Three hundred and thirty American men and women have served as astronauts since the start of NASA‘s human spaceflight program. Only one is publicly known to have been gay or bisexual — Sally Ride — and she kept it private until her death, yesterday (July 23), when her obituary on the Sally Ride Science organization’s website stated that Ride was survived by Tam O’Shaughnessy, her “partner of 27 years.”
As the first American woman in space and a scientist, Ride served as a role model for generations of young girls. Now, she’ll serve as a role model for LGBT youth as well, said her sister, Bear Ride. “I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them,” Bear Ride, who identifies as gay, told Buzzfeed yesterday.
Gay rights advocates say Sally Ride‘s addition to the ranks of LGBT role models will make a tremendous impact. “Role models are incredibly valuable for everyone, but I think especially for LGBT youth, who may be born into a family where they don’t have an LGBT role model. It is so important for them to look out into the world and see they could be welcome in that world,” Stuart Gaffney, media director at Marriage Equality USA, told SPACE.com, a partner site to Life’s Little Mysteries. “Sally Ride will be that for them now.”
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin concurred, telling Buzzfeed, “The fact that Sally Ride was a lesbian will further help round out Americans’ understanding of the contributions of LGBT Americans to our country.”
Ride’s decision to keep her sexual orientation private reflects her very private nature, sources said. But the lack of even one openly gay or lesbian astronaut in the history of American spaceflight may reflect the culture at the NASA astronaut office. Although NASA does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, Michael Cassutt, author of five books and hundreds of articles about human spaceflight, said coming out would until recently have been “a career-wrecker” for an astronaut. “Not for any formal reason, but in the same way that any medical issue or even some kind of notoriety has been an astronaut career-wrecker,” Cassutt told SPACE.com.
“Any issue that detracts from the mission is or has been the kind of thing an astronaut wants to avoid. It isn’t NASA politics; it is NASA politics as practiced at the astronaut office,” Cassutt said, adding that the office has often resembled a “military squadron.”
A NASA spokesman told SPACE.com that astronauts decide for themselves what to reveal about their private lives. “Certainly we try to be open with their professional activities and beyond that what they reveal privately is pretty much up to them,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be named. Still, the fact remains that no astronauts have ever come out as gay or lesbian, while many astronauts include mention of their husbands, wives or children on their NASA official biography pages. (As of today, Ride’s NASA bio page was updated to mention that she is survived by her mother, with no mention of her partner.)