Bryan, your piece on Sally Ride’s posthumous exit from the closet offers two ways to see her choice not to reveal her relationship with partner Tam O’Shaughnessy in her lifetime: “Call it a personal choice or call it a flaw,” you wrote. But how about a third option? Let’s call it a sign of the times.
Consider the three high-profile people who came out this month: 24-year-old R&B singer Frank Ocean, 45-year-old television news anchor Anderson Cooper, and 61-year-old astronaut Sally Ride. I can’t help but chart the promising cultural evolution evidenced by this rule-of-three. Ride came out after the fact, in a line in her obituary. Cooper came out matter-of-factly—“The fact is,” he wrote in a published letter to Andrew Sullivan, “I’m gay”—at the height of his career. And Ocean came out as a work of art—through a screenshot of a draft of a diary-style confession posted to his Tumblr, just before the release of his first studio album. The word “gay” does not appear in his note.
Coming out is an intensely personal decision, and these three different strategies do square with each person’s public persona—Ride the scientist, Cooper the newsman, Ocean the artist. As you note, Bryan, Ride’s sister, Bear, attributed Ride’s choice to personality, too: “Sally was a profoundly private person. It was just part of who she was,” she said.
But coming out is not simply an individual choice—it’s a public act, too. Yes, Ride’s silence was a product of “who she was,” but it was also a product of who we all are—and who we used to be. Ride and Cooper and Ocean may have come out in the same month, but their admissions were each separated by two decades of cultural shifts toward the acceptance of gays in America. Someday, we’ll view their announcements as cultural artifacts that reveal the peculiar history of American homophobia, charted through time.