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Sally Ride 'never hid,' just private

Joe Garofol, Houston Chronicle
Published 4:18 pm, Thursday, July 26, 2012

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  • At the end of an obituary that Ride, left, co-wrote with her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, they disclosed their relationship of 27 years. Photo: Curtis Compton / American Library Association
    At the end of an obituary that Ride, left, co-wrote with her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, they disclosed their relationship of 27 years. Photo: Curtis Compton

 

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Astronaut Sally Ride, who died last week at 61 of pancreatic cancer, inspired millions around the world, not only as the first American woman in space, but also as an advocate for women in the sciences.

But posthumously, Ride already is inspiring a new audience: the LGBT community. Ride is the first known LGBT astronaut.

The obituary published Monday on her website, sallyridescience.com, was the first public acknowledgment of what only Ride's friends and family knew: She is survived by "Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years."

"Sally never hid her relationship with Tam," her sister, Karen "Bear" Ride, told us in an email. "They were partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they wrote books together, and Sally's very close friends, of course, knew of their love for each other. We consider Tam a member of our family."

The inclusion of the relationship in Ride's website obituary "was done with her blessing," said Terry McEntee, Ride's assistant and co-founder of Sally Ride Science. O'Shaughnessy declined to be interviewed.

'Very private person'

Ride, her sister said, "was a very private person. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy - it was just her nature - because we're Norwegians, through and through."

"It's not as if Sally knew a closet," Bear Ride wrote. "She was just private - like no one knew about the cancer," either.

Bear Ride, a Presbyterian minister who also has been in a longtime relationship with a woman, said she hopes Ride's story "makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them."

After Ride's posthumous coming out, interest in her private life increased quickly. The news came after President Obama became the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage, and the Boy Scouts of America upheld its ban on gay Scouts and Scout leaders. Target and Chick-fil-A made headlines for their stands for and against same-sex marriage, respectively, while CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's confirmation that he is gay barely rippled.

Gay-rights advocates say Ride's story highlights the discrimination facing many gays and lesbians. O'Shaughnessy is ineligible to receive federal benefits because the federal Defense of Marriage Act does not recognize same-sex relationships.

Only 16 states prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT civil rights organization.

"Her coming out in this way makes it even more powerful," said Fred Sainz, director of communication for the Human Rights Campaign. A photo of Ride blanketed the organization's website, with one of her quotations: "All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary."

The fact that Ride was a lesbian "is huge and positive and really inspirational," said Herndon Graddick, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

'Reach for the stars'

Now, gay rights advocates say, young gay and lesbian kids can feel even more inspired by Ride's famous encouragement that children should "reach for the stars."

"It tells LGBT kids that they can be anything they want to be in America," Graddick said.

It is significant because "it reinforces for all Americans that LGBT people are everywhere. We come from every walk of life," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.

As a community, "You can say, 'Sally Ride was one of us, a member of our tribe,'‚ÄČ" Kendall said.

While Ride did not do any LGBT advocacy, her sister has worked to make her church more inclusive to LGBT families, "and Sally and the rest of the family were absolutely supportive," said Michael Adee, executive director of the More Light Presbyterians, who has worked with Bear Ride and known the Ride family for more than a decade.

Faith and science

A photo that sits on Bear Ride's desk shows her in her clerical collar standing with Sally wearing her flight suit, Adee said. Next to that is a picture of the sisters wearing the other's uniform.

"For that family, faith and science were not in opposition," Adee said. "They were in harmony."

Robert McGarry, director of education for Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which compiles educational materials on gay history, said it is important that Ride's life history "will now include a fuller picture of who she was."

Still, Sainz and others expressed sadness that Ride's full story was not known to a wider audience until now.

"On one hand, I wish Americans would have been able to experience this while she was alive, so we could ask her questions and use her as a role model to that Mom and Pop in Nebraska," Sainz said. "But, on the other hand, Sally Ride may have gotten this absolutely right."

jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com