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July 28, 2012

Sally Ride “Versus” Billie Jean King


Upon her death and the one line “coming out” in her obituary, Andrew Sullivan takes issue with Sally Ride for not revealing her sexual orientation years ago, while she was alive. Beyond the necessary footnote that she didn’t hide her sexual preference or her 27 year relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy, she just didn’t broadcast it either, I’m fascinated by Sullivan’s use of this photo in his post/rant.

To really appreciate his intention with the picture, though, it’s helpful to understand the circumstances of the photo. The caption reads:

Former tennis star Billie Jean King and former astronaut Sally Ride arrive at the induction ceremony for the California Hall of Fame December 6, 2006 in Sacramento, California. The Hall of Fame, which was conceived by California first lady Maria Shriver, is inducting King, Ride, Alice Walker, Ronald Reagan, Cesar Chavez, Walt Disney, Amelia Earhart, Clint Eastwood, Frank Gehry, David D. Ho, John Muir and the Hearst and Packard families.

In the context of his post, the photo works like a comparison of two not just famous, but legendary women, one supposedly courageous enough to live openly as a lesbian, the other unwilling. That’s not just my read of Sullivan’s intention, though, based on Andrew’s frustration with Ride and the fact King happens to be standing next to the former astronaut and scientist in the photo he chose. Sullivan reveals as much in his rebuttal to a reader defending Ride when he emphasizes how the tennis star had had the courage to come out way back in 1981. (He doesn’t mention, to a disastrous effect on her career.)

Given his stance and the fact the photo was taken at a ceremony honoring the contributions of these California luminaries to society, Sullivan can’t help but intimate hypocrisy back onto the picture, and the award, as well.

There is some additional context to the photo, however, that informs the supposedly random juxtaposition in a more real way. Rather than two (gay, female) cultural legends who just happen to be standing nearby at an awards ceremony (King, yes, already five years out of the closet), the women were hardly strangers. They had been acquainted all the way back to the time Ride, a junior tennis star, played #1 for Stanford and was encouraged to turn pro by none other than King. Here’s Billie Jean’s tweet, in fact, reacting to news of Ride’s death, drawing special to Ride’s educational foundation:

Screen shot 2012 07 27 at 10 35 23 PM

I don’t know whether King saw the Daily Dish post, but I assume she would have disapproved of Sullivan using her to make less of another female hero and at least as historic a cultural role model.

(photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • bystander

    Andrew does observe, Others took the risk and faced the consequences., although, as you indicate he doesn’t specifically cite the effects to BJKing’s career.  Andrew is “evolving”, always “evolving”, which is to say, he wants to have his cake and eat it, too.  And, that’s true in a number of domains.  I recall the contentiousness of Andrew’s exchanges with Larry Kramer over AIDS, over DOMA… There are areas in which Sully would counsel a more cautious approach – seems to me – more often than his peers.  So, it’s interesting, although not unexpected, that he would want something more from Sally Ride in her context, than he wants from himself in his own.  But, that’s Sully.  “Evolving”, always “evolving”.  By using this photograph to compare and contrast King and Ride, I think he does both a disservice.

    It is a difficult thing, though, isn’t it?  What would Andrew have wanted from a Black, lesbian, female astronaut in that era?  How many ceilings is one human being expected to crack at a time?

  • bks3bks

    Just another tilted, uninteresting photo to accompany a rather unimportant topic.   In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s gays laughed at marriage.  Now it’s just a way to get employer-based benefits.  Another very strong argument for single-payer health care.


  • jonst

    yes, the ones that did not do as Andrew wanted them to do are, are, are…? What? ‘Fifth Columnists within the Movement’ ?

  • Sally Ride changed my world

    I’m done with Andrew after his nasty, mean comments about Dr. Ride.  Even when he “apologized” he made a dig that Dr. Ride wasn’t as great a hero as Bayard Rustin.  

    Sullivan has NO CLUE what it is like to be a woman scientist, working in a field with less than 10% women, as I do.  Dr. Ride made a BIG difference in this world, and I won’t keep reading any blogger who insults her.

    Dr. Sally Ride is the first American woman in space AND the first American astronaut to publicly come out as gay.  But still, not good enough for this particular gay blogger.  It’s impossible to express how much disdain I feel for him.

  • Cactus

    Poor Andrew, he just keeps stepping in it.  One wonders if he has a self-destructing demon, or if it is calculated to keep his blog in the running.  It seems he’s also castigating the ‘liberal’ NYT for not mentioning that she was gay, or mentioning her ‘partner.’
    Billie Jean has always been one of my heroes, because she was brilliant on the court AND because she took on and beat that silly old Bobby Riggs.  And that was when they had heavy, cat-gut racquets.  Billie Jean did not come out, she was outed by a lawsuit.  It cost her $2 million (in ‘82 dollars) in endorsements and she had to keep playing tennis instead of retiring.  She has more recently said that she thought everyone should come out in their own time.  It’s hard.  BTW, Andrew didn’t come out until 2003 when he was 40!  Why was he not concerned about all the AIDS deaths and teen gay suicides before that?  Or maybe he was more concerned that the right wing republicans wouldn’t like him anymore.
    We can only imagine that Billie Jean had cautioned Ride because of what it cost her, at a time when she was trying to get the team tennis organization started up.  I remember all the snickering and snide remarks at that time.  It may be different today, but 27 years ago?  Or even 17 years ago — DADT anyone?
    One more thing — in reading Andrew’s remarks, especially his replies to the comments, one senses less the editorial and more the personal behind his remarks.  Somehow, this has pushed one of his buttons. 

  • Glennis Waterman

    How does Andrew know that Dr. Ride didn’t come out to her colleagues and her community? Why does he assume that one would need to contact the national media and make sure her sexual orientation was a matter of public record, for it it be legitimate?

  • molly

    At this point in time, being out for the sake of being out seems counter productive. Gay people exist and until gay people are seen as people first and gay second (or not at all), we will have the stereotypes and prejudices that Sullivan is seeking to eliminate by forcing privacy into the public arena.

    I was surprised to discover Ride is/was lesbian, but did it change what she accomplished? Not for me. I look at the picture above and think “you go grrrrlz”.

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