Sally Ride, who died today after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, was the first female U.S. astronaut in space and became friends with Tam O’Shaugnessy at the age of 12. It was not until today, however — nearly 50 years after meeting — that their 27-year romantic relationship was made public.
The pioneering scientist was, a statement from Sally Ride Science announced, survived by “Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years.”
With that simple statement — listed alongside her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin and nephew, Whitney — Ride came out.
In death, Sally Ride did what singer and rapper Frank Ocean did a few weeks ago - ‘came out’ without actually, really, coming out. Which is to say, that neither Ride’s obituary nor Ocean’s oddly poetic statement actually used the word ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘homosexual’ or ‘bisexual.’ Ocean admitted that his first love had been a man; Ride’s family admitted, presumably with her pre-death consent, that she had a female romantic partner.
I have a feeling this is going to become more and more the way ‘coming out’ is done in future, both at a personal level and in public life.
Our model of ‘coming out’ was formed at a time when it was popularly believed gay men didn’t really have relationships. Being gay, at least for men, was a lifestyle, involving special bars, special restaurants, separate friends and casual sex - or, at best, short-lived relationships. This was always bullshit, of course. But it was incredibly widely believed. What’s more, the assumption was that even when a person ‘came out,’ they’d be doing that as an individual - with no relationship being outed at the same time.
A 16-year-old boy telling his friend, or his parents, that he’s gay has historically been unlikely to have a boyfriend to introduce to them. A 30-year-old Hollywood star who decides to come out has, stereotypically, had no boyfriend but a string of horny young wannabe actors entering and exiting his trailer.
Now, though, plenty of 16-year-old gay boys have boyfriends, and plenty of gay celebrities have long-term partners, adopted children, and the whole shebang. Somehow, when you’ve got those things, I suspect it seems somehow meaningless to define yourself as ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’ To be gay, after all, means to be attracted to people of your own sex. In cultural terms, it means to date them, to pursue them, and to have relationships with them. But when you think about it, when you have a long-term partner who you foresee staying with until one of you dies, you’ve essentially left all that behind. No more chasing guys, no more commiserating with friends over guys, no more eyeing up guys. You’re a person in a long-term relationship with another guy.
Yes, of course, that’s still gay. But I can understand how when your idea of love and attraction has become really focused on one person - your partner, as in the case of Sally Ride, or a lost love, as apparently in the case of Frank Ocean - I can see how telling the world ‘I’m with this person’ makes a lot more sense than telling the world ‘I’m attracted to this half of the population.’
So though some people will always come out as gay - and you have to come out to at least one person to have a gay relationship - I suspect in the next few years more and more people will come out by introducing the world to their long-term partner, who happens to be of the same sex. The meaning is essentially the same but the message is, somehow, completely different.