Sally Ride comes out, posthumously

Coverage of astronaut’s death reveals her long-time partner, and our own awkward treatment of same-sex couples

July 24, 2012

Most news organizations treated the death of Sally Ride pretty straightforwardly on Monday. They noted her historic role as the first American woman in space. A few also pointed out that she was America’s youngest astronaut.

And they almost all mentioned her post-NASA work as a professor and as founder of Sally Ride Science, a company that promotes interest in science among kids, but especially girls.

And just about everyone — even Fox News — mentioned in the last few lines of their stories that Ride was survived by “Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years.”

Progress, right? I mean, here was an extraordinary person — someone who’d actually made history, not just notched notable achievements — whose same sex relationship was being treated in the same ho-hum, matter of fact way as that of any other celebrity.

Except for two things: It was actually news in itself that Ride had a same sex partner, which almost every obit failed to note, and nearly every story I read did not include O’Shaughnessy other than in the survivor listing. (Some, like the NASA story, avoided the subject altogether by not even listing survivors.)

No story was more awkward than the New York Times, which mentioned that Ride and her former astronaut husband, Steve Hawley, had decorated their bedroom with pictures of the moon 30 years ago but not, for example, that she and O’Shaughnessey had in the last few years co-authored several science books, including Mission: Planet Earth: Our World and Its Climate — and How Humans Are Changing Them and Voyager: An Adventure to the Edge of the Solar System.

The Boston Globe, though, came in a close second. It mentioned Ride’s books, but again neglected to note O’Shaughnessy’s co-authorship. What was particularly striking was that it reached back more than 27 years for a quote from Hawley but, like the others, relegated O’Shaughnessy to the survivors list.

This kind of skittish treatment of O’Shaugnessy provoked a different kind of story: The one focused not on Ride’s life, but on her life partner.

International Business Times
 ran a story on O'Shaughnessy and said she was by Ride's side throughout the astronaut's 17-month battle with cancer. O'Shaughnessy isn’t quoted but they do give readers an idea of who Ride’s partner was: a scientist, author and former athlete.

The Advocate
, of course, had the story with a strong gay angle. It revealed, among other things, that Ride and O’Shaughnessey had known each other since they were 12-year-old tennis phenoms. The Advocate also features a photo of the two of them at an American Library Association conference, the only one I’ve seen so far.

And The New Civil Rights Movement took the bold step of actually calling Ride a lesbian, which set off reader comments.

Best story on the same sex angle? Buzzfeed, hands down. They got an interview with Ride’s gay sister, Bear (not making that up), that so far appears exclusive. Bear Ride is probably a bit too enthusiastic about her sister’s posthumous coming out, but her story is the only one that gives us an idea of what Sally Ride’s relationship was like with O’Shaughnessy for nearly half her life.

Perhaps, though, Ride’s mainstream obits might have told a fuller story by simply treating O’Shaughnessy in the same way they would any other accomplished long-term spouse: by identifying her before the last graph, by briefly acknowledging her achievements, and perhaps getting a quote or two from her — not just from her ex-husband of a zillion years ago.