Dr. Sally Ride’s Legacy: The Frontier of Identity

Dr. Sally Ride’s Legacy: The Frontier of Identity

July 27, 2012

by Carolyn Gage

The Internet is abuzz with the posthumous outing of astronaut Sally Ride. Everyone seems to have an opinion: Some folks wish that Dr. Ride, as an iconic astronaut, had been out publicly as a powerful role model in the LGBT community. Indeed, there is a posthumous campaign on Facebook to point out the fact that, because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy will not be able to receive federal death and pension benefits.

Others, taking their cue from Dr. Ride’s sister, support her decision to remain publicly closeted, citing her right to privacy and attributing her reticence to her Norwegian background. Others point out the excessive and unwelcome attention to her gender and personal life (“Do you wear a bra in space?”) to which the media subjected her as the first woman in space. Suzi Parker at the Washington Post wrapped up a defense of Ride’s closet with this summation: Ride lived in a world where we should all live, a place where we celebrate someone for her accomplishments and not her sexual orientation.”
Actually, Ms. Washington Post, a lesbian orientation is an accomplishment. Historically, and certainly in Dr. Ride’s lifetime, living a lesbian life has meant overcoming substantial obstacles and negotiating myriad oppressive situations. Living a lesbian life has meant excommunication and expulsion from religious organizations; discharge from the military; disinheritance and estrangement from families of birth; incarceration in mental asylums; harassment, discrimination and firing in the workplace; loss of housing; loss of educational opportunities; being banned from teaching jobs; loss of custody of one’s children; loss of partnership benefits including pensions and health insurance, and loss of one’s career.
These are specific oppressions. Living with them requires the invention and creation of strategies, alliances, alternative systems of support. It comes with the weightlessness of an invisible identity that defies the gravitational pull of what many experience as compulsory heterosexuality, a weightlessness with its own freedoms and challenges.

After all, there is a sense of stability that comes from rooting oneself in societal norms, from being able to breathe the oxygen of acceptance and approval without realizing it. In the closed space of the closet, there is a suffocating lack of circulation. Dr. Ride lived her life in a secret orbital, and the special conditions of that orbital informed her choices, her character and her legacy.Dr. Ride’s sister stated that Sally did not believe in labels, the inference being that lesbianism is a label.

Newsflash: Being lesbian is an identity, and nothing could be further from a label. When you label me, you spray paint an offensive epithet on my front door. That’s not pleasant for me, but I can paint over it. It does not affect who I am or how I live. When you insist that “lesbian” is nothing more than a label, what you are doing is very aggressive. You are attempting to evict me from my home, deny me access to my community, cut me off from my heritage and history, appropriate a tremendous body of literature and disappear my culture. Insisting that my identity is nothing more than a label supports heterosexist hegemony and isolates and marginalizes me. It’s also more than a little pornographic because attempting to reduce the richness of lesbian history and culture to a personal sexual practice is the hallmark of a fetish.

And in case the apologists of the closet are relying on the “born that way” argument to trivialize lesbian identity, they should understand that lesbians are not gay men. Lesbianism has always represented an empowering choice in patriarchal cultures. Time out for a brief history lesson: Here in the U.S., until the invention of reliable birth control, women could not practice heterosexuality outside of marriage without risking extremely severe consequences. I am talking about the stigma of the notorious “fallen” or tragically “ruined” woman, with the searing rejection of out-of-wedlock children — often relinquished for adoption under economic, or religious or social — or all-three — pressures. On the other hand, the socially sanctioned expression of heterosexuality — marriage — was a dangerous and degrading institution for women. In an era before birth control, women could not deny their husbands sex, and this could mean serial pregnancies for two decades or more with the attendant toll on both psychological and physical health. It often meant too many children to protect or provide for. The rates of infant mortality were nearly as high as the rates of death in childbirth. Wives could be raped and beaten with impunity, could not inherit money, could not own their own wages, vote, serve on juries (critical factor in rape trials), could not own their children. Husbands could have their wives incarcerated indefinitely in mental asylums. This was still true through the middle of the twentieth century.The woman with enough self-esteem to insist on control of her body; the woman with dreams of creative, entrepreneurial or intellectual work; and the woman whose childhood experiences of male sexuality were traumatic enough to preclude her fulfilling the obligations of the marriage bed had two choices: celibacy or lesbianism. Many women chose lesbianism. And many of these, not surprisingly, were women of achievement. Scratch around under the surface of these thousands of exceptional, historical “single women,” (as Ride was presumed to be) and you will usually find the lesbianism.

Dr. Ride made her choices during her lifetime, as we all do, weighing her priorities and considering consequences. For many women whose life work is with children, and especially in the field of education, the closet has been compulsory.

But Dr. Ride is dead now, and, in exiting the planet, has exited her closet. There is no reason to attempt to stuff her legacy back into that prison, except, of course, the usual heterosexist impulse to erase lesbian achievement, impoverish our history, appropriate our lives. What is the motivation behind that impulse? Could it have something to do with the fact that a disproportionately high number of women of pioneering achievement are lesbians- and especially in arenas traditionally dominated by men? Why is this still true today? Clearly the label theory will not provide us with an answer.

We can only begin to understand this high percentage of lesbian achievers when we begin to explore and celebrate the resistance, the iconoclasm, the strategic brilliance, the hard-won integrity and the deep gynophilic passion that are indigenous to lesbian identity. Dr. Sally Ride embodied all of these qualities, as a lesbian, and they cannot be separated from her accomplishments.

Carolyn Gage is a lesbian feminist playwright, performer, director and activist. The author of nine books on lesbian theatre and 65 plays, musicals and one-woman shows, she specializes in non-traditional roles for women, especially those reclaiming famous lesbians whose stories have been distorted or erased from history.

Gage won the 2011 Maine Literary Award in Drama, and in 2009, her collection of plays “The Second Coming of Joan of Arc and Selected Plays” won the Lambda Literary Award in Drama, the top LGBT book award in the U.S. All of her books and plays are available online at www.carolyngage.com.
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