Sunday, July 23, 2017
Five years have passed since the death of Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space. Her New York Times obituary — specifically, the way we addressed her sexuality — provoked an intense debate that still echoes from time to time.
In the third week of July 2012, The Times learned that Dr. Ride was terminally ill and was receiving hospice care. She was only 61, and her illness had been kept secret. I started working on an advance obituary right away.
Dr. Ride died that July 23. Late that day, her company, Sally Ride Science, posted a statement on its website. I read it hurriedly, picked up the name of a survivor we had not known about and hastily typed it into the draft: Tom O’Shaughnessy, Dr. Ride’s partner of 27 years.
“It’s not Tom,” said the obituaries editor, William McDonald, reading the company’s statement. “It’s Tam.”
I had misread it. Tam was a woman’s name. Only then did we have an inkling that Sally Ride had been gay. We quickly had to decide how to approach it.
The Times has a general policy of not “outing” people who choose to keep their sexuality private. But we also identify immediate survivors in obituaries. So it was clear that we would mention Dr. O’Shaughnessy. But beyond that, what more could we — or should we — say?
We knew nothing about the relationship, and with the deadline closing in, we were in no position to report more fully on the matter had we wanted to.
There was no indication that Dr. Ride’s private life was relevant to her remarkable professional accomplishments, the focus of the obituary. Had she been an activist for L.G.B.T. causes or had she spoken openly about how her sexuality had shaped her life, if at all, we would have reported it. But such was not the case. If we made a big deal of the new information, it might seem as if we were trying to draw exactly the type of attention it seemed she had sought to avoid.
In the end, after some back-and-forth among the obituary editors, we decided to identify Dr. O’Shaughnessy as Dr. Ride’s partner and survivor and leave it at that.
The acknowledgment of the relationship set off a public debate about what to say — or not to say — about a national figure’s private life. Some gay rights activists accused The Times of homophobia for not drawing more attention to the couple’s relationship, and some criticized Dr. Ride herself for not having come out. Other readers thought we handled it right. Mr. McDonald was invited to discuss the episode on National Public Radio’s “On the Media.” I was grilled by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Dr. Ride was described by her sister, in later interviews with other news outlets, as an extremely private person who kept many aspects of her life out of the public eye. But family and friends knew she was gay, the sister said; Dr. Ride had made no effort to hide it from them.
Dr. O’Shaughnessy told interviewers much the same, adding that in 2001, when she and Dr. Ride were starting Sally Ride Science, they feared that sponsors would reject them if it became known that they were a couple. Indeed, in her era, had Dr. Ride disclosed that she was gay, it might have ended her astronaut career before it had even started.
As a postscript, Mr. McDonald, my editor, gave Dr. Ride and Dr. O’Shaughnessy’s relationship more prominence in the obituary when it was reprinted in 2012 in an annual collection of Times obits that he edited. There he also updated the obit to acknowledge the public reaction.
The revised obituary said: “Some commentators called it a posthumous ‘coming out’; others saw the disclosure as an invasion of the privacy she had long maintained. Some gay rights organizations adopted her posthumously as a heroine; but their critics countered that she had never identified herself with their cause. Some news organizations were accused of playing down the relationship; others, of ‘outing’ her.”
It all seemed like just what Sally Ride would not have wanted.
Friday, July 21, 2017
From Mars Rover: Panorama Above 'Perseverance Valley': NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity recorded a panoramic view before entering the upper end of a fluid-carved valley that descends the inner slope of a crater's rim.
Thursday, July 20, 2017