© 2024 WUTC
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Should Sally Ride Have Come Out?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will remember Sherman Hemsley, the actor who played the brash, abrasive, yet hilarious George Jefferson. That's later in the program.

But, first, it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on the week's news with a panel of women writers, journalists and commentators. Sitting in the chairs for a new do this week are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at the website, the Wise Latina Club. Deepa Iyer is executive director of SALT. That's South Asian Americans Leading Together. That's a civil rights organization dedicated particularly to South Asians. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That's the libertarian commentary and news website. They're all here in Washington, D.C.

And in St. Louis is Danielle Belton, editor at large of Clutch magazine online. She's also the founder of the pop culture and politics blog, The Black Snob.

Welcome to everybody. Welcome back, I should say. Thanks for coming.


DEEPA IYER: Hi, Michel.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So it's kind of a bittersweet note that we're starting and, this week, we celebrated the life of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She died Monday at the age of 61 after battling pancreatic cancer. I just want to play a short clip of that historic moment in 1983 when the Challenger blasted off.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nine, eight, seven, six - we go from main engine start. We have main engine start and ignition and liftoff. Liftoff of STS-7 and America's first woman astronaut, and the shuttle has cleared the tower.

MARTIN: Now, we've remembered Sally Ride, along with many other people, for sharing her love of science with young people. We also spoke yesterday with two female astronauts about her life and legacy and the profound influence she had on them.

But there's another issue that's now kind of surfacing that people are talking about in the fact that Sally Ride was gay. There was a line in her obituary, which was prepared by her family, that read simply: Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, and that surprised a lot of people. And some have written about - you know, have written about this, saying, you know, shouldn't she have used her sort of celebrity, her public profile, the esteem that many people had for her to create some space for other people who are - particularly young people - who are gay, same-gender loving people.

So I wanted to ask whether you think - what do you think, Viviana? Do you think she had any responsibility?

HURTADO: I think it's interesting, Michel, that she "came out," quote, unquote, in her obituary on her website and I think it's also really interesting that in an interview with the website Buzz Feed, her sister, Bear Ride, attributed that she was a very private person. A lot of people didn't know about her pancreatic cancer and a lot of people also didn't know that she was gay and she attributed as, you know, being kind of, I guess, a legacy of them being Norwegian, which I thought was really interesting. That little cultural note that also came out of nowhere.

But I do want to talk about that, this sense of privacy, and I think it would be really interesting, of course, that she came out on her website and that she - her sister would have said this to Buzz Feed, a website.

I think that we live in a time of choice, where you can choose to live as open or out loud or not or as quietly as you want. And so I do acknowledge that maybe coming out like this is going to help some and motivate some confused young people or just people in general who are struggling with their sexuality and how they are going to live their lives in relationship with their families, as well as the public.

But I also think that she made that choice to live privately and she's an extraordinary woman and I don't want the fact that she is gay and that that's what we're focusing on to take away the fact that this is a woman who got a BA in both English and specializing in Shakespeare, as well as physics. This is a woman who inspired young girls and boys all over the world to reach for the stars. And I'll throw out that we are in a big educational crisis in this country, something that she tried to address through the Sally Ride Science Foundation to continue to get American children into space.

MARTIN: Well, Danielle Belton, you know, to that end, her sister also said in this interview - well, two things. That they wanted her partner to be acknowledged as the part of the family that she was. That's why they made sure to put the information in the obituary, but she also said that this was a matter of priorities for her and that she wanted her priority to be her interest in promoting the STEM fields, particularly getting more people - more women and girls - interested in a STEM field.

So, Danielle, what do you think?

DANIELLE BELTON: You know, I see this on several different levels here. I can understand the need for privacy, but I also understand people wishing that she had come out. The issue is that, once you come out as gay, when it's still an issue where people don't know how they feel about it or it's still a discussion, it would become the discussion.

And, obviously, she was dealing with a lot of other things that she wanted to promote. She's a woman who's involved in the sciences and she wants to promote that, as well. She wants to be a beacon for that, and so that was her primary focus.

It's really a debate versus your individual versus the community, whether you want to protect a certain level of privacy in your personal life for you as an individual while still living as a public person. It's like a thorny issue for a lot of gay and lesbian people because, on one hand, you want to be that beacon that inspires other gays and lesbians to come out, to feel comfortable to create that kind of space. The other aspect of it is that she already, you know, was a public figure as a pioneering woman and an astronaut and someone who was a looming figure in the STEM field.

So, it's like, how much of herself does she have to give and how much does she get to keep for herself privately? So, you know, while I wish, you know, she had been able to come out while she was alive, I understand why she didn't at the same time. You know, I'm very open about my bipolar disorder, but I never want me being bipolar to obscure my work as a writer. I'd rather talk about politics and writing and pop culture than go on and on incessantly about my struggles or what's going on with my illness at any given time because that's not the sum of who I am.

MARTIN: Bridget Johnson, what do you think? You know, I've heard many women commentators in politics, for example, to not talk about their family life, for example, because then they feel that that's - that they'll be kind of mommy-tracked in the public mind. So I don't know. What's your take on this?

JOHNSON: Right. And I think that it brings up an entirely, you know, new - well, not new, but you know, a broader dialogue about how our sexuality defines us. You know, last time I was on the show, I broadcast from L.A. While I was out in L.A., I was meeting with - I had a nice dinner with some gay men who are in politics. Some of them were on the right, some of them were on the left.

And to hear their debate was so interesting because the ones on the left were saying, you know, you should be using your talent in writing and politics to help others, you know, of your sexuality. And the ones on the right were saying, well, that's not our policy plank. You know, that's not all that defines us.

So it was interesting because, you know, they were all saying, we're out. We're proud. We're not going to hide our lifestyle, but our lifestyle is not the only policy that we're thinking of. And it really brought me to my friend, Rick Brunelle, who worked for Mitt Romney in foreign policy and the fact that he was out and gay and not hiding it overshadowed all of the amazing foreign policy work that he's done over the years and overshadowed on the campaign.

MARTIN: Well, he was fired from the campaign. Right? Or wasn't he pressured to resign from the campaign because there were other elements of the Romney support base who didn't feel that he should have that level of prominence? Well, there were other issues, too. I mean, there was the matter of his sexist tweets that a lot of people found offensive. So there were both things. I don't know. It's such a dilemma.

Deepa, do you want a piece of this before we move on?

IYER: Yeah. I just want to add that I think that, you know, we also have to think about the community and the country that she was living in. You know, at that point in time, she was already pushing all these boundaries as a woman and, you know, I remember reading some of these stories where she was asked these really insulting questions. You know, are you going to wear makeup in space? And, you know, she even commented, saying that it's...

MARTIN: Will you cry if there's a misfire in the launch or something.

IYER: Right.

MARTIN: Like, what is that?

IYER: And she said it's too bad that our society isn't further along and, you know, not to speculate, but she may have felt that, you know, she was already pushing all of these boundaries as a woman and, at that point in time, being public about her sexuality at a time when it wasn't as welcoming as it is right now might not have been possible for her.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a visit to the Beauty Shop with Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club. Danielle Belton, editor at large with Clutch magazine online. Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor of P.J. Media. And Deepa Iyer, executive director at SALT, South Asian Americans Leading Together.

Well, you know, we can't let you go without talking about the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and I think everybody knows the details by now. But I just wanted to ask, you know, each of you what issues arise for you after this? And, Deepa, I'll start with you on this. We have about four minutes left. I want to hear from each of you, if I can.

IYER: Sure. I mean, I think everyone is obviously feeling, you know, unbelievably saddened by what happened there in Colorado. I think that, you know, we've also been thinking a little bit about how we construct these narratives around these incidents of mass violence and how they can often be formed by racial anxiety.

And if you think about, you know, whether the perpetrator had been someone who was a person of color, say a South Asian Arab Muslim, would it immediately be constructing a narrative around terrorism, calling this a terrorist incident? We'd be thinking about, from a policy standpoint, from a public opinion standpoint, what that meant in terms of people who look like this person.

But, here, we're also looking in this case about behavior and I think we need to think a little bit about how racial anxiety can inform how we construct these narratives.

MARTIN: OK. Bridget, what do you think?

JOHNSON: Obviously, the main question on the Hill right now is gun control and I think this is going to...

MARTIN: Is it? Because I don't hear anybody talking about gun control on the Hill. I hear...


MARTIN: I hear Michael Bloomberg from New York City. I hear Michael Nutter in Pennsylvania, but I don't hear anybody on Capitol Hill talking about that.

JOHNSON: Ed Perlmutter, whose district it happened in - he's going to join forces with Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed in a mass shooting years ago. And the standards like Chuck Schumer, you know, who are always pushing gun control. You know, they're going to be pushing things, but it's going to kind of have the same result.

But I think that this is going to bring up new questions about the psychology of a person who wants to buy a gun and mental instability in gun ownership, which brings up some really sticky constitutional questions. How much should the government be able to delve into a person's psychological profile for them to be able to be allowed to exercise those gun rights?

MARTIN: Viviana, what does this bring up for you? What conversations do you think we should be having around this?

HURTADO: We need to have a conversation around why it is that somebody who was not in the military or serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is able to buy semi-automatic weapons and loads of ammo that could basically blow a small town off the face of the earth.

And, really, along the lines of Iraq and Afghanistan, if somebody really wants to play G.I. Joe and have that all around them, then go enlist because there are many servicemen and women who have had to serve repeatedly. They're on their 10th umpteenth tour and they would like to come back home.

MARTIN: Danielle, what does this bring up for you?

BELTON: I think it's more about examining this case to see, realistically, what could have been prevented and what we can actually do about it, versus this is just the reality of someone who is a sick individual who acted upon their impulses. It's really about our mental health system. It's about early warning signs. It's about how we do profiling in law enforcement. It's about gun laws. It's everything. We really need to take a hard look at everything to see what - if it could have been prevented, could we have prevented it? And, if it couldn't, then it's really just more about trying to deal with mental health issues and trying to recognize them sooner.

MARTIN: I hate to end on that sad note, but ladies, unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today. So thanks for, you know, a thoughtful discussion about one of these topics that, clearly, we'll be talking about more, you know, in the days ahead, and it deserves that kind of discussion.

And, of course, once again, we want to offer our condolences to the friends and family of those who lost loved ones in that terrible incident.

With us today, Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of the website, The Wise Latina Club. Bridget Johnson, the Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That's a conservative libertarian commentary and news website. Deepa Iyer is the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together. That's a South Asian civil rights group. And they were all here in Washington, D.C.

And, in St. Louis, Danielle Belton. She is The Black Snob. That's her pop culture and politics blog and also the editor at large of Clutch magazine online.

Ladies, thank you so much.

HURTADO: Thank you.

IYER: Thank you, Michel.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.