This is the first of a two part tribute to Dr. Sally Ride, Sherman Hemsley, and Lupe Ontiveros. See part two here.
After expressing my most sincere condolences to all those grieving, and deepest respect for the memory of Alex Okrent and the victims of senseless violence in Aurora, Colorado and Chicago, Illinois, I prayed for a respite from sadness, heartache, and frustration. But after Sally Ride’s loss to pancreatic cancer, Sherman Hemsley’s passing, and Lupe Ontiveros’s loss to liver cancer, I don’t feel I can. These three human beings pushed boundaries, paved paths, and deserved better than to have vital elements of their identities minimized until death.
Wow! That’s how the biography for Dr. Sally Ride on National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s “Learning Center for Young Astronomers” webpage begins. And this word choice could not be more appropriate. The first American woman in space, applied for NASA’s astronaut program in response to a newspaper announcement of the opportunity to serve as a scientist committed to space exploration, innovation, and the betterment of all living beings. 8,000 men and women applied for 35 slots. Dr. Ride, who received four degrees from Stanford University, including a Ph.D. in astrophysics, was one of six women accepted. Dr. Ride was never a stranger to success, or national recognition of her talent. In college, she was ranked one of the best tennis players in the nation. Legendary superstar Billie Jean King even urged her to drop out so she could immediately start playing professionally. A hero for the United States and all nations, Dr. Ride refused to rest on her laurels, she translated her inspirational biography into a career as an educator, mentor, and leader in the effort to recruit diverse students from all gender, ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A case in point, her support of “Change the Equation,” a national initiative to increase STEM literacy, announced by President Obama in 2010.
Dr. Ride’s professional life was one of milestones. But her personal life would always be void of one. She loved a woman named Tam O’Shaughnessy for 27 years. In the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s, NASA would not have retained an astronaut openly engaged in a same-sex relationship. Dr. Ride’s personal sense of privacy notwithstanding, coming out would have meant an end to her career in the space program. Today, regardless of President Obama and Vice-President Biden’s support for same-sex marriage, only 6 states and the District of Columbia embrace equal marriage rights. Two states recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. 42 states have statutes or amendments to their state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage.
Dr. Ride never married her loving partner of 27 years. This is likely because if they had wished to do so legally, prior to Dr. Ride’s passing, they would not have been able to in 84% of the United States of America—the country that today mourns her and calls her a hero and role model.
Because she is not legally recognized as a widow, Dr. O’Shaughnessy is not eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is the law of the land. And this means more than the fact that some Americans are afforded the opportunity to file joint tax returns while others are not. It speaks to a lingering hypocrisy in the words that conclude the Pledge of Allegiance. DOMA made Dr. Ride and Dr. O’Shaughnessy second-class citizens.
We need to conquer cancer the way that Dr. Ride conquered space. Nearly 580,000 Americans are expected to die of cancer in 2012. We also need to conquer everything preventing same-sex marriage in all 50 states—from DOMA to the homophobia demonstrated by Jennifer Carroll, the Boy Scouts, and Chick-fil-A—not just because it is the right thing to do. But because “with liberty and justice for all,” is neither an ideal, nor an aspiration: It is a promise assented to, a guarantee that equal protection under the law was not written into the Constitution alongside a “damned asterisk.”