Don’t Call Sally Ride a Lesbian

Labeling Sally Ride as a “gay astronaut” completely misses the point—and disrespects her wishes, writes Amy Siskind.

08.02.12 8:45 AM ET

My first reaction to the bullhorn outing of Sally Ride—“America’s First Woman in Space Was a Lesbian”—was how dare the writer disrespect a deceased heroine’s wishes! We, the individual, determine and define our legacy. Ms. Ride’s choice in the public sphere was to be the first woman in space. Ms. Ride’s long-term relationship with a woman was part of her personal life, which she chose, quite purposefully, not to accentuate.

The person doing the outing, of course, is not a woman. Never spent a day on this earth as a member of a class so proportionately underrepresented, pervasively physically intimidated and brutalized, and discriminated against by myriad measures. He was so enthralled with this self-serving opportunity to label a symbolic piece of history (even the word, ‘his’tory!), that he missed the point: Gender is a more oppressive stigma than sexual orientation. While the LGBT movement checks off major victories, women’s progress is stalled and by some measures, moving backward. Sally Ride’s self-determined legacy as a woman astronaut is more consequential in moving our country forward than obfuscating this pioneer as a lesbian.

I’ve faced a similar challenge in defining my public persona, struggling not to be labeled in ways which would dilute my focus in women’s advocacy.

Recently, my 20-something niece was delighted to share the query by her housemate in D.C.: “Are you related to Amy Siskind?” Initially, I rejoiced, assuming I had reached an important target demographic through my advocacy for women and girls—millennial women—a group which is largely disengaged from the women’s movement. In speeches, writings, and initiatives, I’ve sought to unite and empower these young women to become tomorrow’s leaders. But, alas, not so. As it turned out, the query came from her gay male housemate who thought it was really cool and hip that her Auntie Amy was a lesbian public figure. Except I’m not—my public persona is that of head of a national women’s organization. About as trendy as a Dodge Dart.

In my four years as a public figure, I’ve faced significant and consistent pressure from those who advocate for LGBT causes. They ask, “Why aren’t you focused on equality?” Their variation of equality, to be precise. Well, simply put: you don’t need me! You got Lady Gaga and a bevy of other big-name stars, too numerous to count. It’s ‘in’ to be pro-gay! The polling says everything about the direction of our country: those same millennials disengaged from women’s advocacy are very engaged on gay rights and overwhelmingly support gay marriage.

I’ve admired the cohesive, well-financed LGBT organizations as they harnessed this support to achieve innumerable big-league successes. In the same four years, I’ve cheered as the senator from my state, Kirsten Gillibrand, galvanized bipartisan support to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. And a blink later, celebrated gay marriage becoming the law in my state. I’ve marveled as President Obama publicly spoke out in support of marriage equality, and most recently, the Democratic National Committee added gay marriage to the party platform. I’d argue that’s revolutionary progress in four years, wouldn’t you?

On the other hand, women’s advocacy has had little to celebrate. There ain’t no Lady Gaga song, Baby, Where are the Women? Progress for women and girls has stalled.

Take for example, the historic first mission of Sally Ride almost two decades ago. We should expect gender equality on the space shuttles by now, right? Just the opposite. In 2011, the last year of the U.S. space shuttle program, three shuttle missions were launched. On board were a total of 16 crew members, of which two were women (12.5 percent). Space Shuttle Endeavor’s crew was all men (six).

I won’t bore you with the breakdown by profession, but the shockingly low gender representation on shuttle missions is not an outlier. Women still compose less than 20 percent of our country’s leadership, and in important fields like business and politics, we’re moving backward.

There are other foreboding trends for women and girls. The messaging in the media and pop culture is creating a generation of teen girls who all too frequently feel depressed, guilty, and shameful. These girls are becoming afraid to lead. Tragically, girls’ leadership ambition peaks at age 8! Among the main culprits is sexist slurs—the degrading, vile treatment of our women leaders in the media.

Who says young women and girls don’t need to see as many Sally Rides to celebrate as they can find!

Ironically, the bullhorn-outing writer, who accused The New York Times of homophobia in its Sally Ride obituary, conveniently hides behind his own abhorrent bias: misogyny. He attacks women who share his political ideology, like Hillary Clinton (“I just can’t stand her” and her “cootie vibes”) and those who don’t, like Sarah Palin (and, despicably, her children).

Oh, and according to Mr. Sullivan, Hillary Clinton is not a feminist. Honestly. This man should be considered an arbiter of a historical woman?