Monday, July 23, 2012

Contributions from the Closet

Here I am again, commenting on an icon's passing. Sally Ride, America’s first woman to fly in space, passed away today at sixty-one. That is so young. She had so much more to give and she gave plenty. Her Sally Ride Science programs have educated countless children. Her contributions to society were numerous. That’s why I was saddened to read a comment on a Facebook post concerning a Huffington Post article.
The article’s title: “Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Revealed To Have Female Partner Of 27 Years.” I won’t go into the article, just the comment I read. The comment stated, “Too bad she didn’t come out before she died. She could have helped so many.” That struck a chord in me. My first thought – What about the people she did help?
It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like to work in education, and at the core, that is what Sally did. Sure, there are districts that openly support all employees, regardless of sexuality. Amen to that. There are many more that outwardly support progressive anti-discrimination policies, and inwardly drive out suspected homosexuals with abandon. If they want you gone, they will find a way. It’s not just in education, but that is my focus here.
Yes, if you can live your life freely, be exactly who you are in any given situation, then halleluiah! Please, by all means, set positive role models for the community. Give these children someone to look up to. Show them there is nothing to be ashamed of, that it does get better.
But perhaps your contribution to the world involves teaching children. Trust me, as a former teacher; my sexuality was of no concern to the students. The parents on the other hand, were not so indifferent. I taught a lot of kids. I’d like to think I made a difference in their lives. I know I did for some of them. They have told me so. Some even credited me with keeping them alive through high school. My question is, was my contribution less important or meaningless because I was not OUT to the world? Had I been an out lesbian, I would have never been allowed to darken the door of my school. Who would have taken my place? Would the outcome of some of those children’s lives have been changed by my absence?
Too often I think we put so much passion into calling people out, we forget that many people toil in the closet because they have so much to give that would be taken away if they lived openly. I’m not talking about personal wealth. I’m talking about the lives they change every day just by being there. Yes, my sexuality is a big part of who I am, and I was always saddened that I couldn’t share my happy life with my students, but what I could share, I did. I am out now, and out of teaching, so I do know how wonderful it feels to just be me. I now live my life openly and I hope have inspired some others to do so as well, but I don’t see my time in the closet as less of a life, just a different one.
Sally Ride chose to keep her personal life out of the public eye. Yes, it is sad that she couldn’t let the world know she loved and was loved by a woman. Yep, too bad she didn’t come out, but yes, she helped many in the way that she could. It’s not as cut and dry as advocates would like to think. The “You’re hurting the community by staying in the closet” mentality does not take into account the many contributions made by people who remain closeted for whatever reasons. The universe may have put them where they are to save a soul, you never know.
I long for the day when these come out or stay in conversations are unnecessary, but don’t judge someone for keeping their closet door tightly closed. You don’t know the path they walk until you walk it. One day, when all the doors are open, the violence and discrimination over, a little girl will look to the sky while her mother tells her of the brave Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and all the amazing things she did. That kid won’t care who Sally was sleeping with. She'll just say, "Wow! What an awesome name for an astronaut!" 
Ride on, Sally, ride on. 


  1. Thank you for posting this!
    We are judged for so many things. Our choice to be out or quiet should not be questioned.

    I always wondered about Sally Ride, but it was her contributions and great example that was important to me, not her personal life.

    Great post :)

  2. Dekey, I think of you and and myself as people first. I am a person in the world and so much more than my newly identified sexuallity. Of course I am still figureing it out. I am in Civil Air Patrol so of course we talked abou Sally's contribution to space sicence. Maybe it is me but I never think of people in terms of who they live with. I think of people in terms of what they do in the public arena. As your former student said last night in a post to you ~ you were one of those teachers who made a difference and we need people like that in all walks of life. I am also happy that you decided to follow your bliss and write. Sally gave us what she had and we should all follow her lead by doing same. I envey those who have long term partnerships and mariages and will support what ever cause I can to ensure all partners get to be recognized leagly. I am just happy you and she contributed whether from the closet, the podium or from space. ;-)

  3. I have had mixed feelings as I read the articles and comments today. Sally Ride and I are the same age. I admired her so much for what she did, both in the space program and in education. As a primary school teacher, I often used Sally Ride, Amelia Earhart and Mae Jemison as examples of women who went beyond what people thought they could do. (I also thought the metaphor of flight fit the message well.)

    It was only this morning that I found out about her long relationship with her partner, Tam. After my initial "YAY! She's a sistah!" reaction, I did give some thought to how publicly buttoned up she was. I had never heard a hint about her private life, only her public accomplishments. I KNOW she gave girls dreams that girls of my era usually considered impossible. I had those little girls in my classes.

    It doesn't strike me that, although closeted to the wider world, they were living a secret life. Perhaps, given who they are and the voracious nature of the media, that was the only sensible choice to make. I don't begrudge them their privacy. I'm lucky that my wife and I don't have to be closeted, but I certainly understand the impulse of self-protection.