. As far as we know, she was the only GLBT person ever sent into space by any country—only we didn’t know that at the time, or while she was alive.

Her sister Bear told BuzzFeed that she hoped the GLBT communities would now see her as an advocate, and one day they probably will: Kids will learn of her, and young gay kids will learn that a gay person was a hero, and they may even think that they might also be a hero one day, too.

For us older folk, however, it’s a little more complicated. For me, I have and always will respect and admire her for breaking that barrier to women. But the fact that she kept the reality of her life a secret until her death means that she’s hardly a hero or role model on that, except insofar as she survived all the forces that tried to suppress her, as happened to nearly all of us older GLBT folk.

History is a great finisher, sanding out the rough spots, grinding down the sharp edges. Sally’s achievement will continue to resonate, and one day her being lesbian will be seen as just another good thing about her. I just wish we’d known about it sooner, so it could have done good sooner.

Still, nothing can change or diminish what she accomplished, nor the potential that she unleashed, and that’s what I’ll remember


Roger Owen Green said...

I don't know - she was also secretive about her cancer.
We've talked about this before, and I continue to be of two minds about the NEED for coming out. It's not as though she lied about her orientation, to the best of my knowledge, which is a whole 'nother thing. Her sister's interview is interesting.

Arthur Schenck said...

Yeah, her sister talks about Sally's tendency to keep everything private, and that's not an uncommon thing for folks in their 60s and up—sometimes younger, too.

I'm not saying she should have come out—that's an intensely personal decision, and one that even now still carries the potential loss of income/career, family, friends, etc. I'm just saying it would have been nice if she'd come out in life.

On the general subject of coming out, however, I do definitely feel that all GLBT people should come out if they can. Every single study and poll ever conducted has found a positive effect when people know a real gay person, and a strongly positive effect if they care about that gay person.

Not only does homophobia shrink away when heterosexual people realise they know gay people, new straight allies are often created when heterosexuals see how their gay family and friends are treated by society and government. There's too much to gain to do anything other than encourage people to come out.

There's probably a blog post in all that; isn't there always?