Sally Ride is an American hero. She is also an icon for women’s equality.
And, as Andrew Sullivan puts it, she is the absent heroine of the gay rights movement.
That is not necessarily damning. There’s only so much one human being can do with her life.
But I don’t want to let Ride get off as easily as the media is allowing. The New York Times obituary is typically lazy:
Dr. Ride was known for guarding her privacy. She rejected most offers for product endorsements, memoirs and movies, and her reticence lasted to the end. At her request, NASA kept her illness secret.
There are different kinds of privacy. Resisting the commercial temptations of fame is not the same thing as keeping the fact that you have cancer a family matter. And neither of those is the same as staying in the closet.
Ride was born into the two revolutions that directly affected her life: women’s equality and gay equality. She took up one of those revolutions, and rejected the other.
Her life’s work was to make sure girls who were interested in science would not feel the pressure she faced to repress that inner drive. She was instrumental in helping to change that, and the world is better for her accomplishments.
But the gay rights revolution was not her thing. Even those of us who pay close attention had no idea she was a lesbian, much less a woman who had maintained a 27 year relationship with another woman.
No one has an obligation to be politically active. Vito Russo, in the new HBO documentary about his very politically active life, articulates the point well:
This is a good question: What makes people political in their lives? The world is full of injustice. Some people it bothers, some people it doesn’t. Me, it bothers.
The injustice of gay inequality, and particularly the injustice of the closet did not bother Ride. Or, maybe more accurately, it did not bother her enough to do anything with the public side of her life to try and change it. She simply accepted the closet, and took advantage of the work that others were doing on that front in order to live in a not-very-public-but-not-entirely-private lesbian relationship.
She shares this approach to the gay rights revolution with Mary Cheney. They are among the free-riders of this struggle, letting others do the fighting.
The psychological damage that cultural homophobia did to those of Ride’s generation cannot be underestimated, and maybe her passivity can be forgiven or excused or pitied. In the world she grew up in, that brand of privacy was often the only natural protective device that those who lacked Russo’s political spirit and intolerance of injustice had.
But it’s time to retire privacy as the Get Out Of Politics Free Card. Fear can still justify the closet in many places and circumstances. So can personal economic strategy, I suppose. But not privacy. That cramped isolationism is exactly the thing we are fighting. It’s a form of self-indulgence at best, and more often it’s just shame. We should draw a distinction between external forces that make coming out problematic, and internal ones that are corrosive remnants of an older view of homosexuality.
Even heterosexuals are lining up to support our equality today. Ted Olson and David Boies, Lady Gaga and Brad Pitt, Ben Cohen and Scott Fujita are on the front lines of our battle. The bar should be extremely high for any of us to remain aloof from our own fight for our own self-worth. Every homosexual does not need to be out in the streets if they are not politically inclined. But that’s not a matter of privacy, it’s a matter of preference. It should go by its right name.