It’s complicated, the whole issue of personal privacy in an era of social media transparency, and the fact that the first female astronaut, Sally Ride, who this week died at age 61 from pancreatic cancer, came out publically in her obituary, listing her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy first, as a survivor, is stirring the pot of comment and prejudice.
"Could she have helped the cause? Maybe," says Fred Sainz, VP of communications for the Human Rights Campaign. "For her not to have shared an incredibly important aspect of her life — being in a committed long-term relationship with a woman — meant many Americans did not get to see a dimension of her life that would have helped them understand us (gay people) and our contributions to society.
Ride was open in her personal life, "She just didn't want to go public with it during her lifetime. And that's a big difference," said Sainz. "There's no question that Sally Ride could have been fired if she'd come out while she worked for NASA.”
Gary Gates, a demographer of gay lifestyle demographer at the University of California commented, "I'm in sympathy with her and understand her reluctance, but if you think about it, what she really did for young women — to encourage them to be themselves and to be successful adults — it is the same broad message the gay rights groups have, but in a bigger way."
Commentator Andrew Sullivan “managed to find feminist secrecy in Ride's and O'Shaughnessy's promotion (O'Shaugnessy was the head of Ride's company, Sally Ride Science, which aims to get more girls into science) as a woman first and a lesbian second." Sullivan wrote, "Feminists often 'inned' lesbian pioneers or the lesbians closeted themselves. This was not because they were in a reactionary movement; it was because they were in a progressive movement that did not want to be 'tarred' with the lesbian image."
Back on earth, in the corridors of corporate America, specifically Ernst & Young, global vice chair Beth Brooke spent her career closeted — until her closing remarks in a 2011 video produced for E&Y's contribution to the anti-gay bullying "It Gets Better" campaign.
"I'm gay and I've struggled with that for many years," she stated. After the reveal, "Life really did get better," Brooke said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, "A Silence Hangs Over Gay CEOs." (Click here to watch Brooke's remarks at the 2012 Stonewall Workplace Conference.)
According to the Human Rights Campaign, not one Fortune 1000 company has an openly gay CEO (although Apple CEO Tim Cook is the exception to the rule, he tends to get overlooked as such) — not so surprising when companies can fire a worker for being gay in 29 states in America.
"Corporations are very conservative, and the bigger the business is, the more conservative it is," said former BP chief John Browne, who resigned in 2007, but stayed closeted during his career there, fearful of damaging relationships, particularly in the Middle East, where homosexual acts in several countries are punishable by death. "I thought it would affect everything," Browne added in the WSJ.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein, describes his company’s gay-friendly policies as key in talent retention, while admitting he has lost at least one client since publicly supporting gay marriage. "It doesn't come without a price, but I could care less," he said.
And then there’s Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy who told the Baptist Press he's "guilty as charged" for his company's advocacy of traditional marriage based on “the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives,” Cathy said. “We don’t claim to be a Christian business, but as an organization we can operate on biblical principles.”
While conservative lobbyist Focus on the Family cries foul, LGBT advocacy group Equality Matters reports that the fast food chain has donated more than $3 million between 2003 and 2009 to Christian groups that oppose homosexuality, and in 2010 gave nearly $2 million to such causes. Cathy said the company’s leaders “intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”
The stance has created a backlash online, on Facebook — where the Jim Henson Company announced they're pulling Muppet toys from the chain and donating Chick-fil-A's money to GLAAD — and in the cities of Chicago (where mayor Rahm Emanuel is supporting an alderman's campaign to block the brand's expansion) and Boston, where mayor Thomas Menino released his letter to Cathy that read in part,
I was angry to learn on the heels of your prejudiced statements about your search for a site to locate in Boston. There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it. When Massachusetts became the first state in the country to recognize equal marriage rights, I personally stood on City Hall Plaza to greet same sex couples coming here to be married. It would be an insult to them and to our city's long history of expanding freedom to have a Chick-fil-A across the street from that spot.
Mother Jones reporter Adam Serwer argues, however, that:
Chik-fil-A (sic) should not be prevented from opening business because of the views of its leaders, or his donations to anti-gay causes. But gays and lesbians in Illinois and Massachusetts have the right to be free from discrimination in employment based on who they are. They also have a right to protest, boycott, and make Chik-fil-A's customers aware that their purchases fund anti-gay activism. If Chik-fil-A discriminates in hiring or refuses to serve customers on the basis of sexual orientation, the local authorities can and should hold him accountable. Until then, the politicians should get out of the way.
So what do Sally Ride, Ernst & Young and Chick-fil-A have in common? Conceptual artist and creative digerati Marc Horowitz summed it up thus on the Sally Ride Science Facebook page: "Isn't it unfortunate that Dr. Ride felt compelled, for whatever reasons, to keep 'private' her 27-year relationship with her female partner, and it was only announced posthumously? How far we have come, how much further we must travel."