Respect Sally Ride’s decision not to come out

Updated 1:36 PM EDT, Thu July 26, 2012

Story highlights

Sally Ride kept her sexual preference a secret during her lifetime

Some say Sally should have come out, Joan Darrah says, but it wasn't easy in her generation

Darrah: When Sally and she grew up, being a woman in a man's world was hard enough

Darrah: Ride should be remembered for her remarkable life, not for her orientation

Editor’s Note: Capt. Joan E. Darrah served for nearly 30 years as a Naval intelligence officer, serving as chief of staff and deputy commander at the Office of Naval Intelligence, among other offices. After retirement, she was a leading advocate in the fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and testified before the House Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel. Darrah lives with her partner of 22 years, Lynne Kennedy, in Alexandria, Virginia.

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When I heard the news that Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer I was shocked and saddened.

She was a woman clearly ahead of her time, blazing trails for all of those behind her, showing other women that it was possible to be smart, to care about science and to be an astronaut. After her death, it was revealed that she was gay, but it didn’t totally surprise me.

Being a lesbian myself, I admit I was proud to learn that such an accomplished American pioneer and role model was on “our team.” Some are saying that she let the gay and lesbian community down, that she should have been more visible and should have publicly declared her sexual orientation. She could have made a contribution to gay rights. She could have inspired many young people struggling with their sexuality.

But it isn’t that easy. Especially for women like Sally and me, who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Joan Darrah
Joan Darrah

I retired from the Navy in June 2002 as a captain after nearly 30 years of living under “don’t ask, don’t tell” and its predecessor. Once I retired, I knew that I needed to add my voice to the fight against DADT, to be a visible example of a gay service member. However, outing myself beyond my close circle of friends wasn’t easy. I was proud of my accomplishments but a big part of me wanted to keep my personal life private.

In America: Sally Ride as role model

In my early career, most of my challenges, like those of Sally Ride I suspect, were trying to succeed in what was pretty much a man’s world. No, Sally wasn’t in the military – but being a part of NASA had many similarities. I can see why she wanted to focus on succeeding as a woman, which was difficult enough, and didn’t want to complicate things by bringing up her sexual orientation.

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She carried the burden of being the first American woman to go into space and all that it meant, and back then, she faced some pretty laughable questions. One was whether the flight would affect her reproductive organs. Former astronaut Rick Hauck, who was co-pilot on the 1983 Challenger mission with Sally, recalls another: A reporter asked: “Do you think you will cry during the flight?” and she answered: “Why doesn’t Rick get asked that question?”

There is still a long way to go. For example, Sally’s partner of 27 years, Tam Shaughnessy, will not receive her federal survivor’s benefits because it is prohibited by the Defense of Marriage Act.

Still, a lot has changed rather quickly for the better.

DADT has been repealed, and gays and lesbians are serving openly and successfully in the military. Marriage equality is beginning to take hold in several states, and campaigns such as the “It Gets Better” project are trying to send a message that it really is OK to be LGBT.

Opinion: A friend remembers Sally Ride

Could Sally Ride have come out publicly before her death? Yes. But we should respect her choice to keep her personal life relatively private. Perhaps, if she had been fortunate to have lived a little longer, she might have decided that giving up some of her privacy was worth it to let people see her as an American hero who “happened to be a lesbian.”

I know thousands of LGBT kids might have been encouraged to learn Sally Ride was gay – but we need to remember that those of us who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when many of us didn’t even know what gay meant, are still on a journey of self-acceptance.

I still marvel at so many young gay and lesbian kids when I see how accepting they are of themselves and how their straight peers accept them as “normal.” Although I am retired and DADT is gone, I still hesitate to share I am a lesbian and am still surprised when people are totally fine with it.

Opinion: Thank you, Sally Ride

Let’s remember Sally Ride as a courageous pioneer and American hero. Let’s not let the fact that she didn’t publicly come out to the world detract in any way from her remarkable accomplishments.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joan Darrah.