Privacy As The Enemy

by David Link on July 25, 2012

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.

{ 22 comments }

Richard Bottoms July 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Dear, Andrew the advice, when in a hole stop digging applies.

Your insulting tone towards Ms. Ride’s choice to refrain from joining the political struggle is petty, and as has happened several times recently will prove to be something you’ll end up apologizing for sooner rather than later.

Holding up Mary Cheney as some kind of brave soul given the outright evil the GOP not just tolerates but encourages against gays is ridiculous on its face.

So Dick Cheney loves his daughter, big deal, even you know who liked puppies. And frankly you supported that psycho political party until pretty damn recently so you can just shut the hell up about doing harm to gays & lesbians.

So Sally Ride died without marching in a pride parade, well tell you what bub, you sit on top a couple million pounds of high explosives and rocket into space, then get back to me about bravery.

Stephen Clark July 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Why is it that when people like Richard Bottoms make themselves apologists for closet cases, they always belittle coming out and seeking gay equality with some demeaning metaphor like “marching in a pride parade”? It really tells us more about the Richard Bottomses of the world that anything else. Here’s what else Ride’s hiding in the closet prevented her from ever doing: getting married, being honest about her relationship with her CEO, testifying against the erstwhile ban on granting security clearances to gay people, doing anything other than stand by silently as gay kids kill themselves one after another.

Richard Bottoms July 25, 2012 at 4:59 pm

The past looks completely different now that gay people can get married and even Dick Cheney is in the pride parade, sure was a different story thirty years ago.

I am a straight back man, so I’ll give my personal perspective.

My father take crap as a black man that they would have had to kill me before I would have stood for it by the time I was a teenager.

But that time was nearly 15 years after Emmett Till was hung and we were not to far removed from the Birmingham bombing that killed three little girls and King was assassinated.

So we stood up and said no more.

That didn’t make my father any less courageous, just another man from another time probably as brave as he could be and not be lynched. Despite the indignity of a newly made lieutenant riding in a Jim Crow car he went off to fight for his country in WWII.

Sally Ride was brave, braver than Andrew Sullivan. Her choice was hers to make, and I find others judging it to be appalling.

Stephen Clark July 25, 2012 at 8:22 pm

@Richard, Sally Ride didn’t die in 1983. She died in 2012, after spending 27 years hiding in her closet. Obviously coming out in 1983 would have been extremely hard for her. Fine. So why didn’t she come out in 1993? Or 2003? Billie Jean King wasn’t out when she won her tennis matches, but she has embraced her lesbian identity for years. And she’s older than Ride.

Yes, indeed, everyone can control their own coming out. As long as they aren’t actively working against the gay community, they shouldn’t be outed. But that doesn’t mean we’re all required to respect the choices that people make. People have freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to agree with their choice of what to say. Nor are we required to quietly accept it without expressing our own opinion of it.

The black experience is only imperfectly transferable to the gay context. One way it is not is the issue of coming out. While there are some people of color who can “pass,” most cannot. Being gay is different. With us, the primary driver of progress has been coming out. It was Harvey Milk’s insight. And polls today confirm it. The single factor that best predicts favorable opinions of gay equality is personally knowing someone who is gay. When someone who could be influential hides in the closet, even when there appears to be no compelling reason for it, the rest of us are allowed to have an opinion about it. (Having a partner for 27 years indicates, for example, that Ride was not still struggling with coming to terms with her sexual identity.)

During her 27 years with a lesbian partner, Ride benefited from a society that grew vastly more accommodating of us gay folks. That didn’t just happen by accident. But as far as I can tell, she did not anything to contribute to it. Link is right in that regard; she was free-riding. She was perhaps equivalent to African Americans who resisted your standing up and saying no and preferred to cling to the old, subordinate ways.

Now, as for your closing line, suffice it to say that I find it appalling for an outsider to pass judgment on one side in an intra-community debate among gay folks about sexual orientation and gay rights.

susmart July 25, 2012 at 10:52 pm

@Steven / I’m with Richard Bottoms, who was making the point that each generation benefits from the previous one. Even if they just *stayed alive.*

You don’t like that “an outsider” ( a straight man) was passing judgement… in an intra-community debate among gay folks…” Well, as a lesbian, I don’t like YOU as a gay MAN, criticizing a woman for what YOU think she should have done.

Richard Bottoms July 25, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Oh snap!

Richard Bottoms July 25, 2012 at 11:32 pm

You know exactly squat about what I have done for or about gay, lesbian, transgender or sexual rights.

Let’s start with I couldn’t be in this year’s SF Pride Parade because I was too busy taking pictures of it. Nice parade, but employment is probably an even more valued commodity.

When you’ve employed more than few transgendered women, lesbians & gay men as software developers giving them paychecks and not just yay-rah moral support (which along with $2.50 will buy you a coffee at Starbucks) you get back to me about contributing.

My upset is at Andrew Sullivan who helped the GOP attain the power it has, and appoint the Supreme Courts justices who are making all our lives hell. His late recognition of the racist, homophobic, anti-science craziness of the Republican party has come too damn late for him to be criticizing anyone about what they did or did not do politically.

Throbert McGee July 25, 2012 at 6:51 pm

+1 to Richard Bottoms for his comments on Sally Ride
-1 to Richard Bottoms for his comments on Mary Chaney
-10 to David Link for his comments on both women
-1000 to Stephen Clark for “OMG won’t someone plz think of the suicidal gay children???!!”

I would point out that heterosexual women in the Armed Forces often have to deal with rumors/accusations/stereotypes that they’re all lesbians — so by staying quiet about her sexual orientation, Sally Ride avoided contributing to the “they’re all dykes” stereotype that affects women in uniform.

I would further observe that if Sally Ride had come out, there would’ve been no shortage of fault-finders in the “Rainbow Flag Community” complaining that she was white and a cis-woman! Plus, for all I know, maybe she occasionally liked to smoke pot, or was really into golden showers.

Why, exactly, would high-profile closeted homosexuals want to subject themselves to the intense public hyper-scrutiny and criticism of “Oh, you’re a role model for privileged bourgeois gender-conforming queers, but not a role model for transsexual working-class persons of color!!!” or “Oh, you’re a bad role model for LGBT youth because you like to toke up and get peed on!!!”

Mark F. July 25, 2012 at 7:33 pm

IGF is bringing out the nuts again. Thorbert , you are totally silly. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion on Sally Ride’s not coming out. The closet is the enemy and Dr. Ride could have done a lot of good by coming out publically. That said, she was a heroic person in many ways. Just not heroic in helping to advance gay rights. That’s too bad.

tristram July 25, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Whenever someone in (or connected to) the “gay community” does anything – even die – the stilettos quickly strike from one direction or another. I’m used to that. But having come to expect reasoned and respectful columns from David Link, I was disappointed to read this nasty bit of commentary. “Nobody loves Aunt Sally more than I do, but did you know . . . .” followed by several paragraphs of derision.

How many revolutions does one person have to lead? I can only imagine the battles that Sally Ride fought day in and day out as a girl/woman who aspired and acted in the 1960′s, 70′s, 80′s to be a scientist and an astronaut. Battles not just to have a career in a highly competitive part of a world made of, by and for men, but to maintain her physical safety and human dignity. Did she choose her cause, and was it a great and difficult one? Yes. Did she devote her life to it and fight for it until she was felled at a relatively young age by a dread disease? Yes, to all appearances. Did she help change our world for the better? Absolutely. Could she have achieved as much for that cause as an out lesbian? No way. Did there come a time when the balance might have tipped and she could have come out publicly without setting back the cause that had been her life’s work? Quite surely, but I’m not so wise as to think I can appoint the day. (Facile comparisons to Mary Cheney, Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga, notwithstanding.)

To state (or imply) that this woman, whose sister has been a leader for many years in the fight for gay rights, was somehow oblivious to our issues, or too selfish or too timid to take up the cause, is terribly unfair. To look back, with the benefit of perfect hindsight, on her life and make a whole string of derogatory assumptions and judgments demonstrates a massive failure of empathy and decency.

It’s kind of funny that David Link, with his apparently fabulous gaydar, never figured Sally Ride for a lesbian. People who grew up in the world I knew would have assumed that she was a ‘dyke’ – along with any woman who (unlike Phyllis Schlafly, Shirley Temple Black or Anita Bryant) didn’t ‘know her place.’

And in the end, Sally Ride did come out. It’s my understanding that the memorial notice posted on her website was the source of the information about her relationship that has echoed throughout gaydom – that she wanted her true identity to be part of her legacy. So she is with us now. Let’s welcome her, let’s comfort her grieving partner (whom she met at the age of 12 and was with for over 20 years – my heart breaks for her), let’s reach out to her family and to all the people she has encourage and inspired and show them that now and then we can put the judgment aside and be a community.

tristram July 25, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Okay, well, I feel better now.

There are a number of modifications I could make to that little rant, but one I have to:

” massive failure of empathy and decency” is way over the line – I would say “an uncharacteristic (for the author) failure of insight and empathy.”

Stephen Clark July 25, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Well, thank goodness you’ve succeeded in making yourself feel better. The rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief.

Your call to come together as a community is a bit hollow, given your mocking tone throughout much of the comment. (I’ve never worn stilettos. Sorry, bad fag.)

The mockery was also odd because you ended up nullifying much of your own complaint about Link’s piece: “Did there come a time when the balance might have tipped and she could have come out publicly without setting back the cause that had been her life’s work? Quite surely, but I’m not so wise as to think I can appoint the day.”

So your argument reduces to saying no one should criticize Ride for hiding in the closet for 27 years until we can agree upon the split second when it would have made sense for her to come out. But that’s an exceedingly weak objection (particularly when juxtaposed against the degree of mockery in your tone) since you concede that “Quite surely” the moment came and went without nary a peep from Ride. So maybe you think the moment was 2010 and maybe I think it was 2004 and maybe somebody else thinks it was 1992. We all agree that it came and went and she did nothing.

To the extent you object to anyone criticizing Ride for not being out in 1983 when she became the first woman in space, I haven’t seen anyone level that criticism, so you’re just knocking down a straw man (with a pointlessly mocking tone).

As for why she didn’t come out, all we have is her sister’s rather ridiculous claim that it was because, as a Norwegian, Ride prized her privacy. And privacy is precisely the rationalization for hiding that Link quite correctly rejected as acceptable. Ride’s own sister then appears not to have a very compelling explanation for the privacy. Perhaps she didn’t want to disappoint the straight women who had put her on a pedestal. Maybe that’s a legitimate reason, maybe not.

However the debate plays out, let’s not hypocritically call for unity and decency after a post full of weak criticisms wrapped in a mocking tone.

tristram July 26, 2012 at 12:06 am

I knew my opening line would bring footwear to mind for
certain readers.

My tone was a modestly amplified echo of Mr. Link’s throughout his piece – maybe a bit more flip, but less disparaging. In fact, it was probably Link’s tone as much as the substance that set me off.

I believe that living open, authentic lives is our greatest weapon in the fight for equality. But not that it’s the only weapon or even the best one for everybody. I think Sally Ride made the considered judgment that she could do the most good for the most people, including gay people, by living her public life publicly and her private life privately. And I don’t think she should be disparaged for that.

Sally Ride was a fighter for women’s equality her entire life – and in the arena in which she chose to fight, the struggle continues. Her coming out at any point before 2008 would have severed her ties to NASA. Coming out posthumously will probably erase her name from the schoolbooks in Texas and a lot of the other states where her example is still needed most. As it is, I think she did more for gay rights by empowering girls and women than she would have by emailing – at any point in her life – a declaration of sexual preference to Andrew Sullivan.

Houndentenor July 25, 2012 at 11:18 pm

Who says she wasn’t out? It doesn’t sound like it was any secret to friends and family. In what way was she in the closet? Was she suppose to hold a press conference? Would anyone have covered it?

Her accomplishments as an astronaut speak for themselves. But she was hardly a news item in the last decade or two. I doubt it occurred to her that it was something she needed to announce to the world. No one was harmed by not knowing she was gay. No one.

Houndentenor July 25, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Also, Mary Cheney was out by at least the early 90s. She wasn’t in the closet.

I think we need to define what “the closet” is. If you are out but haven’t had a press conference or a Newsweek cover proclaiming that you are gay, you are still out. If you have a sham marriage and campaign against gay rights while sneaking off to have gay sex, then you deserve to be outed. But people just minding their own business shouldn’t feel obligated to talk about their personal lives any more than they want.

Jorge July 25, 2012 at 11:24 pm

+1 to Richard Bottoms for his comments on Sally Ride
-1 to Richard Bottoms for his comments on Mary Chaney
-10 to David Link for his comments on both women

I agree 100% (the last point Thobert makes is I think exaggerated). This is one of the most disgusting blog posts I’ve ever read on this site.

I’ll tell you what. Sally Ride was a feminist hero. It was only today that I learned she was in a long term lesbian relationship (her partner “Tam”?). So be it. I do not begrudge her for being a public feminist hero instead of a public gay hero, even by choice.

Yet I hope that gay youth will be able to draw inspiration from the fact that even in pre-equality days, there were gays with the integrity and power to remain in a long-term committed gay relationship, regardless of what others chose to think.

Sally Ride “took advantage” of nothing. We have gay elderly couples who have been together since before Stonewall, so don’t give us that bullcrap, Mr. Link. Even in the years when it may not have hurt her socially or otherwise to have come out of the closet (publicly), she chose not to take advantage of growing acceptance of gays.

It is bad enough that we have to deal with all anti-gay vitriol from the religious right. But that is nothing, nothing at all, David Link, to the hate you and other self-righteous holier than thou gays spit–even on people’s graves–at people who aren’t “gay enough” for you–even on their graves. It is sentiments like that which make it more sensible for people to remain closeted.

Jorge July 25, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Yeech! Wish they had a preview option on this site. My comments start at the second paragraph.

Mark F. July 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Nobody is spitting on Sally Ride’s grave. She was a decent , heroic person. I just think it is unfortunate she couldn’t bring herself to be more out. An Anderson Cooper style announcement, maybe a word in support of same sex marriage-that sort of thing- would have meant a lot. It wouldn’t have meant giving up her “privacy.”

Richard Bottoms July 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm

I get where you’re coming from, but may I point out Anderson Cooper has been with CNN for 11 years and he came out when?

Sometimes being out to your family and friends is heroic enough. It could lead to a straight brother standing for the rights that are important to his sister.

It lets average people know that they have to say something when the “jokes” are told and an effort to ensure the places they work hire and promote “everybody.”

Doesn’t require shouting it from the rooftops, sometimes a brief announcement at Thanksgiving is enough or making sure that space is reserved at Christmas for sis and her partner.

Jorge July 27, 2012 at 9:14 am

Anderson Cooper, like it or not (and I like it not) is a public figure and a celebrity. I have doubts on the comparison.

DCBuck August 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm

What a sanctimonious, condescending, and hypocritical piece of drivel this is. Mr. Link, whatever her decisions for not expressing the level of activism you and Sullivan deem “appropriate” is entirely her own business and NOT YOURS. How on Earth do you know what her reasons were for not waving a rainbow flag out in the middle of the streets were? How do you know what she really did or not do for gay people? Bottom line: her reasons for living her life the way she did are her own and, hopefully, if she were alive and you confronted her because she wasn’t meeting your apparent standards for anyone who has achieved a certain level of notoriety, she’d rightly tell you to cram it, and mind your own business.

Mark F. August 6, 2012 at 8:09 pm

“But people just minding their own business shouldn’t feel obligated to talk about their personal lives any more than they want.”

Of course they aren’t obligated. But how come straight people never think twice about letting the world know that they are straight?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: