Dr. Sally Ride, who passed away yesterday, was an astronaut, a physicist, the first U.S. woman in space, the youngest American in space, a nationally ranked-tennis player, a small business owner, and a lesbian. If you read just main stream media news sites, from the New York Times to Newsweek to the Wall Street Journal, or watch just main stream cable TV news, from MSNBC to ABC to CNN, you may not have figured that last one out. Because the media is working hard to not tell you.
Sally Ride Science — Dr. Ride’s company — said via a statement yesterday:
“In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.”
Tam O’Shaughnessy is Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, and yes, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy is indeed a woman, and chief operating officer and executive vice president of Sally Ride Science. Sally Ride Science in 2009 offered background on the two that began, “Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy became friends at the age of 12 when they both played tennis.”
It sounds like a lovely story. Best friends since childhood, and later, a 27-year long relationship that ended only upon death.
All this has been confirmed by both Dr. O’Shaughnessy and Dr. Ride’s sister, also a Dr. and who identifies as gay and goes by the name of “Bear.”
Now that you know all this, the question is, why didn’t you know before, right?
While Sally Ride was a very private person, as her sister stated, the media chose to not explain her orientation upon her death — clearly in violation of Dr. Ride’s intentions, as she included Dr. O’Shaughnessy in her obituary.
The L.A.Times published a 1230 word obituary. The last paragraph read:
Ride is survived by Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years; her mother, Joyce; her sister, Karen, known as “Bear”; and a niece and nephew.
That was the only mention.
Same result with the AP. Final paragraph:
Ride’s office said she is survived by Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years and a co-founder of Sally Ride Science; her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear, a niece; and a nephew.
The New York Times published a lovely 2062 word obituary yesterday. They waited until the middle of the second to last paragraph to confusingly state:
Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy; her mother, Joyce; and her sister, Ms. Scott, who is known as Bear. (Dr. O’Shaughnessy is chief operating officer of Dr. Ride’s company.)
So, is “partner” business partner then? Any reader who got as far as the second to last paragraph could certainly not be chastised for assuming that — and so, a lifetime, defining relationship is lost in history.
In, “America’s First Woman In Space Was A Lesbian,” Andrew Sullivan refers to his title and asks, “That wasn’t too hard, was it?”
The only thing preventing the NYT from writing an honest obit is homophobia. They may not realize it; they may not mean it; but it is absolutely clear from the obit that Ride’s sexual orientation was obviously central to her life. And her “partner” (ghastly word) and their relationship is recorded only perfunctorily. The NYT does not routinely only mention someone’s spouse in the survivors section. When you have lived with someone for 27 years, some account of that relationship is surely central to that person’s life. To excise it completely is an act of obliteration.
For those who may say Dr. Ride kept her relationship hidden all her life, a journalist’s job is to report the facts — not as one might assume the subject would like, but as the public needs and deserves to know. The main stream media here has failed. Miserably.
And what is the reason? Homophobia, and an uncomfortableness in dealing with the fact that an American icon had even more facets than we knew.
Earlier today, a quick Google News search netted “about 120,00″ results for “Sally Ride” but just 3610 results for “Sally Ride” “Tam O’Shaughnessy.”
While current convention for obituary writing may be to leave the deceased’s loved ones until the end, when writing about a national hero who spent a lifetime breaking barriers based on her gender and her age, isn’t it equally relevant to discuss her sexual orientation when it is not only new news, but clearly something that helped shape her life? Especially when, what seems to be her dying wish, was to publicly acknowledge the existence of the one woman with whom she, in one way or another, spent most of her life?
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