What Sally Ride Could Have Done for Gay Liberation

Sally Ride, top, could have helped the revolution. Now, coming out by celebrities such as Anderson Cooper means less to the world at large. Clockwise from left: Space Frontiers / Getty Images; Kris Connor / Getty Images; Lee Snider / Photo Images-Corbis

Surprise—the first U.S. woman astronaut was a lesbian. After a lifetime of celebrity, Sally Ride came out last week via her obituary, which listed her “partner,” Tam O’Shaughnessy, as the first survivor. A tardy arrival at the barricades, according to many. She was a trailblazer for women, but not for the gay revolution. As the Ride flap reveals, lesbians and gay men have the option of the closet. What’s wrong with that? Some acts are not morally required; in normal times, coming out, like acknowledging cancer, which Ride also kept private, seems like a personal decision. Ride, however, did not live in normal times. The 27 years she shared with her “partner” were critical to the triumphant gay revolution. As activists around her made the world better, her world got better, too. But instead of pulling her weight, she was free riding. Worse, as a celebrity and role model, she denied the movement a valuable asset. The feminist version of this is the “I’m not a feminist but” woman, who gets decent pay and birth control while still enabling others to denigrate the movement. Revolutions will always have opponents; they should not have to carry their own as free riders.

In Ride’s time, and until very recently, coming out was almost always hard. When California activist Harry Hay came out and proposed to start the first successful gay political organization in America in 1948, he could not get a single person to sign on. Meanwhile, he lost his political home in the Communist Party and spent years estranged from his ex-wife and two daughters. The federal government outed astrophysicist Franklin Kameny when they fired him in 1957. Kameny, too, had dreamed of becoming an astronaut. He responded by restarting the gay revolution, but 50 years later, he was still living at the edge of poverty. My favorite story from the Sally Ride years is about somebody who’s not even famous. Jim Pepper, a successful Wall Street moneyman, was out to his close circle, but tactfully silent to the larger world. When AIDS struck, Pepper, uninfected himself, agreed to go on the board of New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and was required to get permission for board service from his investment-firm partners. So he came out to them. The heterosexual partners approved—but, one of them asked, plaintively, don’t you think you could get them to change the name? And so, by going beyond his proud and private social life, Pepper made his partners say it: gay.

Thanks to Hay, Kameny, and the rest, today is a lot better. A celebrity like Anderson Cooper—or Matt Bomer or Jim Parsons—can come out fully without it mattering terribly. Coming out now is a perfect example of what philosophers call “supererogatory,” something it would be good and generous to do, even if it’s not necessary. That’s why the criticism of Cooper was so muted. His long, veiled dance and casual announcement fit the current times. Maybe “free rider” is too harsh. But even if Sally Ride did not do something wrong, she missed a chance to do something right. In the epic story of the gay revolution, she was oh so private. She could have made the nation say “gay.”

Linda Hirshman is the author of Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution.