NEW YORK — Pioneering astronaut Sally Ride, who relished privacy as much as she did adventure, chose an appropriately discreet manner of coming out.
At the end of an obituary that she co-wrote with her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, they disclosed to the world their relationship of 27 years. That was it.
As details trickled out after Ride’s death on Monday, it became clear that a circle of family, friends and co-workers had long known of the same-sex relationship and embraced it. For many millions of others, who admired Ride as the first American woman in space, it was a revelation — and it sparked a spirited discussion about privacy vs. public candor in regard to sexual orientation.
Some commentators, such as prominent gay blogger Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast, second-guessed Ride’s decision to opt for privacy.
“She had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to,” he wrote. “She was the absent heroine.”
Others were supportive of Ride’s choices.
Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who in 2003 became the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican world, noted that both he and Ride were baby boomers who grew up “in a time when coming out was almost unthinkable.”
Robinson is 65. Ride was 61 when she died of pancreatic cancer.
“For girls who had an interest in science and wanted to go places women had not been allowed to go, she was a tremendous role model,” Robinson said Wednesday. “The fact that she chose to keep her identity as a lesbian private — I honor that choice.”
However, Robinson said he had a different standard for younger gays — to the point of insisting that his own clergy in New Hampshire be open about their sexuality if they are gay or lesbian.
“While there is still discrimination and coming out will still have repercussions, the effect of those repercussions are vastly reduced now,” Robinson said. “I believe that times have changed.”
There’s no question that gays and lesbians overall are coming out now at a higher rate and an earlier age than those of previous generations. According to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, adults aged 30-54 are 16 times more likely to be closeted than those under 30.
In pop culture, the fine arts, the entertainment industry, and in some individual sports, it’s now commonplace for luminaries to be out as gay or lesbian. But in many other fields, the dynamics are different.
Aside from Ride, no other astronaut of any nation has come out as gay. No active player in the four major North American pro sports leagues — football, basketball, baseball, hockey — has come out as gay, though some retired players have done so. Ken Mehlman came out as gay only after he completed his stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee.