Astronaut Sally Ride during her first space flight aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger for STS-7
(USA TODAY) -- Sally Ride lived her life with integrity and by being true to herself, cultural analysts say, paving the unique way for how she wanted to let the public know about her sexuality.
In the Tuesday obituary for Ride, who died at age 61 following a short battle with pancreatic cancer, her female partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, is listed first as a survivor. Then the obituary mentions her mother and other family members. Ride had been married to a fellow astronaut for five years, from 1982 to 1987. The news about O'Shaughnessy came as a surprise to those who didn't know her and raised difficult-to-answer questions about the intensely complex and private issue of coming out and throwing your name behind gay causes.
"Could she have helped the cause? Maybe," says Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. "For her not to have shared an incredibly important aspect of her life - being in a committed long-term relationship with a woman - meant many Americans did not get to see a dimension of her life that would have helped them understand us (gay people) and our contributions to society."
Ride wasn't closeted to those who knew her in San Diego, where she lived, Sainz says. "She just didn't want to go public with it during her lifetime. And that's a big difference." He adds that the quiet, graceful way in which she revealed her love for another woman is progress.
"I have to remember that my work here is to get to the time in society where your consideration of my character and competence is more important than my sexual orientation," says Sainz.
Sainz says that because Ride did not attract attention to her sexuality during her lifetime, her legacy will endure as a strong female role model who had degrees from Stanford in physics and English. Ride was the first American women in space in 1983. Through her business Sally Ride Science, she guided young women into math and science and encouraged them to break gender barriers.
"I've been thinking about why everyone is discussing this issue about why Sally didn't come out and support gay causes," says Gary Gates, a demographer of gay lifestyles at the University of California-Los Angeles. "I'm in sympathy with her and understand her reluctance, but if you think about it, what she really did for young women - to encourage them to be themselves and to be successful adults - it is the same broad message the gay rights groups have, but in a bigger way."
Gates says his research has found that it's difficult to get people to discuss their sexuality. And older adults are less likely to disclose their sexuality, according to a survey done by the Human Rights Campaign. People ages 55 and older are 80 times more likely to be closeted than those under age 30. Adults 30-54 are 16 times more likely to be closeted than those under age 30.
"There's no question that Sally Ride could have been fired if she'd come out while she worked for NASA," says Sainz. "It was important then to keep it a secret or you'd affect your security clearance."
While federal workplace rules have changed, employers in 29 states can still fire someone for their sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Gay marriage and the right to have children are other basic "human rights" issues playing out in a very public arena and "even in the voting booth," says Gates.
On the Sally Ride Science firm's Facebook page, Marc Horowitz left this comment:
"Isn't it unfortunate that Dr. Ride felt compelled, for whatever reasons, to keep 'private' her 27-year relationship with her female partner, and it was only announced posthumously? How far we have come, how much further we must travel."
Does every gay person need to go public and fight the fight? Not according to Justin Sitron, assistant professor and director of master's programs in Widener University's Center for Human Sexuality Studies in Chester, Pa.
"We've entered an era where people's privacy is called into question," says Sitron. "Sexuality has become standard public information. If you are gay or lesbian, the expectation is that you're living 'out.' And if you're not out, than you're not being a good representative of the gay and lesbian community. We need to rethink that. Privacy is very important, and we don't want to lose it."
Other important information on Ride's company website (sallyridescience.com) shows her drive to help in other areas: She established the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative to raise funds for research. She battled the disease for 17 months.
"At the end of the day, I gained an incredible respect for Sally Ride for knowing who she was and that she was true to herself and her family," says Sainz. "Clearly, it was not important to her that she live someone else's sense of who she should be. I think that's how we should all live our lives."