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. The Washington Post wrapped up their defense of her 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.”
These are specific oppressions, and living with them results in adoption of strategies, formation of alliances, invention and creation of alternative systems of support. There is the weightlessness of an invisible identity that defies the gravitational pull of what many experience as compulsory heterosexuality, and this weightlessness comes with both freedoms and challenges. There is a certain traction and grounding that come from rooting oneself in societal norms. The oxygen of societal acceptance and approval is taken for granted by those for whom it constitutes the air they breathe. 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.
Newsflash: Being lesbian is an identity, and nothing could be further from a label. When you label me, you spraypaint 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 US, 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 for infant mortality were nearly as high as the rates for 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 lifework 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.
This essay was originally published in On the Issues: A Magazine of Feminist, Progressive Thinking, July 27, 2012.