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Why Sally Ride's Sexual Orientation Matters

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A lot of people seem to think it's wrong or tasteless to focus on astronaut Sally Ride's sexual orientation and her posthumous coming out. The comments on my earlier post are filled with those sentiments:

kevin bone wrote: "If we want to normalize sexual preference, then we need to quit referring to it at all. To me, someone's sexual preference is irrelevant in any item that is not about sexuality."

Iceyrebel: "I prefer to look at a person's life, through their accomplishments high and low, great and small, and appreciate them for that, and without the nonsense sexual preferences thing that people seem to make too much of.."

lovetheworld82: "this is why she chose to hide her orientation for 27 years....because she didn't want to be known as the 'gay astronaut' and she didn't want to be the poster child for gay rights...she just wanted to be left alone about her personal life and focus on bringing science to the world."

It's always interesting when people say it's not important to make note of sexual orientation, or that doing so somehow reduces the person's accomplishments, because in just about every instance they really mean we shouldn't refer to homosexual sexual orientation. The comment that we need to "quit referring" to "sexual preference" doesn't acknowledge that we always refer to heterosexuality in public figures, dead and alive, and no one urges us to "quit referring" to it. We routinely discuss husbands, wives, weddings, divorces, children, affairs and lots of other facts that affirm heterosexuality, whether the subjects want these issues discussed or not, not to mention that without a reference it's simply assumed that someone is straight.

Those who think they're not "referring" to sexual orientation when a subject is quietly gay or bisexual don't seem to realize that they actually are referring to sexual orientation by letting the subject appear heterosexual. In the case of Sally Ride, not focusing on or referring to her partner would only leave the information about her former marriage to a man and her divorce. That in fact was the crux of the battle that ensued over Ride's Wikipedia page this week.

Ride's coming out in her obituary seems to have confounded journalists as well, creating jarringly uneven reporting across the media landscape. While some media organizations ignored or downplayed it, NBCNews.com published an essay from her sister, Bear Ride, who wrote, "I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them." USA Today referred to Ride's partner with no mention of sexual orientation at the outset, but published a story a day later on the debate over Ride's coming out, as did the Associated Press and some other national news outlets. But the New York Times has yet to publish anything about Ride's sexual orientation -- beyond the obituary with the statement about her 27-year relationship, and a mention in a blog post -- prompting the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to call upon the paper to report on it:

If the New York Times is the "paper of record" then it's right now missing a crucial part of that record. It became known that American hero Sally Ride, who passed away this week, had been in a relationship with a woman for more than a quarter-century. Her sister has said plainly in interviews that her family wants part of Dr. Ride's enduring legacy to be as a hero to the LGBT community -- a member of the community that they "didn't know they had.

Sally Ride's sexual orientation does matter, and not just because LGBT activists want the world to see that there are gay people everywhere, even among America's greatest heroes.

It matters because of something called the historical record. I'm quite dumbfounded that, in a society that prides itself on historical accuracy and getting the details right about historical figures (to the point of publishing book after book about them, sometimes hundreds of years after their deaths), that anyone, including the commenters above, would say we shouldn't report on, dwell on or discuss the fact that this accomplished scientist was a lesbian or bisexual woman who was in a relationship with another woman for 27 years of her life -- a woman, Tam O'Shaughnessy, with whom Ride worked on many projects, including books.

Surely it tells us much about Ride, but it is just simply something else: a fact. And I thought we liked facts. At least it seems like we do when they are facts about all kinds of other attributes and characteristics about public figures we look back upon. We report on and sometimes discuss in depth that public figures were Christian, or Irish-American, or bipolar or collected antiques, even if they were intensely private people who may not want those facts discussed. And, as I said, we report that they were heterosexual, affirming it over and over in discussions of their relationships and families. So why is it that if they were gay there's an impulse to defer to what the public figure may have wanted rather than what the public should know?

And Ride didn't hide the fact of her sexual orientation from her family and friends during her lifetime, anyway, nor did she want it hidden from from the public in her death. Just about every article about her life's work makes mention of the fact that Ride was the first American woman in space, often in the headline. So why aren't the critics accusing the media of dwelling on the fact that she was a woman?

I'm happy Sally Ride is someone the LGBT community could hold up, and I was among the first to do so right here. But most importantly, I believe we have a responsibility to report the facts, whether people like them or not.