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Sally Ride’s Posthumous Outing Sparks Debate

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Wednesday Sep 26, 2012

Sally Ride will be remembered for the many accomplishments she achieved throughout her 61-years. But most of us will always associate her with being the first American woman to enter space.

After the pioneering astronaut lost her 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer in July, however, many will now recognize her as the first gay person to enter the Last Frontier.

Ride was an extremely private individual. So it wasn't until her obituaries were published that the public learned of her sexual identity. On July 23, her private life became knowledge when the New York Times and other media outlets casually referred to her longtime partner, and millions of people found out that Ride was a lesbian.

Toward the end of the Times' obituary, nine words revealed an entire world Ride kept secret and told the public she had been in a same-sex relationship for nearly three decades with Tam O'Shaughnessy, who is the chief operating officer and executive vice president for Sally Ride Science and an emeritus professor at San Diego State University.

"Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years," the obit reads.

Ride's sister, Bear Ride, who is also a lesbian, told Buzzfeed that her sister wanted her private life to remain private while she was alive. Many people did not know about her struggles with cancer and certainly not about her sexuality.

"People did not know she had pancreatic cancer, that's going to be a huge shock. For 17 months, nobody knew," Bear Ride said. "Everyone does now." There is a memorial fund being established in her honor to fight this form of cancer.

"The pancreatic cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there's now this advocate that they didn't know about -- and I hope the GLBT community feels the same," she said. "I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them."

Respecting One’s Privacy? Or a Selfish Choice?

But after Ride’s posthumous outing, many wondered aloud if the astronaut couldn’t have done even more good had she revealed her sexuality while alive and promoting science and technology programs to school students. A number of young girls looked up to her for her achievements in space but perhaps if Ride was living openly, the trailblazer could have inspired LGBT youth as well.

Barbara Belmont, a lesbian chemist, wrote in the San Francisco Bay Times that she, for one, believes if Ride was upfront about her sexuality, she would have been a valuable role model for lesbian teens and young adults.

"If only the world had known Sally Ride was gay, we LGBT scientists might have enjoyed more visibility and recognition," Belmont wrote. "If we had known, we could have had a mentor-muse, our role-model, a spokesperson! Ah, but Sally Ride was a very private person, and would never have agreed to being such an icon."

For some of those who live in the public eye, however, perhaps for Ride herself, coming out isn’t always that simple, despite the good it could possibly do for the community.

Carla Lundblade, a Beverly Hills licensed clinical therapist who specializes in treating celebrity and sports figures, told EDGE that people in the public eye face a slew of pressures when deciding to come out of the closet.

"Some individuals are not public about their personal lives, especially their sexuality and it is always the best choice for people to honor what they feel," Lundblade said. "I think it is an individual choice to come out, and I think there are many people who would come forward if it were their own choice."

The therapist said that a celebrity’s management can get in the way of their coming out, however.

"Oftentimes in celebrities’ careers, they will create a public image of what managers want but not what the celebrity themselves really want to portray," she said. "Sometimes a celebrity would want to come out because it is their personal choice, but they don’t because of the industry or because of other people say it’s not a good career move. But doing what they personally feel is the best choice."

Coming Out When It Feels ’Right’

Everybody has the right to come out when it feels right for them, said Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, who echoed Lundblade’s opinion.

"I think we need to respect the decisions made by celebrities," he said. "But I think when they do choose to come out they can serve as a role model for LGBT youth and adults as well."

The biggest difference between a celebrity coming out and an individual not in the public eye is that the "world is watching them," he added. Although they face most of the same pressures, celebrities have an "extra burden of everybody watching."

"It’s not always an easy thing to do, for celebrities or for anyone else," Guequierre told EDGE. "That extra pressure would add to someone not wanting to come out."

Younger celebrities may find it more difficult to come out as some depend on their looks to gain a large fan base and to score job opportunities. "It depends on the career but young celebrities’ careers that are generated by their attractiveness and sex appeal, can find it difficulty in coming out," Lundblade noted. "They could suffer financially because coming out could alienate half of their fan base and they could lose projects and career opportunities."

The best celebrity careers come from individuals who are "working and presenting themselves in an authentic way that works with the way they are as individuals," she added.

Neil Patrick Harris: An Easy (Self-)Outing

Neil Patrick Harris, 39, an actor best known for his roles in "Doogie Howser, M.D." and "How I Met Your Mother," may have had one of the most successful coming out stories in Hollywood.

The movie star confirmed his sexuality in November 2006 with a simple public statement: "I am happy to dispel any rumors or misconceptions and am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest and feel most fortunate to be working with wonderful people in the business I love."

It was as simple as that. Since then, not only has the press not made Harris’ sexual identity an issue, but he continues to shine in roles that call for him to romance women and play sexually aggressive horn dog types.

More recently, this summer rising R&B singer Frank Ocean, 24, announced that his first love was with a man. He generally received strong support in the hip-hop world, which had had a reputation as a bastion of homophobia.

Young celebrities may benefit from being "omnisexual," according to Lunblade. It is "very important at the beginning of their career to not alienate one group," she added. "Not talking about their sexual life is a very respectful way to go about it."

Ocean may become the poster boy for a successful coming out for a romantic singer. Having been embraced by the rap community, Ocean has scored impressive gigs, including MTV’s "2012 Video Music Awards" and the latest episode of "Saturday Night Live."

Soon after Ocean came out, Hollywood public relations honcho Howard Bragman (himself gay) defended celebrities’ right to decide when to come out in a New York Times op-ed.

"If we suggested that gay celebrities have a moral obligation to come out, then any celebrity would have the same responsibility to acknowledge any hidden situation whose disclosure could theoretically help society," Bragman wrote. "The heartbreak of psoriasis? Do a public service announcement. A victim of sexual abuse? You need to go talk about it on ’The View.’

"Obviously this is a ridiculous standard. We’re talking about people’s romantic lives, which are, by definition, notoriously confusing and fickle," he added.

Bragman did note that almost all celebrities who do come out are freer and happier. (Rupert Everett may be the sole exception.) Once people like the CNN anchor and daytime talkshow host Anderson Cooper announced that he was gay, they are living an "authentic life." Bragman concluded that he believes stars who wish to keep their sexuality a secret "are not being immoral, just silly."

Outing v. Being Outed

"Anybody in the public eye is a role model," Lundblade told EDGE. "What they do is viewed by millions. You cannot be in the public eye without influencing other people, especially young people. When I help patients come out, I’m showing them how to be authentic and how they express that is the best way to be a role model and the most authentic."

While it is difficult to urge closeted public figures to come out, Eric Anderson, a (gay) professor of sport studies at the University of Winchester, wrote in a companion piece to Bragman’s Times op-ed that he wishes they would.

"It is a long-standing sociological finding that when liked people come out, it reduces prejudice," Anderson wrote. "I’m not convinced that an openly gay sports star would have much impact on today’s youth, but it might make a difference for those who grew up in a more homophobic generation."

For some, choosing when to come out isn’t an option. Rather, they are outed by circumstances beyond their control.

Retiring Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Barney Frank was outed in the mid-’80s after he hired an escort who, unbeknownst to him, used his home to run an escort service. Former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey reluctantly announced "I am a gay American" after a former security aide filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. In the subsequent scandal, revelations about highway rest stop cruising ended his marriage and political career.

"At a point in every person’s life, one has to look deeply into the mirror of one’s soul and decide one’s unique truth in the world, not as we may want to see it or hope to see it, but as it is," McGreevey said in his resignation speech.

"It really depends on the individual and gets back to who they would like to express themselves to be authentic," Lundblade noted. "This is a dilemma for all of us. We learn things from our parents and our church and then we transition to young adulthood we then learn how we want to be. That’s human to do that. Some of us choose to be authentic early on some chose later, some never chose. And that’s a choice. I completely support the individual choice."

Even though the world is watching a celebrity, it does not necessarily mean the public figure’s coming out could help the LGBT community.

"Some people simply don’t want to live their lives so openly and we have to honor that," Sharon O’Neill, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York and author of "A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage: Gay Edition," told EDGE. "People need to be really careful about pushing someone into coming out.

"Everybody who is in their community, whether gay or whatever, can be a leader. But for some, it’s just something they have to be comfortable with."


  • Oh Jed said:, 2012-09-26 16:02:50

    Her decision not to come out earlier was for nobody but her and her partner’s to make. It in no way deminishes her remarkable accomplishments and role model status for gay youth in America. It just happens to be the current and future youth. The saddest part is that she will never know if she was the inspirational drive behind future LGBT superstars.

  • gdhamf, 2012-09-29 06:36:10

    agreed. Jed, but one thing to consider is that she made a remarkable life and no one can say she used anything as a crutch to speed up her career she did it all on skill and talent. I think I respect that even more!

  • Oh Jed said:, 2012-09-29 10:37:31

    A true pioneer and hero in every sense.

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