Obit writers played it straight after learning Sally Ride was gay

You can add Sally Ride to the ranks of public figures who have come out lately in a quiet, understated way. Anderson Cooper did it in an email. Actor Matt Bomer did it by thanking his partner while accepting an award. Sally Ride and her family did it in the statement announcing her death, which acknowledged her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy.

BuzzFeed noted the coming out Tuesday morning.

Most obituaries, including those in The New York Times and The Washington Post, placed the revelation in the traditional place for survivors -- the penultimate paragraph. The Post did not have a pre-written obit for Ride; the paper found out about her death at 5:09 p.m. Monday evening and then pulled the entire obit together, T. Rees Shapiro told me in an email.

“When I spoke with her assistant, I learned that she was survived by her female partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy,” said Shapiro, who wrote Ride's obit. “It is standard practice at The Post for the survivors graph to appear toward the end of the obituary.”

The New York Times wouldn’t reveal if it had an obit in the can already. But the paper did confirm that it learned of Ride’s partner Monday afternoon.

“From what we could see, she had not discussed publicly that she had a female partner. It did not seem to be part of her public or professional life,” Denise Grady said via email. “She was a candidate for an obituary because of her career. It was certainly appropriate to mention the partner, but we didn't see that as the focus of the story.”

That’s probably as Ride would have wanted it. Most of the obituaries pointed out that she was never particularly pleased with “first female astronaut in space” title. She always pointed out that two female cosmonauts had preceded her outside Earth’s gravity.

But it makes you wonder: Was she the first gay person in space? Probably impossible to tell.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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