Sally Ride's Unexpected Legacy


First Posted: 07/26/2012 2:59 pm Updated: 10/09/2012 5:17 pm

When I posted my thoughts about the passing of Sally Ride last week, I received some wonderful comments and emails, but none more poignant -- and heartfelt -- than an essay by my gifted friend, writer Roseann Henry. In her essay, Roseann explores the unexpected twist in this week’s story: the revelation that Sally had been in a relationship with a woman for 27 years, and what that means to gay couples across the country. Here are Roseann’s thoughts. --MT, MarloThomas.com


By Roseann Henry


My partner of 19 years told me as soon as I walked in the door: “Did you hear Sally Ride died?”

I don’t share her fascination with celebrity obits, so I don’t normally have much of a reaction to news that starts with “did you hear who died?” -- it’s usually Andy Griffith, or Kitty Wells, or someone else who had made their mark and whose time had come. But Sally Ride? This one made me stop in my tracks.

“She was sixty-one, pancreatic cancer,” she continued without my having to ask (she’s done this before). “It was just a blip on NPR, I heard it in the car.”

Just a blip? First American woman in space, role model to a generation of girls, smart and accessible and good-humored about those crazy questions she had to take, an astronaut and a tennis champ, no less? And she just got a blip? Clearly the media had been blindsided, with no obit prepared in advance for someone not expected to die quite yet.

By the next morning the media had caught up and we listened as the fuller obit came over the radio -- the amazing litany of accomplishment, the look back into the frenzy of “first woman” milestones that was once a regular part of the news. And as we listened over coffee, the obit ended with the usual “survived by” roster that ended with the kicker: “… and her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy.”

Whoa. Our eyes met, and I have no doubt that my partner of 19 years was probably wondering what this would spark in me. Me, the loudmouthed and opinionated one of the family, the one who shakes with rage over the insidious homophobia that insults me and my family and that so badly damages kids. The one who needs to be out to everyone in a one-woman campaign to make the world understand that we are not freaks, we are not immoral or sinful, and we are not just misguided souls making poor lifestyle choices. What would I find to say about this?

“Last?” I said. “They put her last?”

She laughed -- “that’s all you’ve got?”

Two days later I had a lot more. I’d read the insipid online comments about Dr. Ride’s relationship, and about who was allowed to express condolences or posthumously claim her as their own. I’d thought a lot about why Dr. Ride would have felt it necessary to keep her relationship a secret -- not private, as some say, but a secret. (Nobody keeps a straight marriage private.)

I’d thought a lot about Dr. O'Shaughnessy, too, especially when I heard she and her partner of 27 years had written the obit together, deliberately placing the big news in that kicker. Did they know as they wrote it what a little firestorm they’d kick up? Did they realize that, whatever the consequences, that only one of them would be facing the fire, alone? I hoped Dr. O'Shaughnessy has a nice thick skin as she takes on the controversy during her time of grief.

But mostly I thought about the Defense of Marriage Act, that destructive, despicable 1996 law that does so much to damage gay families. I thought about that big life insurance policy I currently have to carry to help my partner of 19 years pay the taxes on my half of our house if I die. (She’ll basically have to buy the house again, rather than just claim title to it as my spouse, even though we are legally married.) I thought about the crazy tax return dance we do each year, with the single-for-the Feds and married-for-New-York versions we need to file, figuring out which of us claims which of our two children and how to divvy up the charitable donations.

And I thought about our family. We are, in a lot of ways, not a modern household but a 1950s one, with a primary wage-earner and a stay-at-home mom shuttling the kids to camp and baseball games and piano lessons -- “Married Filing Jointly” was crafted with a family like ours in mind, but we can’t use it. I thought about the myriad other benefits of marriage we don’t have, and that Drs. Ride and O'Shaughnessy didn’t have, thanks to DOMA.

I have no idea if Dr. Ride and Dr. O'Shaughnessy would have married if they could have. I don’t know that many straight couples who stay together for 27 years without tying the knot, so I have to guess that in a different world -- or in a different time -- they would have. I have no idea how they planned their finances or what steps they took in advance to protect themselves from the calamitous financial consequences of dying under DOMA. I do know that the law is only a reflection of the deep-seated fear, misconceptions, and biases about gay people that for some reason refuse to be shaken loose.

I never think of DOMA without thinking of whose signature is on it. Bill Clinton was supposed to be our president, taking the baton from the Greatest Generation and moving it down the track into the future. Our future, when the old bigotries about the color of our skin or any other bits of DNA baked into us were distant memories. And he caved and put his signature on a document that haunts us, and hurts us, in very real ways.

I do know the time has come to repeal this unconscionable law that enshrines bigotry on our books. I call on our dysfunctional Congress to come together on this one and strike down a law that makes no sense on a legal level (states’ rights, anyone?) as well as on a personal one. And I call on President Obama to lead the charge on repeal, to undo the damage President Clinton did.

Because really, my partner of 19 years can’t afford for me to die until that happens.

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