Sally Ride’s “coming out” in obituary sparks debate, raises question of public relations vs. privacy

Sally Ride & longtime partner Tam O’Shaunessy

Let’s file this under the category of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The late astronaut Sally Ride, who died earlier this week, is under fire posthumously for coming out. The first US woman in space “came out” in the obituary she co-wrote with her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy. While family and friends were long aware of the relationship and Ride’s sexuality, the revelation came as quite a surprise to the general public.

But do celebrated individuals have a responsibility to share their sexual preference publicly?

In the grand scheme of things, an individual’s sexual preference is a relatively small portion of what makes up that person’s life. So is there an obligation to share that portion of their life with the public? Many would say yes, that it is a part of the price you pay to be a public figure. Along those lines, many feel there is an obligation to support their community by using their celebrity for the advancement of the movement.  However others say that the choice to remain quiet about sexual preference is the right of the individual.

For the famous, this is a double-edged sword, which can cut them both ways. For some, such as actors Neil Patrick Harris and Chris

Chris Colfer & Neil Patrick Harris

Colfer, the revelations about their sexuality have had little or no effect on their career. Harris’ role on the popular CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother” as the womanizing Barney still remains a popular character on a top-ten program. And Colfer, who entered the spotlight as gay character Kurt Hummel on ratings juggernaut “Glee,” instantly became an icon for not only gay youth, but self-proclaimed “gleeks” everywhere as well. Both have managed to traverse the media frenzy about sexuality relatively unscathed. But are Harris and Colfer exceptions to the rule?

Cruise, Travolta & Tebow

Film superstars John Travolta and Tom Cruise have long since been the source of speculation about their sexuality. The same can be said to a much lesser degree for new NY Jet quarterback Tim Tebow. Whether these individuals are in fact gay or not, the press about their supposed “true” sexual preference has or could eventually have an adverse effect on their careers. But does sexual orientation really matter when it comes to how an individual performs in their chosen professions?

While society seems to clamor for as much knowledge as there is on popular celebrities, sexuality seems to rank much higher on the scale than anything else. Actors and actresses, sports stars and musicians alike face more scrutiny over their sexual preference than their abilities in their chosen field. It seems that the speculation over a person’s sexuality can often overshadow current or future accomplishments. Recently out newsman and talk show host Anderson Cooper, spoke eloquently in his message about how his high-profile job could put him at risk in some areas of the world he travels to. And while speculation over his preference has run rampant for a long time, there was not a great deal of surprise when he announced officially.

The bottom line is this; a person’s sexual preference, and their choice whether to reveal that preference, should be left up to the individual. While a well-known entity can lend support to the gay rights movement, it is important to remember that that individual is still a person first, and a personality second. Sometimes a healthy curiosity should remain just that.

For Sally Ride, the speculation is finally over. And whether she meant to or not, she will forever be an example of how little sexual preference matters in the scope of one’s accomplishments in life.


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