Last Saturday, for the first time in American history, LGBT service members marched proudly through the streets of San Diego in military uniform (see video below).
For many in our community, the euphoria of this Pride parade was dashed on Monday morning by the sad news of the death, in this same city, of the first American female astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride. Though not apparent, and seemingly inapposite, these two events are inextricably connected.
Dr. Ride had been secretly fighting pancreatic cancer for seventeen months and in her obituary, for the first time, publicly recognized her twenty-seven year relationship with her partner, Dr. Tam O’Saughnessy.
It is reported that Sally was an intensely private person. This is evidenced by the fact that, outside her immediate family and very close friends, very few knew of her cancer or her romantic relationship with Tam. Considering the environment she was working in during much of her flying and professional career, her reticence is understandable. As the only female astronaut, surrounded by macho military fighter pilots who had the “right stuff”, it is likely she was living in her own self-imposed version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
With her passing, this obsession for privacy and need for secrecy no longer exists. Sally’s memorial fund will support pancreatic cancer research. Her sister, Bear, who is also a lesbian, told Buzzfeed:
“The pancreatic cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there’s now this advocate that they didn’t know about. And, I hope the GLBT community feels the same. I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them.”
Indeed, Sally Ride is a true American heroine and her sexual orientation will not diminish her place in history. In fact, she has moved from the invisible to the visible and that will make her star shine even brighter. She was a brilliant scientist, author, entrepreneur and her life was irrefutable proof that many women can equal men in even the most “macho” career fields.
Even though much progess has been made over the last 35 years, the military remains one of those careers where women have to overachieve to be successful. With the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, gay, lesbian and bisexual service members face some of the same challenges women had to endure starting in 1976 when they were first permitted to attend the service academies. There is one big difference – gender cannot be hidden. Unlike women, gay service members still have the option to remain invisible.
What we saw at the San Diego Pride parade was LGBT service members rejecting invisibility. They were given the option to wear their uniforms, not to make any political statement, because that would be against regulations, but to tell the world they were first and foremost professional soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or Coast Guardsmen. They were demonstrating pride in their service to our country, and for the first time no longer had to fear their careers would be ended if their sexual orientation became public.
Like Dr. Sally Ride, they had moved from invisible to visible.
As the LGBT community moves inexorably towards achieving equality, we salute Dr. Sally Ride and these service members for demonstrating courage and perseverance, and thank them and their families for their many sacrifices.