HRC Blog

Godspeed, Sally Ride

When I was in middle school I kept a picture of Sally Ride pinned to the bulletin board above the desk where I did my homework. It was a cartoon, penned the week she made her famous flight on Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 to become America’s first woman in space. On it, a young person about my age gazed admiringly at a poster of a woman in a spacesuit. (It was clearly intended to be Sally, though the woman on the poster expressed her gender in a far more feminine way, even in baggy NASA coveralls, than the real-life Dr. Ride ever did.) I identified with the young person in the picture because, like many of my generation, I shared his admiration of this strong, courageous, incredibly accomplished woman.

Even more than that, though, I felt as though I understood what drove Sally to break so many barriers and take her place in the history books. At that point in my life, an astronaut was all I'd ever wanted to be – and by the time Dr. Ride flew for the second time in 1984 I was making serious plans to join her and her comrades in the space program. I went to Space Camp three times, took college courses in astronomy and computer science each summer and started applying to West Point. When I got accepted, I majored in physics just like she had at Stanford. Even after I surrendered my dream of flying in space to chase other callings her example still inspired me.

I think that's why in the midst of my shock at hearing the news of her death yesterday I found a reason to admire her even more. Only upon reading her obituary did I learn she had spent the last 27 years of her life with her female partner, Tam O'Shaugnessy. Like many of her pioneering colleagues, the experience of being "first" led Dr. Ride to value her privacy dearly, and I would certainly never fault her for it. I feel blessed to know that my hero and I shared a little more in common than I knew. I just wish I'd known sooner.

It reminds me again of that cartoon on my bulletin board back in 1983. One evening while working on my algebra homework, perhaps a year after I pinned it there, I realized the young person gazing with such admiration at Dr. Ride in the picture was not a boy but a girl – her pony-tail had blended into the background of the pen-and-ink drawing just enough to obscure her true identity. The discovery only strengthened my sense of identifying with her, though it would be two decades before I could share that hidden aspect of my own identity with the world and come out as transgender.

Today I feel an even closer bond with Dr. Ride knowing she was family all along, and I’m grateful that I can tell my own children that this pioneering heroine lived with the integrity to be true to herself and to those she loved. Godspeed, Sally – may your example inspire a new generation of women, and men, with the courage to be themselves in the face of the unknown.

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