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 surprised those not in Ride's inner circle and sparked a national debate 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."
Her contributions can still be appreciated in a new context now, according to Ride's sister, Bear Ride, a lesbian who has supported gay rights causes.
"She was just a very private person who wanted to do things her way, " Bear Ride told the Associated Press in an e-mail. "She didn't like labels (including hero)."
Sally Ride co-wrote the obituary with O'Shaughnessy. They weren't closeted in San Diego, where they 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.