Skip to main content

Respect Sally Ride's decision not to come out

By Joan Darrah, Special to CNN
July 26, 2012 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut, died Monday, July 23, after having pancreatic cancer for 17 months. She was 61. Here, Ride is seen talking with ground control during her six-day space mission on board the Challenger in 1983. Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut, died Monday, July 23, after having pancreatic cancer for 17 months. She was 61. Here, Ride is seen talking with ground control during her six-day space mission on board the Challenger in 1983.
HIDE CAPTION
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
Photos: Sally Ride through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Ride kept her sexual preference a secret during her lifetime
  • Some say Sally should have come out, Joan Darrah says, but it wasn't easy in her generation
  • Darrah: When Sally and she grew up, being a woman in a man's world was hard enough
  • Darrah: Ride should be remembered for her remarkable life, not for her orientation

Editor's note: Capt. Joan E. Darrah served for nearly 30 years as a Naval intelligence officer, serving as chief of staff and deputy commander at the Office of Naval Intelligence, among other offices. After retirement, she was a leading advocate in the fight to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and testified before the House Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel. Darrah lives with her partner of 22 years, Lynne Kennedy, in Alexandria, Virginia.

(CNN) -- When I heard the news that Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer I was shocked and saddened.

She was a woman clearly ahead of her time, blazing trails for all of those behind her, showing other women that it was possible to be smart, to care about science and to be an astronaut. After her death, it was revealed that she was gay, but it didn't totally surprise me.

Being a lesbian myself, I admit I was proud to learn that such an accomplished American pioneer and role model was on "our team." Some are saying that she let the gay and lesbian community down, that she should have been more visible and should have publicly declared her sexual orientation. She could have made a contribution to gay rights. She could have inspired many young people struggling with their sexuality.

But it isn't that easy. Especially for women like Sally and me, who grew up in the '50s and '60s.

Joan Darrah
Joan Darrah

I retired from the Navy in June 2002 as a captain after nearly 30 years of living under "don't ask, don't tell" and its predecessor. Once I retired, I knew that I needed to add my voice to the fight against DADT, to be a visible example of a gay service member. However, outing myself beyond my close circle of friends wasn't easy. I was proud of my accomplishments but a big part of me wanted to keep my personal life private.

In America: Sally Ride as role model

In my early career, most of my challenges, like those of Sally Ride I suspect, were trying to succeed in what was pretty much a man's world. No, Sally wasn't in the military -- but being a part of NASA had many similarities. I can see why she wanted to focus on succeeding as a woman, which was difficult enough, and didn't want to complicate things by bringing up her sexual orientation.

More science news from CNN Light Years

Remembering Sally Ride
Saying goodbye to Sally Ride
First American woman in space dies

She carried the burden of being the first American woman to go into space and all that it meant, and back then, she faced some pretty laughable questions. One was whether the flight would affect her reproductive organs. Former astronaut Rick Hauck, who was co-pilot on the 1983 Challenger mission with Sally, recalls another: A reporter asked: "Do you think you will cry during the flight?" and she answered: "Why doesn't Rick get asked that question?"

There is still a long way to go. For example, Sally's partner of 27 years, Tam Shaughnessy, will not receive her federal survivor's benefits because it is prohibited by the Defense of Marriage Act.

Still, a lot has changed rather quickly for the better.

DADT has been repealed, and gays and lesbians are serving openly and successfully in the military. Marriage equality is beginning to take hold in several states, and campaigns such as the "It Gets Better" project are trying to send a message that it really is OK to be LGBT.

Opinion: A friend remembers Sally Ride

Could Sally Ride have come out publicly before her death? Yes. But we should respect her choice to keep her personal life relatively private. Perhaps, if she had been fortunate to have lived a little longer, she might have decided that giving up some of her privacy was worth it to let people see her as an American hero who "happened to be a lesbian."

I know thousands of LGBT kids might have been encouraged to learn Sally Ride was gay -- but we need to remember that those of us who grew up in the '50s and '60s, when many of us didn't even know what gay meant, are still on a journey of self-acceptance.

I still marvel at so many young gay and lesbian kids when I see how accepting they are of themselves and how their straight peers accept them as "normal." Although I am retired and DADT is gone, I still hesitate to share I am a lesbian and am still surprised when people are totally fine with it.

Opinion: Thank you, Sally Ride

Let's remember Sally Ride as a courageous pioneer and American hero. Let's not let the fact that she didn't publicly come out to the world detract in any way from her remarkable accomplishments.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joan Darrah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT