Coming Out Posthumously

Friday, August 03, 2012


When news broke last week that Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, had died, the world learned something new about the pioneering astronaut: that Dr. Ride was in fact a lesbian, survived by her partner of 27 years. Bob speaks to The New York Times obituaries editor Bill McDonald about how much obituaries should explore the private lives of public people.

Michael Linnen - Cantus for Bob Hardison


Bill McDonald

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [10]

Teaching moment for Bob Garfield. :) I believe most folks would prefer the term "orientation." It's not politically correct so much as descriptively correct.

Aug. 07 2012 07:15 AM
Janet from Googleburgh, CA

Just wanted to point out that using the term "sexual preference" is contrary to the AP, the NY Times, Washington Post *and* the APA (American Psychological Assn) style guidelines.

Aug. 06 2012 12:56 PM

I heard this segment while driving today and actually pulled over to write myself a note to log in and comment on it when I got home. I'm so glad to see that so many others here were as shocked by the repeated use of the term "sexual preference" instead of the more accurate "sexual orientation" (as a way of remembering the difference: "I *prefer* brunets, but I am *oriented* toward men.")

To address Stacy Harris' comment, Sally Ride's own organization, Sally Ride Science, published her official obituary upon her death ( and it clearly notes that primary among her survivors is "Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years". I think it is quite clear what their relationship is and what Sally Ride's orientation was. There was no speculation going on here. Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy were partners for nearly 30 years - longer than many, many heterosexual unions.

I was very happy with the way Mr. McDonald discussed the handling of obituaries for public figures (which Sally Ride absolutely was, especially since she is and always will be a historical figure), but I was taken aback by Bob's strange question about how a case of polygamy would be addressed, as if to somehow draw a line between homosexuality and polygamy. The entire piece reminded me of something I would have expected to be discussed in the 1980s, but the world has moved on in the last 30 years. If Ms. Ride had been straight and had a husband, there would never have been a question of mentioning that husband in the obituary, New York Times' or any other. Even if Ms. Ride had been secretly married to a man for nearly 30 years (which is a better equivalent supposition than Bob's polygamist scenario), I doubt that many eyebrows would have been raised with a mention of "she is survived by her husband, _____________."

Aug. 05 2012 10:58 PM
Mark P.

I found Bob's constant referral to "Sexual Preference" rather than "Sexual Orientation" irritating and out-of-date. This seems to reflect his own prejudices rather than neutral reporting. Instead of viewing this as quaint, I found it insulting and deliberate.

Aug. 05 2012 08:14 PM
Stacy Harris from Nashville, TN

How do we know Sally Ride was a lesbian? Short of Ride's having said so, her "partner" could not even have "confirmed" it (Tam O'Shaughnessy can confirm her own sexual identity, should she choose, but it isn't necessarily relevant to Sally's sexuality.)

Perhaps Sally and Tam had a platonic relationship. Maybe the two had differing sexual orientations but enjoyed each others company to the extent that they were friends with no "benefits."

If Sally were bisexual, an obituary implying she was a lesbian would be incomplete.

And what if Ride was asexual?

One could speculate forever, but that is not the proper role of a news or obituary reporter. To deduce that someone is homosexual in the perceived absence of a heterosexual relationship has historically been grounds for a lawsuit and, at that very least, could be a stretch.

Ongoing extramarital affairs, carried out in the absence of an open marriage, involve the same high degree of secrecy and slim chance of long-term success as living a public life so privately that there is no danger, in one's lifetime, that s/he whose sexuality would otherwise be whispered about/or more precisely targeted, will be outed.

Stacy Harris
Publisher/Executive Editor/Media Critic
Stacy's Music Row Report

Aug. 05 2012 05:09 PM
Tony Grima from Boston

So glad I was not the only one who cringed the, what, TWO times Bob went back to saying "preference?" Sally Ride may have had a preference for privacy while alive, but it was her sexual orientation that had her partnered with Tam O'Shaughnessy for 20-something years.

Aug. 05 2012 01:13 PM

Conservatives tiny little brains would IMPLODE if they knew just how many of their acquaintances and neighbors are GAY!!

WAKE UP to the world you ACTUALLY LIVE IN, troglodytes!!

Aug. 05 2012 11:44 AM
Gary Hollander

Love your work, but this segment was just off. Preference? You must know better by now! Interesting commentary from New York Times' McDonald, but where was the follow-up question from OTM about contacting the families of deceased people. Who decides who is family? This question is central to the debate in marriage equality. Finally, Mr. Garfield's example about the polyamorous developer of synthetic cork danced on the edge of a religious fundamentalist dream of the slippery slope to beastiality. The usually savvy OTM crew shows limited insights into gay oppression, perhaps thinking we just don't like fried chicken.

Aug. 04 2012 05:56 PM
Jeffrey Levin from San Jose, CA

I truly object to the repeated use of the term "sexual preference" in this episode. Based on psychiatric findings "sexual orientation" is more hard wired than a "preference".

NPR should know better!

Aug. 04 2012 11:37 AM
Trey Greene from Detroit

NO, NO, NO, just because you think it is a preference for YOU...aah, you know better than that!

Aug. 04 2012 07:55 AM

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