The Sally Ride debate: When is it the right time for a public figure to comeout?
There's been a lot of talk online and in our office about how Sally Ride's sexual orientation was revealed after her recent death and the enormous reaction to it. A recent CultureMap column posted that the coverage was overblown and, in 2012, it really shouldn't matter that a public figure is lesbian.
But a number of readers took the column to mean that the writer thought that Ride should have stayed in the closet — even after death — and that it is somehow wrong to label her a "lesbian astronaut," although that wasn't the writer's intention.
Personally I find nothing wrong in labeling someone a "lesbian astronaut." And I think that the media reaction is to be expected. It strikes me as somewhat odd that Ride would wait until after death to acknowledge a 27-year relationship — she and her longtime partner wrote the obituary before her death — and not expect the media to trumpet such a long-held secret.
When it comes to coming out, there's a great generational divide. Adults between the ages of 30-54 are 16 times more likely to be closeted than those under 30, according to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project.
By all accounts, the astronaut with the perfect name for a space explorer was an intensely private person who had to endure many sexist comments and derision from critics as the first American woman to venture into space. In 1983, as she prepared to fly on the Challenger shuttle, she faced a barrage of condescending questions.
Would she wear a bra and makeup into space? Did she cry on the job? Would space flight affect her reproductive organs?
On the Tonight show, host Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because she had to find a purse to match her shoes.
Given the situation, it's no wonder Ride didn't acknowledge her sexual orientation.
After that, I'm guessing, there never seemed a right time. When it comes to coming out, there's a great generational divide. Adults between the ages of 30 to 54 are 16 times more likely to be closeted than those under 30, according to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project.
Ride was 61 when she died Monday at her home in San Diego from pancreatic cancer.
Outside of such fields as entertainment, the fine arts, journalism, technology and retail, many people feel like it's still a risk to come fully out of the closet. There are no federal laws that outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, so it's not surprising that 51 percent of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual workers hide their sexual identity to most or all of their fellow employees, according to study by the Human Rights Campaign.
People praise high-dollar celebrities like Jim Parsons and Anderson Cooper who discreetly come out as brave individuals, but to me, the real heroes are openly gay school teachers and clergy, oil field workers and office secretaries who put photos of their partners or loved ones on their desk for all to see. Public figures — except for maybe sports stars and leading men actors — don't really seem to lose a whole lot when they come out, but the average person can lose their job.
In a state like Texas, an employer can fire you if you're gay and there's nothing you can do about it.
I would have liked for Ride to have acknowledged her sexual orientation a decade ago — or even last year — when she could have served as a role model and given hope to some kid who was bullied in school for being effeminate or too butch. The more public figures who come out, the easier it is for younger gay, lesbian, bigender and transexual to live their lives without fear of getting beaten up or even killed.
The unintended message I fear it sends is that being gay remains something so shameful to some people that it can't be revealed until after death. Even so, better late than never, I say.
But Ride’s sister, Bear Ride, a lesbian who has been active in gay-rights causes, told the Associated Press that she supported Ride’s choice to wait so long to come out. “She was just a private person who wanted to do things her way,” Bear wrote. “She hated labels (including ‘hero’).”
Some would argue, in death, Sally Ride remained a trailblazer.