Sally Ride, RIP

Last week, we learned that Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut, died at the age of 61, after a 17 month battle with Pancreatic Cancer — a cancer that I am intimately familiar with and one that seems to be striking more frequently.

Apparently, Dr. Ride was a very private person and most people did not know that she was fighting this battle.  Another fact that most people did not know until her death was that Dr. Ride had been in a relationship with another woman for the previous 27 years.

I had the honor of meeting Sally Ride at the opening of a solar farm in Nevada.  She was one of the keynote speakers at the event.  I don’t remember what we said to each other and I didn’t even ask her for her autograph.  But I really did want to shake her hand because I felt that she had done so much for paving the way for women in Science.

I was dismayed to read that some people felt that Dr. Ride had done a disservice to the cause of securing equal rights to same sex partners by not coming out while she was still alive.  In my opinion, Dr. Ride took the most intelligent and most effective route for both the cause of providing accessibility in the sciences for women and forging a deeper path in providing equality for same sex couples.  While she was alive, she focused on being a role model for other women who might want to enter into the field of Science.  With her death and the divulgence of her sexual orientation, she became another instrument, among many, of working at shattering that glass ceiling.

I have to ask those who criticized her decision to wait until after she had passed away to “come out” —  if one were to weight the positive impact with the widest reach — whether Sally Ride would have done better to represent herself as a gay Scientist?  Would anyone believe, in our sex-obsessed society, that  this would have furthered the cause of making the field of Science more accessible for women in general, regardless of sexual orientation?  Rather, I believe, it would have closed doors.  And who better to know that than Dr. Ride?

It is one thing to have Ellen DeGeneres, a Comedian, an entertainer, come out — and remember the flap that occurred around that and how negatively her life was impacted by taking this stand — and quite another for a Scientist of Dr. Ride’s re-known to come out.  What would have become the focus?  Could she have continued to pursue her career in the way she felt best if she was always being put forth as the poster child of the gay community?  Probably not.  And one can only conjecture what would have become of her career had she publicly taken a stance for gay rights as a gay woman.

We are certainly closer, as a society, in tolerating same sex relationships, although we still have further to go.  But to criticize Dr. Ride’s decision to keep her sexual orientation private while alive, well, hm, I don’t think that does anything for furthering the cause.

© Yvonne Behrens 2012