Sally Ride, who died today after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, was the first female U.S. astronaut in space and became friends with Tam O’Shaugnessy at the age of 12. It was not until today, however — nearly 50 years after meeting — that their 27-year romantic relationship was made public.
The pioneering scientist was, a statement from Sally Ride Science announced, survived by “Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years.”
With that simple statement — listed alongside her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin and nephew, Whitney — Ride came out.
Also this via Wikipedia sheds some light on why she eventually decided not to come out:
Ride was one of 8,000 people to answer an advertisement in a newspaper seeking applicants for the space program. As a result, she joined NASA in 1978. Prior to her first space flight, she was subject to media attention even being asked during a press conference “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
The questions were asked, or at least reported, by People magazine in 1983. Even then, Ride was willing to stand up for women:
No other astronaut was ever asked questions like these: Will the flight affect your reproductive organs? The answer, delivered with some asperity: “There’s no evidence of that.” Do you weep when things go wrong on the job? Retort: “How come nobody ever asks Rick those questions?” Will you become a mother? First an attempt at evasion, then a firm smile: “You notice I’m not answering.” In an hour of interrogation that is by turns intelligent, inane and almost insulting, Ride remains calm, unrattled and as laconic as the lean, tough fighter jockeys who surround her. “It may be too bad that our society isn’t further along and that this is such a big deal,” she reflects.
Granted, this was thirty years ago, but I’m still amazed that someone would ask a woman these questions.
I remember in 1989, when I was working in the US Senate, and we went on a congressional delegation to West Berlin in early December, in the midst of the fall of the Wall. We’d been picked up at the airport by the number two man in either the US embassy in Bonn or, more likely, the US consulate in West Berlin. Along with the Senators, we staff were hustled onto a bus – Senators in front, staff in back – when I witnessed the following conversation take place with the #2 guy and Senator Dole’s Arms Control/Defense staffer, who was a woman (and was, I believe, the only female congressional staffer on the trip).
I paraphrase, because I didn’t record the conversation, but I remember it like it was yesterday:
EMBASSY GUY (to female Dole staffer): Excuse me, but you’re on the wrong bus.
DOLE STAFF: Really?
EMBASSY: Yes, the spouses’ bus is the next one over. This one is for Senators and staff.
DOLE STAFF: I’m not a spouse, I’m Senator Dole’s Defense and Arms Control staffer.
EMBASSY: Yes, but we’re heading straight to the consulate for meetings and the women are going shopping after freshening up at the hotel, I just thought you might prefer to be with the women.
DOLE STAFF: Uh, no thank you, I think I’ll stay here.
EMBASSY: Are you sure?
DOLE STAFF: Yes.
I was blown away. I’d never witnessed this blatant of a display of sexism (I was only 25). I was speechless. I remember we asked the staffer if she was okay, we were all kind of in shock. She wanted us to ignore it, so we did (which I would not have done today).
So things were, are, different for women. I can understand in an intensely male environment like the Space Program, and even after, a woman not being totally comfortable acknowledging publicly that she has a lesbian partner.