Sally Ride sparks posthumous debate on coming out
New York - Pioneering astronaut Sally Ride, who relished privacy as much as she did adventure, chose an appropriately discreet manner of coming out.
At the end of an obituary that she co-wrote with her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, they disclosed to the world their relationship of 27 years. That was it.
As details trickled out after Ride's death on Monday, it became clear that a circle of family, friends and co-workers had long known of the same-sex relationship and had embraced it. For many millions of others, who admired Ride as the first American woman in space, it was a revelation - and it sparked a spirited discussion about privacy vs. public candor in regard to sexual orientation.
Some commentators, such as prominent gay blogger Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast, second-guessed Ride's decision to opt for privacy.
"She had a chance to expand people's horizons and young lesbians' hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to," he wrote. "She was the absent heroine."
Others were supportive of Ride's choices.
Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who in 2003 became the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican world, noted that both he and Ride were baby boomers who grew up "in a time when coming out was almost unthinkable."
Robinson is 65. Ride was 61 when she died of pancreatic cancer.
"For girls who had an interest in science and wanted to go places women had not been allowed to go, she was a tremendous role model," Robinson said Wednesday. "The fact that she chose to keep her identity as a lesbian private - I honor that choice."
However, Robinson said he had a different standard for younger gays - to the point of insisting that his own clergy in New Hampshire be open about their sexuality if they are gay or lesbian.
"While there is still discrimination and coming out will still have repercussions, the effect of those repercussions are vastly reduced now," Robinson said. "I believe that times have changed."
There's no question that gays and lesbians overall are coming out at a higher rate and an earlier age now than those of previous generations. According to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, adults aged 30-54 are 16 times more likely to be closeted than those under 30.
In pop culture, fine arts, the entertainment industry, and in some individual sports, it's now commonplace for luminaries to be out as gay or lesbian. But in many other fields, the dynamics are different.
Aside from Ride, no other astronaut of any nation has come out as gay. No active player in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues - football, basketball, baseball and hockey - has come out as gay, though some retired players have done so. Ken Mehlman came out as gay after a stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Back in 2002, baseball star Mike Piazza - then with the New York Mets - rebutted rumors with a news conference to declare, "I'm not gay." Queen Latifah, the hip-hop star and actress, has countered comparable speculation over the years by refusing to discuss her personal life.
According to a study by the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group, 51 percent of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual workers hide their sexual identity from most or all of their co-workers. Gay-rights activists have been pushing, so far in vain, for Congress to outlaw workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign's vice president for communications, said his initial reaction to the revelation about Sally Ride was, "What a shame that we didn't learn this while she was alive."
"However, the fact it was acknowledged in death will be an incredibly powerful message to all Americans about the contributions of their LGBT counterparts," Sainz said. "The completeness of her life will be honored correctly."
Ride's sister, Bear Ride, a lesbian who has been active in gay-rights causes, explained Ride's choice in an email.
"She was just a private person who wanted to do things her way," she wrote. "She hated labels (including 'hero')."
Carolyn Porco, a prominent planetary scientist and leader of the imaging team on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn, met Ride many years ago when she was an astronaut candidate, already steeped in NASA's mindset of reserve and self-effacement.
"Following her career all these years, she struck me as a woman of impeccable class, and it doesn't surprise she wanted to keep her private life private," Porco said. "I don't think it's anyone else's business, and I'd love for us all to get to the place where it doesn't matter anymore."
That's been a common theme in comments about Ride - a hope that American society will someday reach a point where being gay is no more noteworthy than being straight.
Sarah Blazucki, editor of Philadelphia Gay News, said that day has not arrived.
"It's still important to come out, because we're not post-gay yet," she said. "When we do have full equality, then it's a different story."
She expressed respect for Ride's choices, but also regret.
"In the long run, everyone in the LGBT community and those who will follow benefit from someone coming out," Blazucki said. "It's sad that she felt she had to wait."
Another gay journalist, widely followed blogger Bil Browning, said the revelation about Ride left him with mixed feelings.
"I wish that she had come out while she was alive," he said. "The statement that would have been sent to young lesbians across the country would have been like Obama's election was to African-American kids."
On the other hand, he acknowledged generational differences and said Ride was entitled to her privacy.
"The activist in me thinks it's a missed opportunity," Browning said. "But she did the right thing at the end."
Some of the same issues involving privacy and openness surfaced in early July when CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, after years of reluctance to go public about his personal life, confirmed that he is gay. Cooper wrote in an online letter that he had kept his sexual orientation private for personal and professional reasons, but eventually decided that remaining silent had given some people a mistaken impression that he was ashamed.
"I hope this doesn't mean an end to a small amount of personal space," Cooper wrote. "But I do think visibility is important, more important than preserving my reporter's shield of privacy."
Two days later, there was another revelation: fast-rising R&B star Frank Ocean announced on his Tumblr page that his first love was a man.
"I don't have any secrets I need to keep anymore," Ocean wrote at the end of his post. "I feel like a free man."
David Crary can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP
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