Sally Ride was very good at keeping secrets. As the first American woman in space, she protected countless confidences during a lifetime of public appearances. During her post-NASA years, she regularly wrote and reviewed classified government material on high-profile commissions. When she died in 2012 of pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis hidden from all but a tiny handful of family and close friends, I started unraveling the mysteries for her biography. She was a brilliant, mischievous enigma.
But the most surprising revelation was the one that came at the end of her obituary: that for 27 years, she’d been in a loving relationship with another woman, Tam O’Shaughnessy. The collective gasp from an admiring public reverberated for days. A small minority complained that she’d squandered an opportunity to speak out for their rights. A few spouted homophobic hatred. Selfishly, as her pal of more than three decades, I was stunned; hurt, that I did not know Sally fully, that I could not celebrate her happiness with Tam. Then I thought, why does her sexual orientation matter? Finally, I got it.
Never before had the words astronaut and lesbian appeared in the same sentence. Google them today, and you get more than half a million hits, all pegged to Sally Ride. Most salute her as an icon with an added, posthumous message of hope for the LGBTQ community. So why the secrecy?
What made this 61-year-old pioneer—so bold in her actions, so non-traditional in her choice of careers and devotion to science; this baby-boomer whose life had been transformed by the space age and the social revolution of the ’60s and ’70s—keep silent, so long, about being gay?
Sally never explained her decision. Resolutely guarded and a superb compartmentalizer, she kept her own counsel on this, as on so many other topics. In a world that has increasingly tweeted its innermost feelings to strangers, she protected most of hers. And buried others. Her sister, Bear Ride, wryly chalks it up to their mother’s Norwegian ancestry. “Tight-lipped,” she calls it. That was her DNA. But little hints make it clear that even Sally could bend to public pressure, yet another example of the shame and fear that an intolerant (or uninformed) society can inflict even on its heroes. Start with the hero factory itself.
Established as a civilian agency in 1958, NASA turned to the military for its earliest astronauts, forever equating the test pilot mentality with the myth of male supremacy. In that conservative macho culture, women were summarily excluded and same-sex relationships were as welcome as an invasion of Klingons. “Other” was unacceptable. “Gay” didn’t fly. No one asked about sexual orientation because it wasn’t on the radar. That’s how the world worked then.
By 1977, with the national social consciousness rising and NASA seeking more non-military scientists for the new space shuttle program, along with the first women and minorities, the possibility of a gay astronaut was still, according to one of Sally’s classmates, beyond contemplation. That’s certainly how I saw it when I started covering NASA a few years later. And when Sally lifted off in June 1983, she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley (having wed in a private family ceremony that had only been revealed to the press one month after the fact), a five-year bond that dissolved into a lifetime friendship. By then, she and Tam were together, although few knew and no one talked.
Later, Sally and Tam and three other colleagues co-founded Sally Ride Science, to encourage middle-school girls to study science, math, and technology, constantly urging parents and educators to avoid stereotypical views of young women. But as same-sex relationships grew more accepted around the country, they continued to shield theirs from all but a tight circle, so focused on building their company and not ruffling investors’ feathers—“corporate America is really nervous about gay women,” Tam told me—that they may have missed the revolution.
“Sally didn’t want to be defined by the lesbian/gay label just as she didn’t want to be defined by a gender label,” Tam said. “We both didn’t like categories, didn’t want to define ourselves by our sexuality.”
In the end, Tam turned things around. With Sally in her final days, the two women started to plan a celebration of her life—an event for After that took their minds off Now. But Tam saw the disconnect, and asked Sally how she—Tam—should identify herself at the party. Sally considered the question and then said: “I want you to decide. Whatever you want to say, how much you want to say, is fine with me.” Later she added, “Being open about us might be very hard on NASA and the astronaut corps. But I’m OK with that. Whatever you think is right is fine with me.”
Sally died several days later. She never saw the obituary that Tam wrote for the company website, documenting their history. Totally missed her own coming-out party. Being the first American woman in space was an honor that Sally never sought: She just wanted to fly. But she embraced the symbolism and served as a spectacular role model for nearly 30 years. Being the poster child for gay astronauts might well have robbed her of whatever privacy she had left.
Still, as her friend and biographer, I like to think that she’d appreciate this chance to set the record straight, to remove the burden of secrecy and enjoy the freedom of being herself in a world learning to deal with difference.
At the Johnson Space Center next month, the LGBT employees group will honor her as part of Gay Pride ceremonies. She is, after all, the only openly gay astronaut. So far.
And I wish she could know the support of her mother, Joyce, an unreconstructed lefty at 92, describing the love of her father, Dale, who died a Republican to his roots in 1989.* I asked Joyce how Dale might have dealt with the fact that Sally and her sister, Bear, both turned out to be lesbians. “I think he would have accepted it,” Joyce Ride told me. “He was very proud of both of them, so fond of both of them, he would have accepted anything.”
“Which,” I asked, “might have concerned him more—that his daughters were gay or that they were Democrats?”
“Probably,” she said, “that they were Democrats.”
*Correction, June 1, 2014: This piece originally misstated the year that Sally Ride's father died. We also corrected the photo caption after learning that the photo agency was wrong about when it was taken.